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Monastic memories

Austin Theological Seminary student Ashley Brown remembers the God she found on a five-month monastic retreat in the mountains of North Carolina.

The tattoo gun pierced my skin leaving behind a blended liquid mess of blood and black ink.

Swipe. The bandage cleans off my skin. A band-aid covers my new marks.

Four triangles of pagan origin are forever embedded on my right arm. Symbols of air, water, fire, and earth stay with me as a reminder that we all return ashes to ashes; we are all baptized in the clean elemental water, and all of our tongues have caught on fire with the Pentecostal gifts of languages.

We are all a beautiful and holy combination of these four elements. I have found that this tattoo has served me greatly in my work, as people outside of the church who find a spiritual connection with the outdoors will view it and know that I respect their language.

We all speak the same language; we just use different words.

Photo submitted by Ashley Brown

When I read Walden Pond, I wondered how we as Christians have become so far removed from the transcendence of a barefooted walk in the woods. It is this same vein of thought that haunts me as I sit on wooden pews Sunday after Sunday.  I oftentimes find myself reading liturgy half-heartedly, and, instead, wishing with desperation for the God that I found in the wild.

During the pandemic before I went to seminary, I lived alone on top of a mountain in Montreat, North Carolina, for five months. Occasionally, I would venture into town for a coffee from the Dripolator. But mostly, I kept to myself.

My neighbors and I would sit on our respective porches at twilight and witness the lazy bears rambling down Appalachian Way. We named them. There was Elvis; there was Molly; there was Pete. There were two cubs that enjoyed terrifying anxious hikers. Sometimes, I would hear the hikers holler warnings to one another.

I would sit on the roof in the evenings and count the stars. I saw a piebald deer. I held an injured hummingbird. I cried at the state of the world. I laughed at the peace I felt in my solitude.

Being separated from society for so long was my Walden moment. My hiking boots trampled the mossy and mildewed trails. I hiked to the top of Lookout Mountain weekly from my doorstep, usually without seeing a soul.

Photo submitted by Ashley Brown

My best friend was the policeman, who would chat with me about the world during his rounds. We would stand there, at the top of the road by the amphitheater and wax poetic about who God might be.  He would share his eclectic experiences in law with robust energy. Oftentimes, that would be my only in-person conversation each week.

I found that in my silence, God was loudest.

My removal from society felt monastic. It brought forth the godliness in the elemental pieces of the world that I so often ignored in my haste. There is great energy and comfort in the circadian rhythm which, if you listen closely, is its own hymn. There is also a period of rejoicing and praise for when we return into the world and into the fabric of the church.

Why does God seem to emerge with soft pureness when I am outside and my phone is dead and my jean shorts are torn and my face is muddied?

Like all good memories, my memory of my unexpected season in Montreat breathes strength into my soul as I push through my ordination requirements and years of seminary training.

When the Greek translations require Herculean strength, I pray in memory to the God I knew when my feet were in the creek.

When the polity pushes my heart and makes me question myself, I pray in memory to the God that showed me the sweetest baby mountain laurel grove.

And when I stare in the mirror, at my CPE badge, my mask covering my face, preparing myself to step into the hospital for my rounds, I pray to the God who reminds me that the four elements he created and etched on my skin, are found in every cold and broken corner of the world and that I will never be too far away from nature. Because my body is nature, and in my body are the elements gifted by God.