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Our Lady of the Snows

Ride your horse along the edge of the sword

Hide yourself in the middle of the flames

Blossoms of the fruit tree will bloom in the fire

The sun rises in the evening.

— Zen Saying

 

It was mid-April and the snow had already melted by the time my husband and I and our two young children arrived at Our Lady of the Snows, a Trappist monastery in the Ardèche region of southeast France. Along with Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite and my writing journal, I’d packed my ISYM (I’ll-show-you-motherfucker) list all the men I’d ever slept with, save my husband of eleven years. I’d been struggling let go of the list, and now ready, planned to burn it at some point during our stay.

*

Our Lady of the Snows, at an altitude of 3000 feet above sea level, was set back in a gently sloping valley half-surrounded by mature poplar and fir trees. The Scottish author, Robert Lewis Stevenson, passed this way with his donkey in 1878 and later wrote a dreary account of it in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes as well as an old-fashioned poem titled Our Lady of the Snow, included in A Child’s Garden of Verses. I’d found the monastery though, not through any allegiance to Robert Lewis Stevenson but by way of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of my most recent heroes who, as far as I knew, had never been to Our Lady of the Snows.

*

At fourteen, furious and hurt and paralleling an escalating war with my father, I scribbled my first unofficial boyfriend’s initials in the margins of my diary after he’d broken up with me. He was nineteen and his stepfather was the Chief of Police in our small suburb, but I’d trusted him and gone along, wiping his semen off my belly with my thrown off underwear. I didn’t bleed then and instead of seeing the split as a blessing, I slept with one of his best friends out of spite, tossed down the gauntlet, and started building a wall around my heart as a preemptive strike.

*

The lower monastery guesthouse was reserved for hikers and pilgrims, some following in the footsteps of Robert Lewis Stevenson and his donkey, others perhaps taking a detour after leaving Le Puy-en-Velay thirty miles north (one of the main starting points of the Camino de Santiago in France) on their way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. A quiet but friendly monk checked us into the second-floor rooms. The rooms were simple, with two single beds, a sink, and a desk. My daughter chose the one for us that overlooked a fenced in field—home to three large, dark brown Massif Central goats. My husband and our son took an identical room across the hall.

*

My ISYM list had begun in anger and ended in extreme loneliness after a depressing weekend at thirty-five with an almost complete stranger. Twenty-one years of continuous infatuations, affairs, flirtations, attempts at serial monogamy, imaginary flames, mercy fucks, crushes on movie stars, musicians, writers, and dead artists, self-seeking and always someone in my back pocket and never really able to be alone, to stand on my own two feet, to keep pushing out into life and follow my own dreams, whatever they were.

*

I left my husband and children feeding grass and dandelion leaves to the goats and walked up to the church for Evening Prayer. There was a votive candle holder near the exterior church door. I made an offering, lit a candle, and went inside. The church was plain, whitewashed, and almost empty, except for a dozen or so mostly older monks sitting on center-facing benches near the altar. I imagined Thomas Merton once, four thousand miles away at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (where he used to live), wearing a white hooded alb, singing the Divine Office, his voice merging with the voices of the other brothers, calling out to God, men without women.

*

At twenty-three, I quit drinking but continued most of the same patterns with men. At thirty, I made my first attempt at staying single and sex-free, with a vow to go at least a year. I finally managed to make that goal six years later, a year and a half before meeting my husband. There was a deep sense that I needed to know myself without a man, to move ahead with a clean slate, emotionally and mentally, and a clean bill of health once and for all before being ready to join someone without grasping, or trying to fill the void– the emptiness and silence with the nearest warm body.

*

In his book Pensées, Blaise Pascal says, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” God himself or maybe something less controversial like love itself. Love, nothing more.

*

I used to go from one relationship, or infatuation or affair, to the next always with an eye out in case someone better came along or I’d proclaim to be single when I actually wasn’t. The hunting, the catching, the sleeping with, the sense of euphoria and well-being, the new initials on my list, usually followed by certain loneliness. Constantly shifting my interests trying to mirror those of the men, I no longer knew who I was, if I even ever knew, without pretending or playing games.

*

We hiked the next day, exploring the ruins of a nearby homestead where the monks had first settled before building their monastery in 1861. Robert Lewis Stevenson arrived at the new monastery seventeen years later, fifty-one years before a fire destroyed it in 1912. I wondered if one of the monks had been burning his ISYM list and inadvertently started the fire. A Thomas Merton-type, an ex-drinker, ex-womanizer, a poet, a lover of literature and jazz, trying to leave his past behind, trying to swallow his own tail and be born again with a clean match strike.

*

I was in love with an auburn-haired priest once. It was easier that way, obsessed with someone who was already committed to the woman of all women, the holy Virgin Mary. The auburn-haired priest was indifferent, as it should have been but still that didn’t stop me from pursuing, dreaming, making a place, making love over and over with him in my mind. It was a classic Electra complex—trying to win over, to steal, the father, Father, God. Despite being married now, my romantic dreams, complexes and illusions, continue to die very slowly.

*

Our daughter collected pine cones and studied large red slugs on the trail back and our son kicked rocks and asked questions about archeological digs and dinosaur bones. My husband took my hand and made note of new tree growth and incoming clouds. Our walk ended at the church where we relit the candles outside that had been blown out by the wind. At the welcome office, we watched a short film on the history of Our Lady of the Snows and learned that after the fire in 1912, the monastery had been rebuilt in its present location two years later.

*

Despite work on myself, it wasn’t until eight years into my marriage that I realized I was still having some serious emotional affairs. The last one was with a good-looking younger man from a Buddhist meditation group I’d recently begun attending. I bought Tibetan singing bowls and started reading D.T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh again. A confirmed night owl, I hauled myself out of bed once for a 7 a.m. meditation he was leading. I felt like a fool when I finally saw the depths of my inability to be present in my marriage and in my own life.

