Habits Changing Desires

October 22, 2015

“Christianity is the life and death and resurrection of Christ going on day after day in the souls of individual men and in the heart of society.” ~Thomas Merton

Just beyond the little town of Potlatch, among the wheat fields of the Palouse hills, across the railroad tracks, up the two thin lanes of Rock Creek Road, and a winding gravel driveway, there is a farmhouse, and woods, and a long hayfield over which you can see the distant shadow of Moscow Mountain in the south. Every summer for three years now I’ve come there, to read the works of a Church father aloud with a group of friends. The farm is Wes Callihan’s, whom we affectionately call our phlegmatic Irish abbot, and who ten years ago—when the program started—christened the farm Hill Abbey. Two years ago, we read St. Augustine’s City of God, beginning with the contemplations of Thomas Merton in the short introduction, continuing through the slow rhythms of Roman divinities and the theology of Varro. We finally came to the saint’s warm and quiet heart in the nineteenth book; “the peace of all things is the tranquility of order,” he wrote. Wrapped in that contemplation, our days pressed between the pillars of morning and evening prayers, we reached the ends of the City of God and the City of Man in the twenty-fourth book, two weeks after we began. Sometimes we read in camp chairs on the grass, sometimes huddled on the boards of the front deck, sometimes packed into the basement library with the smell of cigars and old hardcovers. The slow voices were a liturgy, gradually moving from the founding of human civilizations to the resurrection of the orderly heavens, eternity shut in a span of words. I arrived full of the pretensions of the wide world, full of the pretension of the white glossy letters emblazoned across a dustcover, larger than the title, which we look at and say, “here is a man who has seen and understood the world.” I wanted to change the world; no problem was too great to escape the breadth of my philosophy in those days. ***** The Freeze cemetery is perched atop a long hill not far from Potlatch, far enough from the state road that the only sound is the rustle of the pines—so large that two people cannot embrace them—and soft wind in my ears. There is a permanence to that small country church, surrounded by a century and a half of graves, with its chipped, white sideboards, wooden double doors, and creaky floor. The wind and silence enveloped me. The broad horizon stretched out on the Palouse hills. When I returned to the Hill, there would be baked chicken, and a bonfire, and cigars. But then, I was alone with a mossy grave from the 19th century, crouching in the shade and pine needles. Beyond the six hours of flying which returned me to the rush and noise of the Orlando airport, life was full of color, and heat. It is a bright world, congested with the hopes and fears of millions, but that is a different kind of brightness from the color of those golden wheat and lentil fields, just harvested, and a different kind of heat from that slow warmth that spread into my eyes as I lay on that hill. Far below the hill of the cemetery, traffic moved along the road like specks in a narrow stream. Who knows where they came from, or where they went? They say you can seek your fortune in the wide world. The wide world is a fine place, I have no doubt, but somehow the world seemed larger, there among the pines. I was a sapling, unaware of the feeling of thick roots pulling into the dirt. I was like the nightshade in the garden, imitating the shape of potato stalks and leaves, yet without potatoes on the thin, bleached roots. But perhaps on that hill, in the midst of those seeds waiting for the resurrection, I began to have some idea of what roots were, and began to feel some thirst for wholesome water. I slowly buried my pretensions under the simple habits of life. Beneath the pine needles, and the young corn, and the brown, shaven hay fields. Beneath the quiet rustling of a dozen prayer books on a summer evening, beneath the slow crunch of feet down a gravel road on the way to the post office, and the taste of sweat in my mouth as I waded through five foot tall grass, stringing barbed wire in the pasture just down state road six. Under the ash of that tiny, rusty, fire pit out back where so many dear friendships formed out of the smoke and moonlight. The romance of the wide world began to seem banal and childish. Habits have a way of changing desires. ***** Two years later, again it was the last night of Hill Abbey. It had become a tradition among some of us to take a walk down the rail road tracks beside Potlatch on the last night. The tracks receded quickly in front of us in the pale glimmer of our cell phones we held face down for light. Just ahead, the old freight cars marooned at the Potlatch station loomed like black bulls, with their long spines and steel cables like ribs. We clambered up the stubby ladders and sat down on the far side of the rusty beds, stooping like apes to get under the cross beams running down the length of the cars. The peace of the celestial city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God, St. Augustine said. We sat there on the dark beds of the freight cars, saying little, not dreaming of the future. We looked up at the sky, at the Milky Way stroking its way across the dark blue, at the slow stirring of the constellations around Polaris, and called the stars after our names.

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Michael Helvey

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