Coming Full Circle
What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
he final note of the day is signaled at Compline, pulling the curtain and ushering in the darkness of night.
The day is now complete. As the last chants conclude at Heiligenkreuz, the lights in the oratory go out, save for a pair of candles. The monks sing a hauntingly beautiful hymn, the Salve Regina, to their Mother Mary. While the final notes rise into the air, the remaining candlelight is snuffed out, and the cavernous space falls into complete darkness, only the sound of distant bells can be heard. The monks of Heiligenkreuz move single-file in silence through the darkened medieval cloister walk and off to their cells to sleep.
The darkness of night figures so largely in our imaginations as children. It represents all that is unknown to us, and all that we fear. It represents everything coming to stillness and rest. Most all of us can recall one or another childhood experience of the dark night. For me, it was traveling home late from my grandmother’s house on the cold, dark plains of Minnesota. Lying in the back of the car, the cold vinyl seat beneath me, the headlights of passing cars moving like phantoms across the ceiling, I knew that the warmth of my bed was still two hours away. And yet, gazing up at the panoramic display of the moon and stars in the night sky, I felt already at home.
When we choose to bring our day to a proper close – by taking the time to acknowledge and accept the day’s shortcomings, and savor its moments of joy; when we allow our body and mind to settle quietly back into the stillness of night, we can come home to our true nature to rest for the night.
But Compline represents more than just the day coming to an end. It also symbolizes our life coming one day to its inevitable conclusion. My first stay at Heiligenkreuz coincided with the Day of the Dead, when cemeteries across Austria, including the one in Heiligenkreuz, are filled with families paying homage to loved ones who have gone to their rest. The monks make their way to the cemetery on this day to pay homage to their monastic brothers of years and centuries past. This brought to mind my own mother, who demonstrated tremendous courage, grace, and unflinching presence in the face of the illness that took her life nearly twenty years ago. My final days and hours with her were the spark that lit my own spiritual path. I was determined that one could access that same vital wellspring of being long before we reached the end.
It is available to us at each moment of each day if we open and attune ourselves to the rhythm and flow of our life. If we live our lives fully and genuinely, if we do not turn away from fear or difficulty, if we rise to the occasion that each day presents, if we act and speak with deep care and awareness, we will have prepared ourselves for a good night’s rest at the end of each day. And when the last candle is snuffed out on this lifetime, we will have made the most of our hours and days.
When Death Comes by Mary Oliver When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox; when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder-blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility, and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth. When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
- Silence – Following the Rule of St. Benedict, Benedictine monastics enter silence from the end of Compline until the start of Vigils the next morning. Silence plays an important role in nearly all spiritual traditions. Engaging with conversation, books, podcasts, and other media all have their place in life, but they also stir the mind with activity, like the choppy surface of a lake on a windy day. Practicing a period of silence allows the mind to settle and become like the calm surface of the water when the wind dies down. This allows us to see more clearly what is reflected on the surface, and what lies beneath the surface. Allowing the mind to settle is also helpful in preparing ourselves to sleep. Experiment with ways to practice silence – perhaps for a period before sleeping or upon waking in the morning.
- Watch these short videos reflecting on the role of silence in Benedictine monastic life and in Buddhist monastic life.
- What role did the darkness play in your imagination as a child?
- Experiment with silence – see if you can pause and notice the feel and energy of your mind the next time you are engaged in conversation or social activity. What do you notice? See what the feel and energy of your mind is like after engaging in silence for 30 minutes to an hour. What do you notice then?
- Nightscape: Capture the feeling of the night’s dark stillness in images or words.
If you would like, share your work with email@example.com, to be compiled on this page at a later date.
Share your own experiences, observations, or insights in the comment section below. Remember to follow these two guidelines:
- Speak from your own lived experience.
- Situate any outside references (religious, spiritual, literary, etc.) within your lived experience (i.e. what experience of your own made those ideas or words of others ring true in your life)