A week after Easter, a friend drove me up a country road outside of the town of Sonoma, California to meet Father Dunstan Morrissey, a Benedictine priest, in his “hermitage.” At the entrance gate two signs were swinging gently in the wind. One said “Sky Farm,” and below it:
LIFE IS TRANSIENT
BE AWARE OF
THE GREAT MATTER
DON’T WASTE TIME!
I recognized with surprise the words traditionally written on the han, the wooden board that is struck with a mallet to call Zen monks to zazen. I had been practicing Zen for twenty years and I was still looking for the Great Matter. You could also call it God. That looking had brought me to this gate.
When I was a child, I wanted to believe in God, but I didn’t know how to go about it. What did “believe in God” really mean, anyway? My secular, anticlerical parents were no help.
I thought God might help me with the longing I felt and couldn’t explain. I remember lying in the hammock on Grandma’s screened porch, watching the rabbits hop on the dewy meadow behind her house on summer evenings, making magically long shadows. Nothing was wrong, and yet the rabbits on the grass tore at my heart with each creak of the hammock, and I couldn’t understand why the last light made me so sad. If I had believed that God was there watching us—me and the rabbits—everything might have been okay.
When I was about eight, at the dentist, I was given laughing gas while he filled a cavity. I floated up to the ceiling and looked back down at the little girl sitting in the dentist chair. I had been that child centuries before; I would be her again. I could hear the whine of the drill in her mouth, and smell the burning tooth enamel, but it was all right. I was not alone in a body; I was free, swimming in the heavenly realm next to Dr. Gardner’s ceiling. Could this have something to do with God?
Years later, as a young adult, I heard Alan Watts and Ram Dass on the radio, talking about transcendence through meditation. I went to the Berkeley Zen Center to try it out. I wanted to float up to the ceiling and look down at my self and not worry about her.
I loved the smell of tatami and incense, the Heart Sutra comforted me (“There is no attainment, with nothing to attain”), and Dogen opened up the view (“The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in a drop of dew in the grass”).
But zazen was hard for me. More difficult than the physical pain of staying still in a cross-legged position was the mental pain. Sometimes, yes, I loved the simple feeling of gravity, and sometimes breathing was pure joy, but sometimes, I felt trapped in my own mind. And when I fell into bouts of depression or loneliness, as I did from time to time, I wanted someone I could appeal to. Help me! Help me! I loved the dharma, but I still longed for God.
At Sky Farm we parked beside the chapel, and we found Dunstan outside. He greeted us warmly, crinkling his eyes and laughing softly. He was a striking man in his late sixties, with white hair and a white beard. Over his robust belly, he wore a French artist’s smock of blue denim that made his blue eyes bluer.
He led us to a grassy slope beneath an oak; beaming, he lifted a slab of plywood to reveal a deep coffin-sized hole in the dark dirt. “It came to me during my Easter retreat to dig my grave,” he said. We stood together, the three of us, noticing we were alive, peering down into the hole and out at the lupine-blue view over the valley. I thought of the sign at the gate. Life is swiftly passing. Wake up!
Dunstan showed us the chapel and two guest cabins made of giant wine casks discarded by a local winery. These were fairy-tale chambers twelve feet in diameter, with cone-shaped roofs like Vietnamese hats. I went inside one, and right away I wanted to stay in the round room smelling of wine, to sleep in the single monk’s bed, to sit at the wooden desk and look out the window at the rocky outcroppings on the opposite hill. I wanted to pick up the book beside the bed—The Cloud of Unknowing. An oak tree clicked its leaves in the breeze outside. A photograph of Gandhi hung on the wall. This would be a good place to look for God.
And so, a few weeks later, I came back to Sky Farm for my first retreat. Dunstan invited me to join him for Lauds in the chapel in the morning, and I said yes, not knowing what that was. At sunrise (I learned later he checked it every day in the Farmers’ Almanac) Dunstan rang a big iron bell mounted on a post beside the chapel. I crossed the dewy grass, saw Dunstan’s worn old shoes outside the chapel door, and left mine there as well.
