While many of the presentations and panels that occurred during the Slow Living Summit were built firmly around the ideas of down-to-earth solutions to the tangible problems facing humanity on both a local and global scale, one discussion in one classroom dealt with the idea of Slow Living as a spiritual concern.

In the Marlboro College Graduate Center on the second floor,  Helen Daly gathers with seventeen fellow participants to chant and breathe and experience silence as one.

Daly speaks to her group in quiet, gentle tones. The chairs are filled by an eclectic group of a wide-range and diversity. While individuals mill in and adjust their seats to the proper heights, Helen explains her background with a more contemplative and welcoming version of Christianity, one which drew inspiration and passages from a wide assortment of religions to better communicate with the Divine.

Daly then leads the group in call and response, in which she sings aloud the chants to teach the assembly the rhythms and cadence of each phrase. To signal the beginning of the prayer chants, Daly strikes a bell three times.

As one, the congregation sings. Daly sings, “Holy Holy Holy One” and the gathering echoes it back in deep voices. And then, only the rise and fall of breath and the steady ticking of the clock dare to shatter the calm.

The bell is struck again and the second chant begins. This one takes on the rhythms of a poem, or a parable so old that the actual text and origin has long been lost to the greater truth of the phrase itself.

It goes, “Silence my soul. These trees are prayers. I ask the trees, ‘Tell me about God.’ And it blossomed.”

“Breathe in the chant to your whole body,” says Daly.

Most sit with their eyes closed and their hands clasped tightly in their laps. An elderly woman on the right of Daly sits with her palms up and open on her legs, fingers twitching here and there with the course of her thoughts.

A younger woman on the left of Daly sits with her eyes open and faraway, looking at the windows which gaze at the tops of trees just outside, their branches crossing with telephone wires.

Daly breaks the silence to read a selection from the works of Wendell Berry, a poem entitled, “The Peace of Wild Things.” She reads the work twice to the congregation, all of whom are now sitting with their eyes closed.

After the first reading, she asks the gathered to select a word which stood out to them from the short poem. Without a single raised voice or overlap, the listeners speak the words which stood out the most to them. The reactions are wide. “Rest” is said twice. “Wild” is also singled out twice. Someone calls out “tranquility” while another hones in on “despair.”

Daly reads the poem again, this time asking for phrases which the people considered particularly illuminating. The answers are once again varied. “The heron,” says one. “I come into the presence of still water,” says another. “Dayblind stars waiting for their light,” is spoken twice.

The group then sits in silence for eight minutes. There are no directions for what to think or how to breathe. A few fuss and fidget in their seats, trying to find the perfect place of comfort. Many have already found it and sit still as stones, deep calm washing away all other features.

Daly breaks the quiet to being the last chant. “I am here, I am with you, We are one.” She sings alone at first, but soon enough, and with no prompting, the gathered join here, softly at first, but then louder and bolder. Some raise the song as if to break through the ceiling of the Chill Room, while others whisper the words as a prayer, voices choked with emotion.

With three bell rings, the chanting ends and the session is over. Daly smiles and says simply, “Namaste”. The congregation returns it in kind.

And like a bird taking off and carrying the calm with it, normal conversation resume in normal tones of voice. The spell is broken.

 

Brendan Foley