A whole universe, but inside, not outside

(Image by NASA, ESA, A. Riess, and D. Jones and S. Rodney)

There are a couple of cool things I remember about my junior year at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, Calif.

The first was that the orthodontist finally took my braces off. I had so hated the metal tearing up the inside of my mouth for three and a half years, that as soon as I could, I “accidentally” threw away my retainer in my lunch sack. Two of my lower front teeth are now slightly crooked — but, knowing that, I would do it all again, in a heartbeat.

The other cool thing was that every year, a small group of juniors went on a retreat to the Benedictine Abbey in Valyermo, Calif. St. Andrew’s is nestled above the high desert towns of Palmdale and Lancaster, off the Pearblossom Highway that winds along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

I already knew Valyermo well. My father and some of his brothers shared a tiny tract of land there, where our family trekked a couple times a year for some wilderness time, and each winter to cut down a Christmas tree. The air was crisp and clean -- especially in comparison to the smog in the San Fernando Valley where we lived -- and smelled of sage and pine. Scrubby Joshua trees studded the brown hills, we had to watch our feet for rattlesnake holes, and it was, to me, a little bit of kid heaven.

When our busload of noisy 16-year-olds descended upon the Retreat House at St. Andrew’s that fall, I admit to feeling annoyed. Few of my compadres seemed to appreciate the crystalline air as I did. Nor did the fields of corn and wheat stretching to the water tower, promising walks of peace and reflection, seem to call out to them. Most seemed just plain giddy about this three-day weekend away from their parents, and the chances to sneak some shenanigans by our chaperones, Sr. Rita and Fr. Kenny.

I was not an overly serious kid, but Valyermo — and especially this place where I knew that Benedictine monks toiled in silence — felt very special to me, indeed.

Just after throwing my gear on my bed in the girls’ dorm, I discovered that somebody had taped pages from a Playgirl magazine all over my bunk, then called Sr. Rita in to see “what Amy had done.” I intuited that some of my cohorts clearly didn’t appreciate my attitude of veneration.

Happily, Sr. Rita just gave me a conspiratorial wink and helped me yank down all the glossy nude male photos, right before Fr. Kenny and the boys filed by the door. As the guys paraded by, she and I stood side by side, the crumpled pages hidden behind our backs, smiling innocently.

Once they passed, we looked at each other and laughed hard. She handed me her pile, and nodded toward the kitchen across the hall. There was a large garbage can, where I could bury them discreetly. She was a great gal.

That afternoon, after sending us out to run through the fields to blow off some teen steam, we were called to the main room of the retreat center. We sat on folding chairs around the perimeter, and Fr. Kenny had us close our eyes, and led us through a meditation. His low Irish voice talked us through total body relaxation, starting at our toes, and working to the tops of our heads.

Once our bodies were sufficiently neutralized, he asked us to focus on our breathing, in and out, in and out, and to do our best to quiet the zinging thoughts in our minds. He pushed the button on a cassette player at his feet, and Native American music filled the silence. We were told to just breathe, breathe and not think. Just be.

After the hollow reed sounds faded to silence, he turned the player off, and talked us back to awareness, going in reverse from our heads to our toes. He then asked us to volunteer what we had experienced.

One after another, bright-eyed students raised their hands and described out-of-body experiences, with vivid details in which they floated above their loved ones in far-off places. Who they saw, what they were wearing and doing.

Pretty much everyone had an exciting story to tell. Except for me.

I sunk lower and lower in my chair. Finally, Fr. Kenny turned and looked in my direction. “What about you, Amy?”

I felt a sudden wash of goosebumps, that horrible all-over tingle of embarrassment. I looked down at my lap, and said, “Um. Nothing, really. I didn’t float anywhere.”

I looked up and saw kids around the circle trade looks, smirking.

I sighed. “Um, I just sort of went into this dark space, inside me. And then,” I looked at Fr. Kenny, “it was full of stars. Like a whole universe, but inside, not outside.”

A few kids chuckled. Fr. Kenny looked around and said, “Well, okay, let’s head to the chapel for Mass, and then we have dinner.”

I held back as kids piled towards the door. I felt disappointed, sort of empty and left out. They had all zoomed around, seeing stuff. I just sat there and saw stars. Lame.

Fr. Kenny touched my elbow. “Amy? May I speak with you?”

I stopped and sighed deeply. I was pretty sure he was going to tell me that I stunk at meditation, and he was going to give me a big cosmic fail.

His voice was hushed, clearly just for me, and not for the line of kids ahead of us, pushing to get out of the room. “What do you know about Catholic mystics?”

“Um,” I stared at his kind face, mostly surprised he wasn’t giving me an “F” in circle time. “Nothing.”

“Well,” his Irish voice lilted, “I suggest you look into them. Then we can talk.” 

I said, “Um, okay.”

This was the time before Google and Wikipedia. Doing research meant going to the public library and looking at little white cards in skinny drawers in a huge wooden cabinet, then hunting the shelves for the books and reading them.

So, when we returned from our retreat, research I did. As I read book after book -- and encountered myriad and fascinating mystics like Trappist monk Thomas Merton and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Padre Pio and Catherine of Siena, to name a few -- I felt a through-line back to the dry, rustling fields up at the abbey in Valyermo.

The common threads in these lives, I felt, were minds that sought out quiet and souls that found in those peaceful places an intimacy with God. The Trappist life of prayer and work made sense to me. Work keeps your body busy and clears your head. Prayer -- like the blank spaces on the radio between talk and music -- is about being present in that place without words. And the love and belonging that await there.

Suddenly, the simplicity of what I saw during our retreat meditation felt better. I was no longer disappointed about not getting to zoom around, spying on people.

In the quiet, I had instead glimpsed a universe as vast inside as the one outside. And the idea that God is in me, through me, with and around me, became very literal. God and heaven are not out there. They are right here, right now.

Fr. Kenny and I never had that talk. We didn’t have to. His gentle push was enough to set me on my path of discovery. It occurs to me that he may have quietly urged other kids to check out these mysteries. A lot of those teens have matured into remarkable, inspiring adults.

Amazingly, after my son Nick was born in 1988 and I died for 20 minutes and went to the light, the memory of being pulled down a tube back into my body was through a field of stars.

And for about a year afterward, every time I felt afraid or upset, I could close my eyes, and I was suddenly back in that void, hurtling through stars toward a bright pinpoint of light. If I remembered to slow down my breathing, and made myself relax, I could play with my velocity, meandering between here and the light, tiny yet comfortable and safe in that black expanse.

Merton wrote: “We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.” 

This is my daily challenge. To remember, in my crazy busy life, to stop, to shut up, to breathe. To make my hands busy and my brain quiet. To watch the wind bend the reeds, and hear them rasp against each other. To close my eyes and remember that I am among the stars. And always, forever, in here and out there, I am safe and beloved in the presence of God.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

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