Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael has become one of the most beloved novels of spiritual adventure ever to be published, an underground bestseller that The Austin Chronicle described as "Suspenseful, inventive and socially urgent as any fiction or nonfiction you are likely to read this or any other year." Now Daniel Quinn follows Ishmael with another story of a spiritual quest--this time his own. Providence is a moving and insightful book about the struggle to forge and enact a personal spirituality.
The following excerpt is taken from a scene early in Providence, in which Quinn has entered a Trappist monastery, and subsequently taken a vow of silence. The mysterious encounter that takes place shortly after he arrives there will affect the course of the rest of his life. . . .
I'm not only not a lover of what is commonly called nature, I'm not even a lover of the outdoors. You can't see much of it right now, in the middle of the night, but there's a regular jungle right outside those windows. Make your way through that jungle for about twenty feet--more or less straight down--and you'll come to a lovely little stream. I'm sure it's lovely, though I've never seen it. I've never traveled those twenty feet, and I doubt if I ever will. I bless the stream and wish it well. I don't need to see it to do that.
I give you this background so you can appreciate this fact: For my first three weeks at Gethsemani, I was kept inside. I mean I didn't set a foot outside for even a moment--and was completely content not to set a foot outside. It was a constant round of chapel, classroom, refectory, chapel, cell, chapel, classroom, refectory, chapel, cell. The weather may have conspired in this, I don't remember. I didn't even notice that I'd been indoors for three weeks, wasn't thinking about it at all, when one evening after we'd talked, Merton said, "I think it's time you went outside."
I stared at him blankly. I'd practically forgotten that there was such a thing as outside. Father Louis explained that the next morning he and the novices would be going out to perform various chores, and I could come along and gather kindling.
Go out and gather kindling? What a marvelous idea! I, the non-nature-lover and nonoutdoorsman, was suddenly enchanted by the prospect of standing out under the open sky and breathing in the chilly spring air. Suddenly I was sick to death of books and walls, stale air and electric lights, hard floors and chairs. Suddenly I was overcome by a longing to hear wind in the trees, to see birds in the sky.
The next morning I woke up breathless, literally bursting with anticipation, though of course there were all sorts of things to get through first, like Mass and breakfast and our first class of the day. Finally, when the class was over, Father Louis came over and told me I could stay behind and read while he and the others went to change into work clothes. I'd be going out in my usual clothes, a sport coat and flannel trousers...
Why didn't I change as well? Well, let me see. How to explain it? I didn't have any work clothes of my own to change into, and the others weren't changing into jeans or overalls or anything like that, they were changing into Trappist work clothes. In other words, they were exchanging an indoor religious costume for an outdoor religious costume, and since I was still a postulant, I couldn't join them in that.
Even so...? Yes, that's an interesting question. Even if I wasn't changing clothes, what was the point of my staying behind? It's a good question. I guess the answer is that they had something else to do that didn't require my presence, because I know that at least half an hour passed while I sat there with my book. I have no idea what I was reading. I doubt if I was doing much reading anyway. I was too excited.
Finally my guardian angel appeared. I started to get up out of my chair, but he signaled me to stay put.
"We're going outside now," he signed. "Father Louis says you're to stay here and read."
"No, no!" I signed back frantically. I was frantic because I knew there was no way I could correct this misunderstanding. If I could have spoken, there would have been no problem. I would have said, "No, no, my dear fellow, you've definitely got it wrong. Father Louis told me quite distinctly yesterday that I was to go out with you today. It wasn't even my idea! He said, and I quote: "I think it's time you went outside.' And just half an hour ago, at the end of class, he told me he'd send you to get me when it was time to go. Look, if you have the slightest doubt, just go back and ask him!"
But I couldn't convey anything as complicated or subtle as that. All I could manage with my hands was: "No, no, Father Louis say I go outside now!"
My angelic guardian angel smiled beatifically at my denseness, shook his handsome golden head, and repeated his message slowly and emphatically, as if to a child: "Father Louis says you're to stay here and read!" With that, he turned and scurried away.
