Thomas Moore opens this narrative with his preface, reminding us to choose a spirituality being open to multiple possibilities rather than the worrying over the nuances of belief. (xi) Midway through his own Dantean journey, a burned-out professor and workaholic who's been neglecting his family, Slattery wants to recharge his soul and confront his own mortality. DPS "wanted to reimagine my life from the point of view of eternity," seeking to-- as Michael Novak phrases it-- act earnestly but without attachment to the results. (3)
DPS tires of the Church's "Main Street theology," longing rather for the back alleys and haunted corners of facing his mortality straightforwardly. Prayer, he reflects beginning at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, is not petition but entering a presence. Not that God is there. If we knew he/she/it was, why then have faith? The possibility, not the inevitability, of what he seeks in the divine invites him towards silence. God may take him over, or he may not. Not sure of what he will find, but DPS opens himself to the chance- the readiness is all, I guess, to quote Hamlet!
DPS begins to peer into the dark silence where God may reside, beyond the logos, refusing the manifestation, before the word made flesh. This emptiness preceded the light, the flesh, the world, and us. DPS reflects on the love of poverty, and how this shows the "blessed are the poor in spirit" confronts his own memories of a life lived by his parents grudgingly, under an alcoholic father, a too-thrifty mother, a cowed family. Solitude is a "strong potion" best sipped slowly and rarely. Thoreau's relevant chapter in "Walden"- Of the "subtle powers" of heaven and earth: "We seek to perceive them and do not; we seek to hear them and do not. Identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them." (41) Monks and nuns do not flee the world but face their own mortality and frailty within it; they choose to lessen distraction and limit temptation so as to confront their ultimate silence before God.
DPS writes movingly about the shy foxes and stillness of Big Sur, the bursting grapes and his father's torment as DPS wanders Napa Valley at the Carmelites, and at the Sonoma Zen Center takes on Zendo early morning and the oryoki "eating handout" rituals that are both compelling in what they resemble and awkward for their strangeness for one raised Irish Catholic. He learns to rake the rocks in circles so they enter into one another- the duty he's assigned slows him down, so what takes us fifteen minutes in our world is transformed. "The task was to imagine the process rather than rush to results." (35) I wonder how we would all live if we worked with such mindfulness, and how we'd sustain such wonder after repetition wears down novelty. Which is the whole point of order for a monk, to remain in one place, to do the same things, and not to escape the world but to face his own mortal frailty within it, without escape, distraction, or respite. Blackberries, a deer's severed leg, altitude sickness, cows separated from their calves, and Hohokam petroglyphs all inspire powerful insights.
The book admittedly, for me, did despite its appropriate brevity bog down at times. Most of his prayer-poems I found not to my aesthetic taste, although I recognize his quest. His grappling with his father's legacy encourages his own tender and blunt reflections, but these are often at the level of what one would write in a diary or tell a spiritual director; for more reticent me these confessions feel awkward on his distant page. I admittedly do not seek out inspirational writing when its shelved thus, so my preferences may not be those of this book's target audience. I found this by chance in a library cross-reference. While I learned much from it, there's too little detail about the felt, physical, concrete surroundings DPS stays in for roughly a week at at time for fifteen weeks in all. Minimal descriptions force you into his own mind and spirit instead. This direction left me too detached from experiencing enough of the actual travel he embarked upon during his sabbatical, but other readers may favor his journalistic intent. Fittingly, he admires Merton for the same level of intimacy attained in that monk's notebooks.
DPS learns more about solitude's disturbing and consoling qualities as he makes his way to other fascinating retreat centers and monasteries in the Northwest and then down the Rockies into the Southwest, where nothingness at Nada Hermitage confronts him and challenges him. Charity, patience, and wisdom emerge but there's no Pollyannish transformation or New Age bliss. For that, DPS merits acclaim, as this narrative is realistic. No dramatic, invented climactic moment ends his search. Gradually earned, the lessons he learned must be taken back into the world he "left"; I wonder how he fared afterwards? Terrifying, not comforting, to face this brutal rawness of spirit, as DPS learns well.
(Having visited myself a few of the places listed in the main text and the afterword, I agree that he chose fine retreats throughout the West. I only hope, nearly a decade after he wrote this, that the Catholic establishments can sustain themselves; the ones he lists that I know all have fewer, and more elderly, monks, friars, sisters, or nuns now than when he made his count. Error on p. 137: St Andrew's Priory in California is not a "Trappist Cistercian community" but a Benedictine one. Trappists live in California, but in the north of its Central Valley at Vina.)