The Tree of Life

Oak tree at New Camaldoli
Oak tree at New Camaldoli two years ago

The old oak, benevolent sentinel on the road to New Camaldoli, seemed like the tree of life to me. Since before I was born, it has offered shelter to birds and shade to pilgrims. For many years now I have been one of those pilgrims, and coming for retreat season after season, I developed an arrival ritual. As soon as I can, I walk down the road and press my forehead to the oak’s rough bark in silent greeting from me and from the redwoods of my native place. In return it welcomes me to the land, this Big Sur mountain above the Pacific.

When my selfishness threatens to prevail over loving kindness, I like to sit beneath its leafy branches to inquire about generosity and fortitude. A tree gives glory to God by being a tree comes the wind-sifted answer.

The oak tree at New Camaldoli
This weekend

It was suffering, I realized when I was here in June, and I wondered if I had failed last winter to notice the brown leaves covering entire sections or if the disease had attacked that quickly. Today, on the brink of autumn, most of those limbs have been lopped off, and the arborist’s work truck stands ready to take more, now adorned only with lichen. A few neighboring oaks are beginning to succumb.

The oak seems like half the tree it was, no longer beautiful, except in art and memory, no longer magnificent. Yet who am I to judge? Surely below ground its roots sink as deeply as ever into the earth. They still commune in fruitful friendship with mycrorrhizal fungi, a crown to mirror the canopy that once was, above.

Inside a piece of oak bark
Inside oak bark

When I am a crone, white-haired and wizened, may I find sanctuary beside the snag the tree of life is on its way to becoming. May we sit heart to heart with a secret no one else can see – grounded, glowing beauty.

The Place That Shelters

desk and garden in retreat room at New Camaldoli

A bumblebee buzzes under the eave

as I take a sip from my coffee cup.

Though the sun has yet to peep

over the mountaintop,

light is seeping into the world.

All is still

except for the bee and me.

Jasmine and juniper,

salvia and fig tree,

even chipmunks and quail

wait in silence.

All is still 

but the bee and me

and the rolling restless sea.

Soon, soon

stirrings will burst

into full-throated blessing,

the rest and prayer

of this longed-for retreat day,

but in this moment

we perch on the threshold

and see,

   as guests at the feast would,

   the bee and me seeking and sipping,

   creatures alike in our need,

that this day will be good,

yes, very good indeed.

California coast from New Camaldoli

The Untrimmable Light

The waning moon has sunk into the sea,
and the leaves of the fig tree tremble
in the zephyr come to rustle
the darkness from this mild winter night.
All across this mountain,
through a sunny autumn
and into a dry December,
leaves cleaved to their life-sustaining branches
beyond all reason,
but now,
now a storm is coming.

Raindrops patter on the roof
like the footsteps of exiles,
but then retreat.
Not yet! Not yet!
For a moment the wind holds its breath.
Hills and coastal plains thirst in silence,
and fading leaves await the fateful tug.

All day long clouds flirt with the sun,
and sometimes their private laughter
spills showers from above,
but the deluge does not come.
Instead, across sky and sea,
past fig leaves fluttering in the afternoon breeze,
through the window of my cell at New Camaldoli,
a sunbeam finds my notebook and me.
Leaf shadows dance a mad jig on the wall,
but a poet’s in the spotlight:
the page aglow tells it all.

Title from the poem “Mindful” by Mary Oliver.

As Best I Can I Write Your Praises Down

Written December 29, 2015 at New Camaldoli Hermitage

New Camaldoli view

It would be foolish to think that my humble Papermate pencil and I could offer up praise sufficient for the gifts of this morning. The waning gibbous moon was sailing into the west when I left my room, while in the east Venus glowed in the rose-rimmed azure sky that had already yielded her stars to the approaching dawn. In the chapel white-robed monks chanted ancient psalms by candlelight and sang of the old prophecy: “For us a child is born.” In the sanctuary bread was broken; together we ate, men and women, monastics vowed to this place and guests visiting from the world, together we drank from the common cup.

“Open your hearts to God’s tenderness,” the presider encouraged us in his thick Italian accent, he who dreamt during the night that an angel told him, “Keep it simple, Angelo. The more you speak, the less people hear.”

Let the garden outside my window speak, the bluejays and the little brown rabbit who come to breakfast here, the early narcissus blooming in the corner. The book of nature falls open to this spot on a mountain by the sea. Here in the day’s first rays of light is the praise sufficient to the gifts of this morning.

Title from a poem by 16th-century Italian poet Vittoria Colonna.