The damp winter wind stings the eyes and carries the delightful smells of the ocean. The metallic chains are dragged loudly on the car deck in a kind of repetitive dance. Island after island they are opened and closed by the staff of the Washington State Ferries. It is a sound I have learned to love as it gets me closer to my destination.
Shaw Island is a bucolic gem with no hotel, restaurant or store. Its life unfolds at the peaceful rhythm of the tides. It seems a universe apart from 2016 and the U.S. mainland.
Every January I go on retreat to the guest house of a very small community of Sisters of Mercy blessed with a superb gift of hospitality. Their wooded grounds embrace me and my dogs with the kind of quietness of which Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote: "there is more comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to our questions." Daily, I join the Sisters for mass in their tiny chapel that sits austerely on the beach. From the windows, the bright colors of the few crab fishing boats stand out against the calm green-gray waters. In the substance of this silence only singing can be heard from seabirds and Sisters.
This experience is so serene that months of exhaustion and overwork seem to disappear almost instantly into a familiar place beyond the boundary of words. Thankfully the return to the hectic life does not have to wreck this serenity.
I found the following practices to be particularly helpful in preserving interior peace:
.Turning off the TV: As the finiteness of life becomes clearer, the use of time becomes a pressing matter of choices. TV can result in mindlessness while richer priorities are calling for our attention. So while I still very much like to watch a sporting event, political debate or elections results coverage, I turn my TV off more and more. Time becomes more abundant and the quiet more conducive to thinking.
.Rediscovering the great writings: As often as possible I read texts that have inspired and nurtured humanity for generations. The immortal literature of Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, among many others, continue to dazzle with the radiance of their insights. The great writings in Mythology, Spirituality, Religion and Poetry take you even deeper. They have the ability to transport you to the timeless and universal human longing for transcendence.
.Nature: I can now see the great Montana wilderness from my backyard. For most of my life I was in very large cities: Paris, Rome and Los Angeles. I had then to encounter nature in the minimalism of a small garden, a city park or in California, a crowded beach. Trees, flowers, birds and insects remind you that there is a breathing reality out there that wants absolutely nothing to do with the crazy pace of your life. There is much wisdom in adopting frequently nature's much healthier tempo.
.The art of stillness: As a troubled aristocratic young man, Romuald of Ravenna (950-1027) spent a lot of time studying contemplation. He eventually brought together two great traditions: the intellectual stillness of the Irish mystics and the interior passivity of Byzantine meditation. To his disciples he gave this very simple direction: "Empty your mind and sit in complete stillness." I practice this every day for an hour, if possible, but even 10 or 15 minutes are significantly helpful. This takes you to a different level of consciousness that Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) described as: "pristine and entirely untouched by fears or the wounds of life." I like to teach the practice to people tormented by anxieties or whose lives have been shattered by grief or trauma. They can, temporarily, find shelter at the center of their being from their overwhelming pain. The spiritual treasures of my own Catholic tradition are extraordinarily rich. They will always be home to me, but all spiritual traditions offer deeply meaningful contemplative guidance.
.The Tech Sabbath: Our busy, overstimulated culture is in the process of rediscovering the importance of the weekly refuge of time. Many Silicon Valley creators now often practice the "Tech Sabbath' during which they stay away from their smart phones and computers one day a week or every weekend. Our souls crave a regular sanctuary of time. We all benefit from it.
.Compassion and prelude to action: To quote Eckhart again: "What we take in by contemplation we pour out in love." The contemplative path is not an exercise in self-absorption. It is perhaps counterintuitive but it has the exact opposite effect: compassion for others. When authentic, spiritual stillness is always a prelude to action. People and animals who suffer are always part of my contemplative moments. I have always been extremely sensitive to the cruel treatment of animals.
It is never easy to say goodbye to Sister Maria and Sister Mary Danielle and leave behind the sacred pace of their lives. The ferry landing at Shaw Island is tiny and very picturesque. It is almost complete darkness when the boat departs. But the sky already suggests a breathtaking sunrise over the neighboring islands. Beyond, lies the promise of the majestic and mighty Mountain Northwest and the long and magnificent drive home. Then, once again, I can place myself at the service of the people of Butte, MT with renewed joy and serenity.
Note: The ministry of the local community of the Religious Sisters of Mercy on Shaw Island is directed towards religious and priests.
Shaw Island is the smallest of the four San Juan islands, WA served by the Washington State Ferries.