I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of place lately. Partially, this is because I feel like an exile in the South. Things are different in Cascadia. We have Fred Meyer instead of Kroger’s. Our summers are properly dry. And we understand the importance of storm drains.
But understanding the importance of space is both a quintessentially southern and quintessentially monastic concept. Charles Wright divines deep thoughts from his simple backyard. Faulkner finds freedom in his “little postage stamp of native soil.” And Flannery O’Connor is “paying attention to the sky.” During Br. Monday’s retreat, we heard how it was a false impression to imagine in today’s connected world that we really understand other places. Instead we should
perhaps concentrate more on knowing and understanding better the place where we are. For example, I am here: Mount Angel, in Oregon, in a wide valley, on a hill, near the Pacific coast and the big ocean. It is today, only today; and I am here, only here. Things are happening, unfolding–bad things, good things, circumstances. Nothing I try to do or think can abstract from where I am now. I must begin from here and from here search for the rest of the world.
Now I would like to look at a word from a modern-day Abba about place. I’ll let you in on a secret about this Abba: he’s the pipe-smoking one from the Festina Lente post. You can read his full post here (and I suggest you do–there’s something to the kind rhythm of Abbot Gregory’s words), but I would like to focus on what he has to say about place. The modern-day Abba begins by discussing the Abbey’s new mission statement. After hours of working with a facilitator, the community came to this simple phrase: “To seek God and share his peace on this holy mountain.” Here’s the Abba on the importance of place, this specific place, this holy mountain:
I needn’t really say much about the third element of our vision statement, which is ON THIS HOLY MOUNTAIN … Some days ago I happened to notice a group of six or eight of our young monks happily chatting together in our cloister garden during the evening recreation, and I thought to myself “How beautiful it is… brothers dwelling in unity… on our holy mountain…”
Yes, my brothers and sisters, I think we’re close to a very good vision statement for Mount Angel Abbey: TO SEEK GOD… AND SHARE HIS PEACE… ON THIS HOLY MOUNTAIN… And that’s why, here on our holy mountain, I’ve so often prayed with profound gratitude the words of St. Peter on the mount of the Transfiguration: “Lord, it is so good for us to be here…” (Mt 17:4)
Place doesn’t just form me, it forms you, it forms us together. The shared landscape is the meeting point where we can both look and say, “It is good for us to be here.” I think the operative word isn’t peace, but share. We can pay attention to the sky together on our postage-stamp of soil. And that’s the one thing, all these leagues away from Cascadia, that keeps me from needing a Kirk hug every day.