A window on the east side was made of one large piece of stained glass with abstract red flames. When the sun rose, the rays came through the red glass like a blaze of fire, turning the inside of the chapel a glowing red. It’s strange how sensory stimuli produce such an effect of the sacred: the incense burning in copper boxes on the wall, mixing its smell with the smell of wine, the gradual, pulsing increase of the morning light in the dark space, the candlelight reflecting on the gold paint on Mary’s face in the icon painting.
I don’t remember which psalms we chanted that first time, but I remember feeling held by the round walls of the chapel and by the words themselves. The sounds that came from our two mouths merged and curled around the round walls. God was apparently there even though I couldn’t see him, and I was invited to join in praising him.
That I was welcomed to Sky Farm without question by this old Catholic man; that I was not asked, “What do you think you’re doing here?”; that I didn’t have to promise I believed in something; that there were just the two of us, and God, whoever that is—not one, not two; all this was like a miracle but not a miracle, much simpler than that, as simple as stepping over a threshold.
I came back to Sky Farm many times. Sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week, as if I could hear the call of the Angelus fifty miles away in Berkeley.
In the mornings I met Dunstan across the slab of the library table that was piled with books and papers. When it was cold he built a fire in the woodstove. His giant Irish wolfhound Sophie thumped her tail on the floor. He made us green tea, much too strong, and he read aloud to me from whatever he was reading—Isaac the Syrian, Edith Stein—sometimes pausing for so long that I thought he was stopping, but it turned out he was resting his voice. This was our version of lectio divina, the Benedictine tradition of daily reading and contemplation of sacred texts.
He told me stories of his life, like how a book by Simone Weil mysteriously fell off a shelf into his hand in a secondhand bookstore when he was twenty and changed the course of his life, and how, years later, he learned that the book had not been published by that date. He spoke of being a hermit on the island of Martinique, and of the voodoo priest who came by to tell him of Kennedy’s assassination.
He often laughed, with a silent shaking of the shoulders, in the middle of his own sentences, and sometimes I knew why and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes it turned out he wasn’t laughing, he was crying. Both the laughing and the crying meant he was moved by the story he was telling, the person he was remembering, the kindness that God had shown him.
He spoke often of “the realm beyond the opposites,” something akin to Buddhist emptiness. I told him that the Buddhist teaching of emptiness was scary to me—I wanted something to hold on to. He pulled Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace off the shelf and read to me: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”
When I talked to him about my personal life—a failed romance, my concerns for my adult sons, for my mother—he listened and responded in mysterious, philosophical ways. Never “Why don’t you call him up and ask to talk it over with him?” but something more like, “God shows us how deep the well of our love goes.” It was as if I spoke to him in one language and he answered me in another, and yet I felt heard and comforted.
Sometimes, when Dunstan was away, I stayed in the main house at Sky Farm to take care of Sophie. One night a wild winter storm shook the house, the wind howled, the rain pounded, I heard crashing of branches, and the electricity went out. Sophie and I were alone there, and I was afraid and excited, and grateful that Sophie was with me. I was in the place Dunstan had made, a place where Dunstan’s God lived. I prayed, not asking for anything in particular, feeling alive in the great maw of the universe, as if my ribs were torn open like branches in order for my heart to spread out.
A few years after I met him, Dunstan had a stroke. I wasn’t there, but he told me he got up to ring the Angelus bell, and on the way, he felt dizzy and had to get down on the ground. He managed to crawl across the grass and ring the bell, and a visitor coming to Lauds took him to the hospital.
After he got home, he needed extra help for a while. I took a turn staying at Sky Farm for a couple of weeks, and I cooked for him and drove him on errands.
I remember thinking that he was the only person I loved purely, wanting his happiness without wondering what I would get back from him, and without all the hopes and worries that are inevitably mixed in with the other loves I feel, like the love I feel for my children and grandchildren. Those loves are huge—they couldn’t be huger—but they aren’t completely pure. Sometimes anxiety is mixed in.
Dunstan loved me, too. I was one of many people he loved, and one of many who loved him. He was the hub of an invisible wheel of spiritual friends, remarkable people all over the world who sometimes turned up at Sky Farm, and with whom he kept up a copious correspondence. At home in Berkeley I received a constant stream of photocopied articles in the mail, and 3″x 5″ post cards with quotes typed out for me on his ancient Underwood typewriter, and religious books he’d ordered from catalogs. These readings were always just what I needed at the time.
