The musk roses in the hedge are breaking into flower, baby-faced pink and violet and white. Vernal equinox here in the southern hemisphere.
Last night I dreamt about Fr Cedric, a kindly elderly Jesuit I knew as a friend when I was a young woman. In the dream he was pointing out a white deer standing under mottled trees, almost invisible in the shadows and light dappling the woodland. I couldn’t see it but knew it was there.
Fr Cedric was born in 1915, ordained in 1947 and when I knew him, he was in his late 70s. He was very formal and soft-spoken with big surprised brown eyes under a thatch of white hair, only rarely wore a collar or cassock. He tried over and over again to give up smoking and failed.
We talked about books and I shared my more profound (and borrowed) ideas on prayer. I didn’t talk to him about my real life because I was afraid of shocking or offending him. He seemed delicate and vulnerable, always thinking the best of everyone. I thought he was otherworldly and a bit clueless.
When I told Fr Cedric I was going off on retreat for 30 days ( as an ardent if dubious Catholic convert I was not one to do things by half), he just nodded and gave me a book by William Johnston on mystical prayer, titled The Inner Eye of Love. Then he suggested I plant a tree at the retreat centre, an old farmhouse with rambly woodland gardens.
Off I went and sat in silence for a month. The spiritual director I had been assigned was not around and I had nobody to talk with. In one way this was a relief. When the bell rang, I had meals with the nuns in silence. Most of the day I wandered around the grounds and sat in the chapel trying not to fall asleep. I thought about religion, sexism, misogyny and hatred of the body a great deal and then I thought about how much I longed for some kind of peacefulness, security and certainty in my life. The writings of Catholic mystic William Johnston were incomprehensible to me. I felt as if I was not doing things right, that I should try harder, that I should fast or stay up all night in a vigil. But instead I ate up the stodgy meals and daydreamed far too much and slept like a log. My seedling tree, a CapeChestnut, outgrew its pot and I transplanted it into the ground and watched it put out tiny reddish-green leaves. Then I grew a tough ivy leaved pelargonium from a cutting, watering the pot on my bedroom windowsill in the retreat centre. I found another pot and grew a small crassula with bubbled leaves strung along the stem like rosary beads on a string.
In the second week of my retreat I had a dream in which I was sitting praying in the Lady chapel in front of a statue of the Virgin. As I sat saying prayers I heard a faint humming or buzzing noise. I approached the statue above the bed of lit candles and realized that the statue of the Virgin was snoring. My prayers had put the Mother of God to sleep.
At times I thought those 30 days would never end. I wrote Fr Cedric a letter in which I assured him my prayer life had become quite mystical and said that William Johnston was food for my hungry soul. I don’t think I was conscious of lying to him, I just thought this was how one spoke to priests. I didn’t talk about my little tree because I thought gardening was boring and men didn’t garden much.
For a year or so after I finished my month of silence, it seemed the world was too noisy. At some point on that retreat I had parted ways with the Catholic church. I felt I was not going to make a good Catholic and that the church could not save me from myself. I moved on and went overseas.
Years later, in 2005, I met a woman who had been on retreat with me in the old farmhouse. She was now with the Maryknoll sisters inNicaragua and told me that my chestnut tree had grown into a beauty, a shady spreading tree in the grounds of the retreat centre. The trunk was curiously shaped and the tree was known as the Sleeping Virgin.
She also told me that Fr Cedric had died at the age of 85. For the first time I learned that he had been renowned as a mystic, someone sought after for his wisdom and goodness by the famous and infamous worldwide. He had been banned by the church from speaking or preaching in public and his books barred from publication because his views were seen as heretical. He had led a very lonely life, ostracized and misunderstood despite his reputation as a thinker and reformer. ‘Friendless,’ said the Maryknoll sister and I had a moment of intense and bitter regret that I had not spoken to Fr Cedric as a human being, somebody I might have come to trust. A kindred spirit, a friend of the heart.
William Johnston: And if there is mysticism in the Sermon on the Mount. this is the mysticism of the present moment — a moment that is lived without anxiety about the future or fear of the past, without preoccupation about what I shall eat or drink. … Or one could speak about how the inner eyes came to see the glory of love active in the universe.