By Marilyn Harper
At the Assumption Abbey, in the beautiful remote Ozark Mountains, Joeaux and I began our silent retreat, following the frenzy of being later than I would have liked. So following a roller coaster like ride (Joeaux’s term) through the hills, I realized that Joeaux’s stomach has learned to adapt to my driving style when in a hurry.
Yes, I know it is hard to believe that sometimes I forget that Divine Timing is in effect always.
As we departed my sweet car, (Amanda Beasley) we were enthralled with the stillness of the Abbey. There was no sound, not even a breeze in the huge trees, the birds seemed to quietly welcome our arrival. The silence was so thick that it caused Joeaux and I to whisper our gentle communication about where to go and what door to enter. (There were three choices and little signage.)
Upon entrance to the Abbey, the wonderful Sister Anne Marie warmly greeted us. She was an elf of a woman, petite yet surprisingly tall for her slight frame. As least I was surprised to look up to her when we stood side-by-side.
We were also greeted by Jill, who was an interesting energy of contrast to Sister Anne Marie’s demure gentle nature. Tattooed Jill gruffly complained, within our first five minutes of sitting down to a roast beef and potato lunch. She wasn’t happy with the heat, the bugs, the need for vacation and her overwork.
Needless to say, when Joeaux and I sat to eat at the family style table and we realized we were the only one’s eating besides the lumborous Jill, we sat a couple of chairs away from. I wanted to move even farther away, but didn’t want to anger this abrupt person.
Instead we sat in silence eating, sending love to complaining Jill until she left, complaining that she needed to go feed the monks. I wondered what energy she put in their food and how many miles it might be to a restaurant in Ava, Missouri.
The amazing Sister Anne Marie seemed apologetic for Jill and began asking questions of Joeaux and I. I noticed that she didn’t sit down and eat with us, ever. As Joeaux and I exchanged glances, we searched for words to explain what we do and what our mission was in a way Sister Anne Marie could understand. We had an instant affection for SAM (Sister Anne Marie) and wanted her to understand what we did but didn’t want to offend her in any way. She didn’t really understand, but she said it didn’t matter, “it was all God.” We agreed.
Following lunch and a nap, we both experienced the solitude of the Abbey. A huge meadow wrapped around a little cemetery and the great living quarters of the Benedictine monks. It was obvious that the Abbey had seen better days, since the living quarters could obviously accommodate nearly 50 monks with an infirmary and there were only 4 monks and one nun presently living on the premises.
Joeaux and I ventured unknowingly into the private area unavailable to guests of the Abbey and I wondered how many more rules we could break with our presence. We were particularly drawn to a meditation site with a large statue of Mary, standing on a ball and a snake. We both queried about the symbolism of the snake on what might be a globe.
Following evening prayers with the monks, our dinner was much better; SAM prepared a fresh spinach salad with strawberries and a warm bowl of tomato soup.
After supper, I was in need of some solitude and found an old metal lawn chair in the sparse woods in front of the abbey about 100 feet from the Abbey porch. I sat, enjoying the silence; the birds, the hummers and even the occasional bell calling the monks back into prayers. The trees were surprisingly tall and I wondered if they grew on the rock table around Branson. At that moment, I knew we had to return to the solitude of the Abbey at least once a quarter.
The sounds of the forest were fascinating. I could hear a gentle rustle of leaves on the ground and wondered what small animal might be moving a few feet behind me. I refrained from turning, as I didn’t want to disturb it.
Being short of stature has never been much of an advantage before, until now. Now, I am thankful for my short legs and tiny size.
As my feet dangled from the metal chair, about two inches above the ground, directly under my feet slithered a huge Black Snake!
My feet, as if by electrical force extended directly out in front of me, horizontal, parallel to the ground. The sudden movement caused the snake to freeze as well. We sat motionless, eyeing each other for what seemed like 20 minutes. We sat, frozen; the snake and me, we sat long enough for me to wonder just how long I could extend my legs directly in front of me, 2 feet from the ground without the circulation being cut off from my hips.
While we sat, the snake smelling the air with his mystical tongue, it gave me time to ponder my girl scout camping days. My mind raced, “Was the diamond shaped snake head poisonous, or was it the oval head that was poisonous?” “Does this snake rear up like a cobra before striking, with what was sure to be a venomous bite, or was it like Josh’s (my son’s) red rat snake, Hamlet?” (Hamlet was friendly to anyone who didn’t look like a white mouse.)
Just as my feet were beginning to tingle, still petrified, 2 feet above the ground, I saw Joeaux wandering around on the porch a mere 100 feet away, yet totally oblivious to my silent screams for help.
Upon the realization that I was on my own for safety, I thought, “what would I tell someone in my predicament?” First, of course, it would be to take a deep breath.
Miraculously, as I began to gently breathe, as silently as possible, the giant black snake seem to relax as well. Slowly, he began to slither, still on guard, through the dead leaves and pine needles creating the same sound I recognized as the sound behind me prior to my snake sighting. As I continued to relax with the comfort that this day would not be my last due to snakebite. (Although, I have to admit, I did see the headline, “Spiritual Healer Dies from Snake Bite in Religious Abbey)
As the snake continued his slow journey across the forest floor, I was intrigued, first by the size of his body, 6-8 feet in length. Yet, he moved effortlessly across the flat surface. I wondered how that happened, what a miracle the movement of a snake is. I also found a little ironic humor, you know, snake, healer, channel, monks, temptation, there is still something there for me to learn. I searched again for Joeaux to share my amazement as the snake continued his journey under my chair.
Of course, Joeaux, still focused on some flowerpot on the porch, totally missed my panic. I watched the snake move away, and wondered what “Animal Speak” would say about the snake, “re-birth, resurrection, shedding the old, awakening the new.” They were all wonderful metaphors for my silent retreat.
I bolstered my courage to stand and walk quietly toward the snake that was still moving away. As I stepped on a stick about 2 feet from the snake tail, he froze and moved his tail quickly enough it seemed to rattle like a rattlesnake. He froze, turned to look at me; thankfully, he didn’t raise his head like a cobra. I first held my breath, then relaxed and sent a silent call to Joeaux and divinely, as if she has heard me, she looked up at me, still 50 feet away. I motioned for her to come, she looked confused by my wide-eyed wonder as she approached, she also saw the magnificent creature.
The snake was truly a gift from God, a lesson in courage, patience, re-birth and creativity in my own life. Just one of the many gifts the Assumption Abbey and the Ozarks mountains provided.