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 warmth.
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 crazy.
And then I hear the coyotes.
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 world.
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 it.
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 constellation.
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.
Bless 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 snow.
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord.
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 print.
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 covenant.
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.