by Alana Levandoski
It was nearing winter, and my best friend and I were working out our next move. We had been living in a little cabin on a Lake Winnipeg beach,that had no insulation and our time there was coming to an end. We could smell snow in the air, and this wooden tent wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
The last few nights we slept there, we brought our blankets and sheep skins out from our respective rooms and curled up by the wood stove with tea.
This cabin had been a God-send to both of us. My friend needed to vacate the city for awhile, and I needed to vacate my life.
We called it the Wilderness Cabin for Wilderness Times and I was not finished with the wilderness. Not even close.
It was recommended to me that I call St Benedict’s Monastery and offer to be a live-in volunteer. So, after having had a large yard sale, selling most of my possessions early in the summer, I was able to vacate the cabin rather swiftly and drive with all that I owned, (but for a few items at my sister’s place), to begin my time at the monastery.
My room was down a hall that had no other guests staying there. A very large retreat center makes up over half the monastery, but I was to stay on the monastic side of the building, in a room that neighboured the monastic library, which, I was told, I had access to. If not a mystic, at least being a mystical nerd, I felt like I had entered into some dream novel about a gal whose man had left her and ended up staying in a room that neighboured a monastic library. Only it wasn’t a novel.
I was given the keys to a little truck and shown all sorts of odd jobs to accomplish during my stay. I was happy to put myself to work, because at the time, it was one of the only ways I could stay in my body and not fly to pieces.
St Benedict was a 6th century monk, who left the city to dwell in the country. He ended up becoming a hermit who lived in a cave by a lake, and then eventually became the abbot of a monastery. He wrote a very famous Rule called the Rule of St Benedict.
This Rule, written 1400 years previously, was what the monastery drew from and was rooted in. The sisters wear regular clothes now and are fully aware of the goings on in the world. The minds, hearts and experiences of these women were far from the stereotypical depiction of a nun in the media. They were operating within an ancient system, and I knew I was connecting with something profoundly deep and yet also practical for living in community.
It seems that my life has been one where I was unaware of the direction it was taking until I found myself suddenly being stunned with a new awareness. I have been being led toward the depths all along and for whatever reason, didn’t really have a choice to not go there.
Paula D’arcy says “God shows up disguised as your life.” This is my experience.
I was engaged with chanting the Psalms, Holy work, eating together and began to realize how much our world needs monasticism to be balanced.
There was a large oak tree that grew close to the river, and I used to walk there, climb up into her branches and ask her to pray for me. To hold me. I missed my grandmother so much that I ached. So I called the tree grandmother and let her cradle me.
One of the sisters taught me how to make perogies by hand. Another was an expert on the female mystics. Another was good at listening and putting me to work!
Looking back, it was the oak tree was who held me, but each of the ladies I had begun a half year of community life with, were in some way or other, a grandmother to me.
Community life is not easy and anyone who romanticizes monastic life, ought to see it first hand. Without a sturdy container, like Benedict’s Rule, there is no way people could have been living in community steadfast in a tradition, for the past 1400 years.
At the time, I was introduced to the work of Joan Chittister, a feisty, feminist Benedictine nun from the United States. I began to study her work and listen to her lectures.
I came across a talk she gave on Benedictinism in the 21st century as a possible answer to the values of our time. An excerpt of it went something like this:
"Stanley Rothman, the former director of the Smith College center for the study of social and political change, says the values that drive modern society are these: 1. Profit 2. Personal comfort 3. Exploitation 4. Control 5. individualism and 6. Domination. "
Sister Joan drew her response directly from St Benedict: “Creative work, not profit making. Holy leisure, not personal escapism. Wise stewardship, not exploitation. Humility, not arrogant superiority. Loving community not individualism to the point of the pathological. And a commitment to peace, not vengeance or domination.”
I got to see that first hand. And it wasn’t done perfectly, but that is the point.
My teacher James Finley says, “It would be so easy to be a mystic if you didn’t have to live your life.”
Yes it would. But here we are in this density, here on this planet. It is reality and to fly above it would be avoidance in the first degree.
Deepening is a very earthy process.
In my next blog, I’ll tell you more about the Wilderness Cabin of Wilderness Times, because that also held an important clue to my wanderings as a lost contemplative.
Do you ever have a day, an hour, a moment where you ponder back to how you got here? Right here?
I was encouraged by one of my teachers to make a list or a mind map of all of the events that brought me to where I am right now.
I can’t show you the mind map because I don’t want to curdle the cream in your coffee, however I am going to select a few events or “times” to share in the next few blogs.
Today, I want to reflect on my initial introduction to becoming aware of contemplation.