I was thunderstruck, completely crushed. Tears flooded my eyes. It wasn't just disappointment that overwhelmed me. In a single moment, the full realization of what lay in store for me in this life crashed in on me like a pulverizing boulder. I had been reduced to rubble, to nothing. Through a misunderstanding, of course!--but that was no consolation. On the contrary, that was the whole point! For the rest of my life I would be open to such misunderstandings at any moment. At any moment at all, it could happen that someone would walk up to me and deliver some ego-shattering command or message--even doing it with the kindest of intentions, just like my guardian angel. In fact, this encounter with my guardian angel was a perfect example of what the future held for me. This young man, moved by nothing but the sweetest benevolence, had walked in and obliterated me with a smile and a few gestures to which I was completely helpless to reply.
Yes, helpless was the word. I was embracing a whole lifetime of helplessness, of utter vulnerability. As I sat there alone in that bleak, empty classroom, my mind went dark with despair.
But of course I was under no obligation to embrace this life. I had no illusions on that score. If I wanted to, I could be back at my room in the dormitory at St. Louis University in a matter of hoursforty-eight hours, probably. There I'd find three of the only four close friends I'd ever had--Tom Anderson, Jerry Long, and Bob Cahill. They'd be delighted to have me back in their midst, there was no doubt about that. We would go and have a celebratory hamburger at the Kangaroo Room of the Melbourne Hotel just around the corner. Or dinner at Garavelli's, or a pizza and a few bottles of beer at Parenti's. We could pick up the conversation where we'd left off--not even a month ago!--Marshall McCluhan, Ezra Pound, the Symbolists, all the dark conundrums of modern literature that Walter J. Ong expounded in his classes, from which we departed in a state of intellectual meltdown.
Oh, that would be fine!
So the situation wasn't so desperate after all. If things didn't work out here at Gethsemani, I had an immediate alternative. In fact, a very attractive alternative. Of course, I had to give the Trappist life a fair trial, another month at least. It wouldn't be so bad. In fact, it couldn't be so bad, because as I went along I would know that I was leaving myself a way out
It was at this point that I caught myself. What in the world was I doing? Because of a little disappointment--a very bitter disappointment, it's true--I was going to start living a lie. I was going to be behaving the same way as before, but now with an all-important interior difference: From moment to moment I was going to be holding out for myself the possibility of leaving. From now on I was going to spend every waking moment holding open my options: Well, if I can't stand this food, I can always leave. If I can't stand the way this teacher treats me, I can always leave. If I can't stand this kind of work, I can always leave. If I can't stand never having any time to myself, I can always leave. From this moment on it wasn't I who was going to be on trial, it was the monastic life
No, I said to myself. You've got to choose, once and for all. Once and for all, finally, and forever. Or get out right now, today. Shut down those options absolutely or walk away. You came here to put your life in the hands of God without reservation, and what you're doing right now is establishing your reservations: I will live in the hands of God if everyone is nice to me. I will live in the hands of God if things go my way. I will live in the hands of God if people don't come around and tell me, "No, you thought you were going outside, but you're not." I will live in the hands of God so long as I receive no crushing blows to my sense of dignity and self-determination.
You know what it means to live in the hands of God, I said to myself. It means abandoning your will utterly. It means letting him direct the course of your life--even in this trivial matter of going outside--without reservation.
You've got to choose. Now. And not provisionally. Not temporarily. You can say yes or you can say no, but you've got to say one or the other.
Choose. Yes or no. Now, once and for all.
I summoned my will. I'd never done such a thing in my life before--and to be honest I've never done it since. Never had to do it.
I summoned my will. I brought it up like a deep breath taken underwater.
I summoned my will and held it like a deep breath taken underwater.and said yes.
Yes, now, once and for all. No reservations. No more daydreams about St. Louis. That was over forever, for me. I was here. Totally here, once and for all.
I released my will, and it flowed away, leaving me as limp as a drowned man.
And at that very moment my guardian angel swept into the room, his hands babbling apologies: I was right and he was wrong, Father Louis wanted me to go outside, so come on downstairs, we're just getting ready now!
