When I was a little girl, there was a man who lived in the hills above our town, in a small shack he built himself, with no running water, no electricity, no heating but a wood stove. He was a Benedictine monk and he lived a contemplative life, on land a generous soul gave him. He did not have an income; he lived off the generosity of people in the town, friends who looked out for him, delivered food and supplies, invited him to dinner. He was a hermit, in the true sense of that word, a man who gave his life to God and to the practice of prayer for the world.
My family knew him a little bit; he came to our house a few times, and I always loved seeing him. He had a lovely smile. Even as a child, I could tell he was filled with peace and love. He was special to me, even though I didn’t know him well. He knew I played the piano, and always asked about it. He was something of a mysterious figure – what hermit wouldn’t be to a kid? – and I would think about him periodically, up there in the hills, in the cold or the heat, living fully immersed in nature and quiet. His was a compelling life, to say the least.
I haven’t thought about him in years. But on this past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I was reminded of him quite unexpectedly. I was standing in line at the bank, and thinking sort of half-heartedly about the season of Lent, which on that day was upon me. What was I going to do for Lent? How was I going to mark the 40 days? I don’t usually give something up for Lent; instead, I try to begin some practice I’ve been meaning to institute in my life, like exercise or writing or prayer. I was thinking about this, when a man walked past me in line, and then realized he was supposed to take his place at the end and walked back to wait. He was older, slightly disheveled, had the air of the absent-minded professor about him. He looked like a man who stepped out of a time machine, from some slower, quieter place and had landed with some confusion in a busy East Bay bank.
“He looks just like Dunstan Morrissey,” I thought with a smile. "Wow, I haven’t thought of that name in a long time."
And suddenly, my musings on Lent took a different direction. I remembered that unique quality of Dunstan’s, his peacefulness, his trust. I thought more about how those are the things that Lent can bring us. I decided I needed to figure out some Lenten practice that would help me be more quiet and peaceful. Then it was my turn at a teller’s window, and off I went, into the rainy afternoon, and back to my life that is full of many wonderful things, most of them cacophonous. When in the course of the next day and a half my mind returned, incompletely focused, to considering Lent, I thought about Dunstan some more, and wondered how I could find the peace he so clearly possessed.
The next evening, no Lenten practice in place yet, I was watching TV and generally being mindless. Rick, surfing the net and checking out a few blogs he reads, out of the blue asked me if I knew a man named Dunstan Morrissey. I about fell off the couch: hadn’t thought of him in years, saw a man that looked just like him, and here was my husband asking me if I knew him. Rick had been reading a blog written by a man – Gil – who used to live in my town, who was great friends with both Dunstan and my family. Gil reported on his blog that Dunstan Morrissey passed away on Ash Wednesday.
He died on the very day that I saw the man who looked just like him, on the day he walked back into my memory. My friend Laura says Dunstan visited me that day; maybe he was stopping by to help me figure out Lent this year. Ever since I heard that he died, I really can’t stop thinking about him. I believe he “visited” on Ash Wednesday so that I would be reminded, on that particular day, of the peace, love, and joy that is possible to have in this life. I so crave that very peace.
I have a wonderful life: a husband who loves and cares for me; children who never cease to amaze me with their goodness, their openness to the world; family who love me and my large brood. I do not, however, have much peace and quiet. With Dunstan’s help, I found my Lenten practice: to make a place for quiet in my daily life.
Turn off the radio – NPR will wait; turn off the TV – how many episodes of Law and Order can one person really watch? Turn off the kids – locate their mute buttons or wait until they’re in bed. Sit in the quiet. Listen. See what happens. Pay attention to what you are missing, surrounded as you are by the noise and busyness and activity that is your very full life.
Dunstan was a gift to those who knew him. I am grateful that I knew him as a child, knew that people like him existed and that living peacefully is possible. That in itself is a great thing for a child to know. I am grateful for the gift he gave me this past Ash Wednesday, to “see” him again and have him walk with me these past few days. I expect he’ll be with me all of Lent, and hopefully beyond.
Thank you, Dunstan. May you rest in peace, as you lived your life.
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The hermitage Dunstan lived in has changed over the years; where he once lived by himself there is now the Sky Farm Hermitage of Peace, a retreat center “for anyone seeking time alone with God in a simple and rustic setting.” I visited the Sky Farm website after I heard about Dunstan’s death, and found this fitting quotation, one I will take with me through Lent as I go about trying to find some peace and quiet:
“If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God.” -- St. Issac-7th Century Hermit Monk