*

Thomas Merton had been a priest for nineteen years when, at fifty-one and laid up with debilitating back pain at a Louisville, Kentucky hospital, he fell in love with a nurse half his age. The affair, which started and ended in secret (almost), was consummated over a bottle of champagne in a borrowed office. Imagine the fierceness of their bodies joining, all thou shalt nots, all whispers of sin and death, of guilt, all boundaries, temporarily, gloriously suspended.

*

La petite mort (the little death) is one of the French names for orgasm. The out-of-body experience I had when I was thirty-one felt like a big death though. It was early morning, still half-asleep, alone, and something like lucid dreaming. What can I say except that I was the orgasm being pushed through a dark birth canal and out of my body. There was a sensation of being small like Alice after she took a swallow from the bottle labeled, “Drink Me.” To be out of my body and floating away seemed like the most natural and ordinary thing in the world until I remembered that it wasn’t my time yet to go and I needed to get to work soon and woke up.

*

Later that afternoon, with my husband watching the children in the guesthouse bedrooms, I went off alone with my ISYM list and a box of matches. The searching for a place to burn the list reminded me of the first time I’d ever kissed a boy. I was thirteen and we were alone in a friend’s mother’s bedroom. I paced back and forth until finally asking if we could kiss in the closet—as if a kiss in a smaller space might protect me, from what, I don’t know. My father would not have approved or found the boy worthy and I, expecting something transformative and mystical like Edvard Munch’s disappearing couple in “The Kiss,” left the boy and the closet bitterly disappointed and, except for my guilt, feeling just the same as before.

*

One of my favorite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, used to collect butterflies. He’d catch his specimens in a fine mesh net and, assuming he followed typical insect collecting protocol, would cause temporary paralysis by gently squeezing their bodies. He’d then drop the stunned butterfly into a large glass jar containing ethyl acetate soaked cotton balls. After death, he would pin and mount the butterflies onto display boards. Nabokov kept scrupulous notes on his findings: date, place, species, sex (inspecting penis, etc.), any notable markings, wing color, and hue.

*

There was a deserted spot near a set of concrete benches just past the upper church parking lot. The benches were sheltered by a grove of lichen-covered birch trees near a big circular fire pit. The view from the second bench was this: small stream cutting through gently sloping green valley and just beyond, the lower guesthouse and rising poplar and fir-covered mountain. Why burn the list here? Were some places really more sacred than others? Does the ritual of setting apart and making special really matter in the end? Was there something different about this land, and these Trappist monks that might better support my list and the initials of all those men?

*

There had been other burns before: stacks of writing journals when I was eighteen, another with a friend at thirty just before moving to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to be baptized in the Catholic Church and start a new life. Into the fire went photographs, journals, childhood keepsakes, postcards, yearbooks, and any other flammables. Near the end, the wind came up and created what I can only describe as a kind of whirling dervish rising out of the flames. My friend and I were first shocked and then certain something monumental had happened, that something captive had been set free. Whether running away or running toward, the burnings always seemed to be a way of saying, like the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac: here I am—I surrender all.

*

I took the list out of my pocket and carefully unfolded it. It had been through so many incarnations in so many different notebooks, so many men and so many different stories. I ran my finger down the page, down the columns, in the margins. Could I forgive them all now from the first to the last? Could I accept that my father had been right about most of them not being right for me? Could I forgive myself now, too. I said yes—mostly, and let go without feeling like I was losing a fundamental part of my identity, some misplaced sense of accomplishment and pride?

*

In the end, Thomas Merton chose philia love over eros (sexual love). He recommitted himself to the priesthood and broke off his relationship with the nurse. It wasn’t until later that I’d learn he had burned all of the nurse’s love letters without reading them again. I wondered if he’d burned them on the front stoop of his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani or maybe beneath a neighboring oak or poplar tree? I wondered if he’d hesitated for a moment or maybe even cried?

*

I crumpled my list and set it on the ground at my feet. This was it. I grabbed a nearby stick to anchor the paper against the wind, said a prayer, and struck a match. The edges of the paper curled and blackened until finally the whole thing was swallowed by flames. A tiny funeral pyre, a smoky baptism, those ghost men rising up. I pushed the paper ash around with the stick until all that remained was a fragile whitish-gray leaf, this year’s palms turned into next year’s Lenten ashes, until the paper dust was almost indistinguishable from the dirt and patchy grass.

*

A section of the Buddhist Na Tumhaka Sutta says, “Suppose a person were to gather or burn or do as he likes with the grass, twigs, branches, and leaves here in Jeta’s Grove. Would the thought occur to you, ‘It’s us that this person is gathering, burning, or doing with as he likes?’ ‘—No, lord.’ —Why is that? Because those things are not our self nor do they pertain to our self. In the same way, monks, the eye is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness and benefit. The ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the intellect is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness and benefit.”

*

The wind came up again. I left the bench and the shelter of the lichen-covered birch trees feeling lighter, more buoyant like something had been added, something bound—released. This is the price of admission, I thought, this is the path toward deeper peace. At the lower guesthouse, I passed a plaque commemorating the Scottish author, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s visit to Our Lady of the Snows and smiled at the drawing of a slightly smiling Robert Lewis Stevenson. I rounded the corner of the building and was happy to find my husband and children outside now, feeding grass and dandelion leaves to the three large, dark brown Massif Central goats.

photo credit: Jody Kennedy

About the author

Jody Kennedy is a writer and photographer living in Provence, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, DIAGRAM, Tin House Online, Electric Literature, and The Georgia Review, among others.

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