READ: Luke 2:1-9
“And Mary gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the living space. In the countryside nearby, there were shepherds out in the fields keeping guard over their sheep during the watches of the night. When then appeared an angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord shone all around them. And the shepherds were awestruck.” – Luke 2:7-9a
An aspect of my monastic novitiate is the keeping of vigils. These vigils are solitary times of prayer that extend all through the night. My prior vigils were taken in the Chapel, in the nearby cathedral, and once, in the big, red barn on the Abbey Farm. My most recent vigil, under permission of the Abbot, I made in the wide meadow that is beyond the farm fences, between the pasture land and the willow woods. With my lantern, my prayer rug, my Bible, my resolve, I took to the meadow at the setting of the sun. And there, like those shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth, I kept watch through the night.
At first, the night was very dark indeed, my eyes still accustomed to the brightness of the daylight. In the context of the darkness, the light of my lantern seemed ablaze with an amber-tinted light. And I was thankful for this, for that lantern illumined the trail and then helped my steps that went off and beyond the trail. I found a spot near the one and only tree in the meadow, an elm tree that had somehow wandered off from the forest. I placed on the ground my raw cotton prayer rug, set my lantern by my side and then knelt to pray. It was that first time of prayer that I felt the rub of Jazz, the Abbey’s cat against my leg. She had followed me into this night, and she did seem to appreciate this rare occasion of having company to share in her nighttime rounds. As I sat there, my eyes began adjusting to the darkness, slowly, at first, faster, with time. I began to see all those things which at first were hidden in the night. (Though I thought … how much brighter the night must look to my feline friend!)
The half-moon was late that night, rising soon after my arrival. And I thought how much more the moon does seem to be, when you have been waiting for it to arrive. The moon was aglow with the white you find on very, old lace, an antiqued white, a creamy white. And as I sat there, I began to remember that even moonlight does cast shadows, muted shadows. And then I noticed that the moonlight made the meadow grass come also aglow, as if the moonlight and the earth were creating their own version of colors in a palette of blues and greys, painting a world in a far different light than does the day.
I am not sure when, but not long after, the fireflies rose from their hiding places. A hundred tiny beacons flashing on and off for reasons I do not know. I tend to think fireflies flash simply because it is something to do and they have gifted to do so. I found most amazing that after awhile you can actually distinguish one firefly from another. Some like to spiral down; some like to dance round and round; and some fly all about in a far-flung search for something they seem quite desperate to find. And I also noticed, fireflies don’t much like to come near human souls, at least, not too close. And I learned that cats at night sometimes chase play games of tag with fireflies and the cats always lose. After a time, I felt that I was watching angels of a smaller scale who had come down to this my meadow for the night, who came here to merely dance and play.
But, alas, there came a time when all the fireflies went home leaving the night to the vast wonder of the night-sky and its “star-fall”. That is the word that came to mind as I sat in open-eyed contemplative prayer. At first, the starlight seemed as points of light tacked high above in the black velvet sky. But then after a time, the starlight seemed to descend, to fall as water falls in a waterfall, as to add a sparkling to these moonlit fields. Or at least, so it seemed. You probably already know this, but the stars become more and more of them as the night goes on. Here I remembered what I learned as a boy and then, somehow forgot,… there are more stars than at first we ever see! I am glad God made stars. I love stars as they are in the night sky, a time of day that God thought ought to be. Now I wonder why I don’t make more effort to do more star-watching, more often.
The hours passed, the prayers were made, almost morning. But then the night showed me one more aspect of herself before she left. Before the dawn, before the daylight arrives, the night transforms herself once more … as the darkness grows faint, the night slowly transforms the shades of blackness turning into spectrum shades of gold. Somewhere I had lost the awareness of how slowly, almost reluctantly, the night gives way to dawn, It is as if to say, “Let me show you all the colors that were hidden in the night.” My meadow, now awakening to both the bells of the Abbey and the morning-song of birds as they stretched their wings, turned into a misty dreamland, as if heaven had swung too low and had set itself for a few moments of this realm called Earth. Then as the sun burst over the hills, my meadow came alive as if draped with a million dewy diamonds, as if in regal celebration, as if the nighttime played her reveille for the coming of the greater light of Day.
All this, this journal of my night vigil in the meadow of Greyfriars’ Abbey, I share so that you know that I really can imagine … how shepherds on one certain night keeping vigil in the fields could be so awestruck by the appearance of angels in their midst.
My Loved Ones, why not find a field far from the garish lights of this human world, and once more behold the stars and the moonlight and they create wonders in the open fields. For God did make them for souls like you and me … so that we might once remember how to … be awestruck with wonder.
Brother Anthony of the Cross
— Visit my poetry site, Willow Words, by clicking www.willowwordspoetry.wordpress.com .
Also visit my new Psalter site for a reading of the Psalms www.thepsalmsbybrotheranthony.wordpress.com