The Solitary


The Cairn is an old Scottish Gaelic term for a pile of rocks.  This one, not far from my retreat house was formed by some Buddhist monks for whom the pile has a slightly different meaning, and yet the use of piled stones in so many different cultures interests me. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone.”  In some cases the pile was the result of men going to war.  The pile was made on the way out to battle and the survivors would return to remove their stone, leaving a memorial to those who had died in battle.  In other cultures the Cairn is to make a place, define a boundary, or offer a stone sculpture.  I love the way these stones interlock even though they are simply placed one upon another – balanced even in these strong mountain winds of spring.

Kai and I sat with this Cairn for a long while today at Shambhala Mountain Center deep in the Colorado mountains.  A thermos of tea and a pocket full of butter cookies were on hand for needed sustenance.  We stared at it. Kai less than I, but even he would look its way occasionally.  It stood there.  Still.  Silent.  Like an icon to meditation.

St. Gregory in his Life of St. Benedict says “Alone in the sight of the supreme Beholder, he lived with himself.”  It is perhaps the very best description of the solitary life of faith and longing I know.

I sometimes wonder what the people in our congregations, and the clergy for that matter, would be like if they spent as much time siting with God listening in absolute silence as they do in liturgies.  If a person who goes to church for 90 minutes each week could spend 90 minutes in silent meditation (assuming their life and home-life allows for it; and I realize some do not) I can’t help wondering what our culture and our church would be like.

I am as anxious about attending the councils of a church with people who are not listening to God daily as I am anxious about taking my seat in an airplane flown by an exhausted pilot whose navigation system is unplugged. In both cases there will be disaster, death, decay and paper-work.

“Alone in the sight of the supreme Beholder, he lived with himself.”

To live alone with God is intensely annoying at times.  God seems fine some days and then other days God seems bipolar or borderline or just perhaps busy with some project far away.  Living with a God who is, by all measures, pathologically shy, can make for quiet conversations.  But the key to this koan is “Beholder.”  We are in the sight of the supreme Beholder and there we live with ourselves.  God watches us do our work of healing and wellness.

This is both comforting (The United Church of Christ begins their Creed with the words “We are not alone.”) and also a tremendous responsibility.  Because under the Divine Gaze we are being asked to live with ourselves in such a way that we join God in the observance.  We gaze upon ourselves and we must look at the hard bits; our judgments of others, our labels on things, our dangerous instance on dualism – naming everything good or bad. 

Like the Cairn, we stand in the light of the supreme Beholder, warmed by it even in the silence. We do our work.  We sit in the kind of silence which exposes things inside us that we do not want to see, preferring to sit in the noise of our resentments of, and charges against, others. It is a hard place to be at times, but is made easier with the reality that it occurs alone and in the sight of the supreme Beholder. As we inhale the soot of others of cruelty, of disregard, of manipulation – we then exhale fresh, cool mountain air – then as a candle flickers in Tibet when a baby is born – in Chile as an old woman dies – in Sienna as a monk says his prayers – in the Arctic Circle as a family eats a roasted fish.

Blessed be the Supreme Beholder.

Blessed be our souls as they find their soot-smears

only to stare so deeply that they

blow into the winds of healing.

Blessed be the one who is alone in the sight

of the supreme Beholder;

we who live with ourselves.

Blessed be the Divine Onlooker

whose gaze heals where it is welcomed.

Blessed be the one who sits in silence with God, solid as cairn and

cleansed, refreshed, like sheets drying in sunlight.

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