- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

SUBIACO ABBEY, Ark. — I’ve come here for a literary seminar. But any excuse will do. Or none. The abbey is always here, waiting. Sometimes you hear its call, sometimes you don’t, but the abbey is patient. As if it knows one day you’ll find your way here.

Invitations to speak arrive from time to time — at a commencement ceremony, or to the students at the academy here. Each time I resolve that, next time, I will come here and not talk, not say a word, but just be still for God’s sake. And listen.

But there is always something else to do, something else to say, to write, to busy oneself with. It is a sickness of our time, maybe of any time, this hiding in busyness.

After you’ve been here for an unmeasured while, and felt the hours dissipate, as if you were in a new kind of time, one marked off by Matins and Vespers instead of the ticking of the clock, you have to make another effort to pull yourself away.

It’s like what a rabbi once said of the study of Torah: The two hardest things about it are, one, entering, and, two, leaving. I think the leaving is harder.

After all the speaking and responding, the questions and answers, the literary references and evening reception, after the day’s unfailing but uninsistent Benedictine hospitality, after the simple supper and evening reception, it’s time to retire for the night.

If you lie down on the bed in Room 318 of Coury House, the guest quarters, with your head propped up on two pillows, your line of sight will be even with the third-floor windows that look out across the hill on which the inn is built.

All you see from this vantage are the tops of a couple of trees next to the guest house, one a green, green pine, the other a distant, rust-colored oak that has already faded into the darkening sky.

The cones and leaves of a pine tree grow in a spiral pattern; I hadn’t noticed that before. Just outside the window, they sway in the wind as a rain moves in. They seem eerily familiar. Where have I seen them before?

Of course. An airman at Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, whom my mother befriended years ago — 40, 50 years ago now? — once sent her a set of china from Korea with those same pine cones and leaves painted on it.

I can remember thinking there was something strange about eating off plates with rough pine cones and prickly needles on them. But my mother would set them out on Sabbath and festivals. Or whenever the airman and his wife and two little kids would come back to visit. After a moment’s search in the mental recesses, I come up with his name: Norman.

He was from Rochester, N.Y., I remember now, and he had met his wife in Casablanca when he was stationed at an air base near there. She was the worldly one, he the innocent. Norman would die as a result of, I think, appendicitis. There was some talk of a botched operation, but I forget the details, if I ever knew them.

A stranger in a strange land, the wife had turned to my mother for guidance: Where do you buy kosher food? How do you fill out these insurance forms? What do you do for the baby’s croup? And my mother was happy to help. It was as though, now that all her own children were about grown, she had this surplus of care that needed an outlet.

Now I lie here and listen to the rain and remember how happy the young couple made her, and how proud she was of those dishes, which reminded her of them. We never endear ourselves so much to others as when we let them help us.

I watch the pine cones rustle in the wind and marvel at how little they’ve changed in all the years since I saw them on those plates and wondered why anyone would paint pine cones on dinnerware. Now I know. So you would see them again some day and be flooded by the past. All you have to do is be still, and listen.

It must be the rain because, before I know it, even before I can savor the completeness of the coming of the night outside, I’m asleep. A deep and dreamless sleep.

“Think of it, all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody. … What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, intelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges . … Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.” — Thomas Merton.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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