I followed him on leaden legs, feeling nothing, not relief, not vindication, certainly not joy.
No, now that I think about it, it isn't right to say I was feeling nothing. I was feeling a sort of solemn terror. I was feeling doom. I had done what I had come to the monastery to do: I had given myself to God--without reservation--and now I was in for it, no matter what it was.
I followed my guardian angel down to a ground-floor room that had the scent and ambience--if not the sound--of a locker room before a big game. Drained and deeply depressed, I watched as the others finished manipulating themselves into the medieval equivalents of sweat socks and dungarees, with Father Louis in their midst exuding energy and high spirits like a benevolent trainer. It all meant nothing to me. I no longer cared where I went.
Finally, all their dressing done, the novices bunched up at the door and began to file out into the open air. As always, I was the last. This isn't a statement either of humility or of resentment. Wherever we went, no one followed me, because I didn't know the way. Everyone else knew the way, so naturally I went last.
I went last, stepped over the threshold, turned around to close the door, then turned back to face the sunshine.
And the god spoke.
I put it this way. I could put it other ways. I could say that, when I turned to face the sunshine, the veil that clouds our vision was gone from my eyes, and for the first time I saw the world as it is.
There are no words for it.Someone blind from birth can't imagine what the sighted mean by color, can't fathom what this property might be. If all language were the product of a blind race, the word would not exist, and if one of that blind race were suddenly to become sighted, he would be unable to describe what he saw; the words would simply not be there for him to use, and this is the way it is for me: The words are simply not there.
But I can put it other ways, and I will, because that's what I can do.
I turned and faced the sunshine, and the breath went out of me as if someone had punched me in the stomach. That was the effect of receiving this sight, of seeing the world as it is. I was astounded, bowled over, dumbfounded.
I could say that the world was transformed before my very eyes, but that wasn't itand I knew that that wasn't it. The world hadn't been transformed at all; I was simply being allowed to see it the way it is all the time. I, not the world, had been transformed.
I'm trying. Be patient. We've reached the single most important hour of my life, and I have to get it right, have to come as close as I can to getting it right.
I gasped, literally gasped. I lost my breath, seeing that
Everything was on fire.I can say it that way, but when you say that something's on fire, you think of the fire as being on it--as a substance that is on the thing
That wasn't it.
Everything was burning. Yes, that's better. From within, everything was burning.
Every blade of grass, every single leaf of every single tree was radiant, was blazing--incandescent with a raging power that was unmistakably divine.
I was overwhelmed. In a single second of this, of seeingthis truth, tears flooded my eyes and poured down myface as I walked along behind the novices. It was strangeto see fence posts sitting dead and silent and cold in the midst of this tremendous, thrumming effulgence.
In this vast, scintillating landscape, my nearsightedness was of no account at all. For as far as I could see, for hundreds of yards, thousands of yards, I could distinguish with absolute clarity each leaf, each blade of grass--no two alike anywhere. Each was crackling andtrembling and all but exploding with the raging power that animated it
Again I describe that power as raging. Look into a furnace blazing at its top capacity. Look into the heart of a nuclear reaction perhaps. The power that I saw thundering around me makes all our stock images of power seem feeble. But there was no violence or hatred in this rage. This was a rage of joy, of exuberance. This was creation's everlasting, silent hallelujah.
You know the sparklers they sell around July 4th. The world was ablaze with sparklers. Every blade of grass, every leaf of every tree was charged with energy--packed, jammed, evanescent with energy, which radiated forth into the air irresistibly. The whole landscape pulsed, breathed, moved, was made iridescent with this energy. I think, with what can be done in film today, I could produce a cinematic approximation of what I saw. It would be magnificent, but you would of course know it was just a trick. What I was seeing was reality, was the world as it actually is, every moment of every day....
No, no, I wasn't in a trance. I wasn't in anything remotely like a trance. I was gathering kindling, for God's sake! I had trailed the novices for awhile, walking through this madly radiant land, then had been signed to head off into th