This mutual unconditional love had something to do with God. I was searching for God; I found Dunstan. As an old white man with a white beard, he even looked a lot like God—one version of God. I didn’t actually think Dunstan was God, but when I was with him, I felt close to God.
In 2000, Dunstan invited me to move to Sky Farm. After the stroke, the stairs in the house had become difficult for him, and he had had a little apartment built for himself as an addition to the library. The now-empty main house would become my quarters.
Thinking about what to do, I walked into the chapel by myself one morning and it was flooded with that red light. I said to myself: I’m entering the home of my heart. I’m entering the heart of my home. So I said yes, and I rented out my house in Berkeley.
This was a decision I made wholeheartedly, willing not to know, ready to take the leap into a new life. It felt wonderful to “shoot the hoop,” as a friend calls it, without waffling, ready for whatever would unfold.
A few days before I was to move in, Dunstan called me. “Susan,” he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this. The house burned down yesterday. The stone statue of St. Joseph that stood by the front door—it’s the only thing that didn’t burn. St. Joseph stands alone among the ashes.” His voice broke for a moment, and I knew that his tears were not tears of grief for the house that was gone, but tears of gratitude for the saint who refused to burn. “I’m fine,” he continued. “Naked I came into this world, and naked I’ll leave it. You’re the one I worry about. I have my little apartment.”
I felt naked, too, unencumbered by expectations and yet full of faith. I felt that I had been shot from a cannon, and even as I held the receiver in my hand, I was spinning in the vast blue sky, floating beyond gravity, beyond the realm of the opposites. I could look down at my small self and know that I would be all right, that God would make sure that the next thing would happen, whatever it was. In that moment I was free, both grief-stricken and joyful, but not afraid.
Seeing Sky Farm was terrible, though. The statue of St. Joseph stood in a black field of twisted metal and ash. Charred book pages lifted and flapped like moths above blackened pot lids, ceramic shards, the skeleton of—was it the stove?
With Dunstan’s encouragement, I moved into one of the wine barrels. It was a lot smaller than the house, but I loved my cell. The essentials were there. I kept on looking for God, and I was happy there. On the days I didn’t drive to work in Berkeley, we had our talks in the library. I often cooked lunch for him. For my sake, he instituted a second meeting in the chapel in the late afternoons, to chant the Heart Sutra, which he magically produced on stiff chant cards. He came to chapel in his bathrobe and went to bed soon after. (He rose daily at 2 or 3 a.m.)
But in the realm on this side of the opposites, life in the wine barrel was not sustainable. It was too small, too far from the bathroom, and had no phone or Internet. After a couple of months, grateful for having actually lived at Sky Farm, I moved out. But I didn’t lose Dunstan. Not yet. I came back often.
In Zen we say the teachers and the teachings are like the finger pointing at the moon and the moon is enlightenment. We are told not to mistake the finger for the moon. Dunstan was the finger pointing at the moon of God.
At the end of Lauds every morning, Dunstan ceremoniously faced each of the four directions, then earthward, then heavenward, extending his arms before him, palms up—pointing at the moon with all his fingers. God was in every direction. And surely inside, too. And I, standing beside him in the chapel, still didn’t exactly see God for myself, but I knew I was looking in the right direction. There wasn’t a wrong one.
When Dunstan died a few years ago, I felt that I had lost not only a beloved teacher but also my best connection to God. Now I have to keep searching without Dunstan’s help.
I’ve come to realize that searching for God is not like hunting for your car keys; when you find the keys you stop your fishing around. But God is with me only as long as I keep on looking, and the moment I stop, I’ve lost God again. In Zen we say, “Inquiry and response come up together.”
So I keep on practicing Zen, reading Dogen, meditating and searching for the one who dwells in the realm beyond the opposites. I wonder: to what other surprising places will the looking still take me? God is not findable for me. Not like car keys. Maybe God is that which can’t be found. That’s okay, because God is in the looking.