At 3 on a December morning in a high cold mountain valley I am crunching through deep snow on my way to a monastery chapel. It is so cold that the air crackles and burns; the hairs in my nose are icicles, biting me as I breathe. I am swathed in so many layers of clothing that my arms and legs no longer bend. I look like a space-walking astronaut from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and begin to practice muttering, "Open the pod bay door, HAL," " just in case.
When the temperature drops a certain way
below zero - at least 20 below tonight - the world seems to stop
moving on its axis. Sounds are rare and oddly harsh: my boots
breaking through the blue hard snow, the rasp of my breath freezing
onto my scarf. Rabbit tracks are everywhere, but I am the only
thing that moves. Above my frozen world, the stars in the black sky
turn and blaze, dangerously close and wild; they are as alive as
the stars Van Gogh painted in France, but too far away to give
I am on retreat at this Trappist
monastery, spending a week in a stone hermitage, and the service I
am going to is called Vigils. It is the first Office of the monks'
day, and it breaks the Great Silence that has been kept since the
end of Vespers last evening. I am not at all sure why I am doing
this - it's not required, and the church gave up dispensing
indulgences for this sort of thing years ago. Perhaps I am
And then I hear the
I have heard coyotes many times in my
life, and seen them fairly often; I like them. They are like
magpies, clever and unscrupulous and infinitely adaptable: an
animal worth some respect.
But the coyotes
tonight are different. I have never heard them so loud and close;
their howling stops me in my tracks, sends a dark pulse down my
spine. Again and again they howl and they answer, and their long
heartbreaking music passes over my head and into my heart and
through my bones and blood. This is how a rabbit feels, I think
suddenly: terrified but frozen in place. Where could one flee? The
sound is everywhere. There are no safe places in the
I start walking again, faster now, and
reach the monastery; I pass silently through heavy doors and make
my way down the hall to the dark chapel. There is no one here but
me, and no light but the red sanctuary lamp by the tabernacle. I
sit on a bench in silent prayer for the next half hour, still cold,
my head ringing with coyotes, my body still shaken with the terror
of the rabbits. Later on I will think how pure this time of prayer
is - no thoughts in it at all. I am astray in a world that is
frozen, where predators howl the night away and the far stars
circle in strange cold patterns. Still I hold my heart out blindly,
seeking warmth, trusting in I know not what. My soul reaches for
the Lord with the blind trust of a nursing mammal, eyes unopened,
aware of nothing but need and the hope that One will satisfy
After a while, a monk comes in to light the
votive candles that hang under two icons, and two candles on the
Advent wreath; after so much darkness the light seems brilliant. I
don't notice the monks gathering up by the door, until they all
rise as one, with a rustle of robes like birds' wings, and sing the
first words of their day.
My heart rises too as I
stand. I am full of coyotes and constellations, and the monks are
part of that, too; they sing and answer each other like coyotes.
They move to what seem random places in the chapel, but they move
with the certainty of stars, and they create a new
The Office of Vigils is a slow,
reflective time. The monks take turns going to a corner with a
shaded lamp which they switch on to read by, psalms and scripture
and other sacred writings, with long pauses for silence and
darkness in between. They sit apart from each other in great
privacy, scattered throughout the chapel; some draw their cowls
forward to cover their faces. I am entirely ignored and entirely
welcomed by them; I am where I ought to be.
the Lord, O my soul, I think or feel or sing to myself. This is
what the coyotes are singing, I am suddenly sure - and the rabbits
and the stars and the glittering ground of
Bless the Lord, all you works of the
I am an
environmentalist; it is as rooted in me as my Catholicism, and over
the years I have been more faithful to it. The two things come from
the same place in me, a sense of wonder and delight and holy fear
in the cosmos. So I do not understand why some Christians find
themselves at odds with environmentalism, even denounce it as a
kind of blasphemy.
How can one love the Creator
and not the creation? Nature is called good by the One who makes it
- all of it, even the parts we don't understand or find pretty or
make use of, the parts that get in our way and sometimes frighten
us with their teeth.
Read Psalm 104: Everything
is sung into place and celebrated, the humans in there too, no
separation made, all of it a grand and unfathomable tapestry of
being. "You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of
the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and
lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their
labor until the evening.
"O Lord, how manifold
are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full
of your creatures."
Some fundamentalists latch
onto passages such as that in Genesis, Chapter 9, where humanity in
the person of the post-flood Noah is given stewardship over the
earth and allowed to eat "every moving thing." What they overlook
is the rest of Chapter 9, where God makes a covenant not only with
Noah, but "with every living creature that is with you, the birds,
the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you."
You have to read the fine
I take the permission to eat animals as a
simple statement of fact about the food chain, since even
vegetarians like myself must live by taking other life. As for God
telling us that "the fear and dread of you shall rest on every
animal of the earth' - I read this as another statement of fact,
and not something to boast about, either. God knows the creatures
have reason to fear us; God gave us the brains that give us power
to nurture - or to destroy them.
Still, God made
a covenant "between me and you and every living creature that is
with you, all future generations." The story we tell in Genesis
reports only what God said to Noah. Who can say what God has
promised to the others?
We know, at the least,
that God created them and called them good and included them in the
covenant. And we are warned, time and again, not to break that
Walking back to my
hermitage after Vigils, I marvel at how this strange world is woven
together and blessed, monks and coyotes and rabbits and me, stars
and supernovas. It is not a safe or an easy universe, and the dark
parts of it, the constant dying in it, frighten me. But perhaps
both song and sacrifice are threaded into the whole for a purpose I
cannot see - as the song and sacrifice are joined together, in my
own Christian faith.
Outside, the cold has grown
yet fiercer; I can almost see it, like a shimmer in the air. My
footprints in the snow cross the trails of many rabbits. There are
meteors in the sky. The coyotes begin to howl again, and I think:
They are singing their Vigils now. It is time for me to go inside,
and leave them to their worship.
Diane Sylvain draws maps,
meteors and distinctions at High Country News.