Saturday, January 23, 2010

Monastic Musings on Parkinson's

The meal was eaten in silence. That is, except for the reader. He was perched above us in a small balcony protruding from the wall about 8 feet above the diners. Thirty or so members of the Benedictine community sat silently on simple wooden chairs on the outside of the U-shaped table arrangement, eating and listening to an echoing essay about the Roman Catholic church in Africa. Supper was comprised of bread, salad and a rice dish, with applesauce for dessert. Not being a social gathering, it was over in about 25 minutes. The food was plain, but tasty, and certainly adequate, much like the room in which the meals were eaten. It was 25 feet high at its steeple peak, covered with wood paneling rising from colored concrete floors to windows through which beamed the unusually warm January sunrays. A vibrant, iconoclastic style mural of Christ and his disciples filled one end of the hall, evidencing a reverent and loving dedication of thousands of hours of painstaking attention to detail. I have always been honored and humbled to be eating with these men who have voluntarily surrendered many of what we would call modern life’s benefits. Father Placidus, Father Mark, Brother Luke and Father Abbot John welcome me despite the fact that I am not a Catholic. This is a community that lives St. Benedict's vow of hospitality.

This setting, Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia, has become a place of refuge and peace for me for more than 25 years. I come here to a world that has no rush hour, or rush at all, to step off the treadmill for a day or 2, or more. The guest quarters provide the rudimentary comforts; a room with a bed, a small desk, chair and a lamp, and bathroom, but no more. It is here, in relative silence, beauty and solitude, that I come to think, read, write, plan and pray at least a couple times a year. I have never found a place that is better for these contemplative activities.

It took me a while, and still does each time I come here, to get used to living without the constant barrage of noise, distraction, people and obligations. I recognize that this may not be everyone's idea of a good time. But this is the place where I can unbundle the many applications that I have concurrently running on the hard drive of my life. It is a time of retreat. A time to refresh, reboot or defrag, if you will, for the onslaught of spam, viruses and phishing to which I will return.

Perhaps, most significantly for me, this brief repose gives opportunity to consider the important, instead of just the urgent, matters of living. Since being diagnosed with Parkinson's 4 years ago this month, I find I need and value these times more. Perhaps it is the fatigue or vulnerability caused by the disease. But whatever it is, these times alone at the Abbey provide a much-needed rest stop in the race I run.

I have found that, while the 2 activities may seem similar, there is a significant distinction between isolation and solitude. As people with Parkinson's it is often easier for us to isolate ourselves rather than face questioning looks and the seemingly inevitable embarrassment of social interaction. But solitude is not hiding. Rather, it is meant to prepare us for engagement with life as fully as it can be lived. But without time for contemplation, how can we determine what it means to live fully?

I wonder why we are so often afraid to be alone with ourselves in silence?

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