In Praise of Idleness 1

During the winter holidays, I spent five days alone in an octagonal stone hermitage at St. Benedict’s, a Trappist monastery that sits on nearly 4,000 acres in a snowy bowl surrounded by high ridges above Old Snowmass. It’s the home of Father Thomas Keating, and the monastery maintains a few small hermitages, offered by donation, in the Benedictine spirit of hospitality.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time in silent retreat, in these last few years of preparing to enter Unitarian Universalist ministry, I have been too committed to take time away. And yet, ironically, as a minister, I find that times of idleness and quietness have become even more essential. As I drove the snowy roads to the monastery on Christmas Eve, I wondered, “Will I remember how to just be? Will I be frantically trying to study something, just out of habit? Will I feel guilty that I am not answering emails?”

As I walked the snowy path to my little hut, rabbits—more on rabbits later—scattered this way and that under the trees. I felt the deep familiarity of entering sacred space, and I felt at home in the silence. For the next five days I drifted, dreamed, sat in meditation, slept, watched the sky, watched snow fall, read poetry, wondered, wandered, breathed.

In the journal I had barely touched for the past year, I found a phrase from a dream: “Everything brimming over with divinity.” That’s what it was like.

On Christmas Day, it began to snow, and it snowed, and it snowed, all day, all night—that light crystalline snow of western Colorado, like feathers and sugar combined, glittering in the light, everything covered up with snow, mountains hidden. I remembered a story from my Zen teacher Norman Fisher, of wandering in the snow reciting the Heart Sutra, around and around in a sort of joyful delirium.

In the afternoon of Christmas Day, I put on my big winter boots and warm down jacket and headed out in the snow. It seemed like I was the only one there. Kicking my way down through the deep powder, I found the path down to the main retreat house, winding through the scrubby oaks. Halfway down the path, I could just make out the outlines of a bench, completely covered with snow.

I unburied an edge of the bench and sat down, the only sound the delicate sound of snowflakes landing on me: my hat, my eyelashes, my jacket, my boots. I was so still for so long that a rabbit—I told you there would be more about rabbits—came right up alongside me, looked at me and hopped way.

The next day was clear, a blindingly blue-sky-and-snow sort of a day. I shoveled my path (greeting the rabbits, of course), helped a monk dig out his plow, and then sat and read and thought and drank tea.

I thought my heart might burst with happiness and gratitude.

That night, as I walked the mile or so down the road through the open fields to the main monastery for vespers, the air was so cold it was nearly frightening, despite my layers of warm clothing and the thermos of tea in my pack. In the dark, the monks sang songs to the Holy Family and to Mary, and afterwards I walked back, only now the full moon had risen, and miles of snowy mountains were illuminated with its brilliance.

It is a privilege to be able to take time out from work and ordinary life to enter into such beauty and solitude. I know that many people’s lives do not have the space and time for such luxury, though I wish such times for us all. And I think, with gratitude, of the generosity of the donors to St. Benedict’s, who made it possible for me to be there, with the rabbits and the snow, my heart full of joy.

May all who need idleness find a way to it.

Florence Caplow is the minister for Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist in Carbondale. She is also an ordained Zen priest, teacher, and writer. Her most recent book is “The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women”.