It was the year 2007 and I was on tour in the UK. My friend, (a native to Norwich), and I were driving past the Norwich Cathedral and she said to me, “this is where Julian of Norwich bricked herself in to receive her revelations - she was the one who said All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Seed planted. Bricked herself in? Received revelations? All shall be well?
Around that same time, my priest spoke of a place called Collegeville in Minnesota - a monastic community where he would go to study, write and spend time in silence. Someone asked him, “what do monks do anyway?” and my priest answered “pray”.
Seed planted. Could silence be affiliated with prayer? Prayer as vocation? Being is as important as doing?
A few years later, suffering from a broken heart, I found myself, through a series of events I couldn’t have planned, spending a week in silence at Passionist Nuns of St Joseph Monastery in Kentucky.
This experience is the one I will reflect upon today.
One of the sisters there had a beautiful voice. And she was beautiful. She epitomized the kind of young woman the music industry would prey upon.
There I was, broken and busted and exhausted from the strenuous expectations of the music business (and myself), sitting there in silence but for a particular antiphon sung in a particular moment that would bring much peace to my life. It still does.
Two women. Two paths. I took the path toward Fame. The other who was equally musical, took a different path. It was there that I realized that there isn’t one formula for musical success.
Many deaths have happened to me since, but the death of my identity as a recording artist began there (this doesn’t mean I’m not a recording artist, it just means my worth is no longer contingent upon being one). And sometimes these deaths happen in order to put our talents on a more fitting trajectory to who we are.
Later on that same year, I was in Los Angeles doing a showcase and I got to witness just how far people are willing to go for their false selves. Not everyone in the recording industry is a false self. But many are. At the time, I was disgusted. Now, looking back, waves of sincere compassion flow over me.
We are, all of us, filled with longing. This longing can become contorted when we don’t see how deep we go. Cynicism will set in to cope with our insatiability. Or outright arrogance. Power becomes our identity. When in reality, somewhere in there, we wish we hadn’t painted ourselves into a corner, having to hold up an identity that should have been shed years ago.
What a weight to carry around.
Now, this can be found anywhere. A monastic too, can protect an identity that needs to be shed. Perhaps even if it means a leaving. A going out. A journey.
And this is the point.
Who am I naked before the creator of the expanding universe?
This is the question.
And, who am I as a co-creator of the expanding universe?
This is another question.
Avoiding these questions was a distraction from my own vulnerability.
I sign off with a poem by Rabbi Norman Hirsch.
Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech l’cha — Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming
In my next blog, I will take a look at how I ended up living at a Benedictine Monastery for 6 months at the time a friend told me I should be reading the mystics, and avoiding theology.
There were times out there on the highway, when the wind wasn’t particularly blowing an appealing sense of freedom through my hair, that I wondered if I would get to experience motherhood. But, about a million miles of music biz purgatory later… I got to!
These past few months (my baby is 5 months), have been the best months of my life. They’ve also helped me discover a vulnerability that I never knew before. Which, (as you will discover in the coming years), has made me a better artist.
Along with the rite of passage into adulthood I did two years ago, the school I am attending (the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation), and my partnership with my soon to be husband, motherhood has matured me in many good ways. This might sound like nothing to those of you practicing maturity for some time, but… I don’t need to have my needs met instantly anymore. When I get frustrated, I can see it happening and call myself on it. I am slowly but surely learning how to remain open and loving while drawing healthy boundaries. Another great addition to my ‘virtue repertoire’ is that I’m not attached to my old story anymore. I will not play the victim for life! Yay! None of these virtues are very old in me and I anticipate what my songwriting will look like as all of this deepens.
We were house-sitting all winter and just moved back into our 160 sq ft tiny house (with 2, 80 sq ft lofts). Interestingly, I feel more contained and able to practice mature choices from one moment to the next. I have been reading a book of the sayings of the early Christian monks and read this morning that Brother Moses once said “go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I say to Brother Moses, “yes, but go sit in your cell with your 5 month old, and you will be given the keys to the universe!”
Admittedly, we are in the process of attempting to settle an offer on a 640 sq ft cabin on a lake nearby, as our tiny house is a bit too tiny for a 13 year old daughter on weekends, a 5 month old and the two of us!
I do love how everything has to have its place in such a small space and how little one actually needs to live when it comes right down to it.
I am bubbling up with inspiration for children’s books, for songwriting, for all kinds of writing. And interestingly, just like with the tiny house, with less time to spare, because I spend much quality time with my little guy, I am able to channel it into tighter time slots. (I write this as Oliver naps.)
So, here’s to blossoming maturity and life lessons. May we learn them ever more gracefully as we go. Life would be quite miserable if we didn’t.