Gary Galsworth

The Ice Cave (Father Theophane, I See You)

Seeing the ambulance from the local rescue squad, its lights
flashing off pines and snow banks, brought miracles to mind.
Days earlier, seated across the Ice Cave, about twelve feet from me,
in his rough brown cassock, is Father Theophane, snot running into
his full black and grey beard.
He, like myself, is on a wooden platform, the Tan, about eighteen
inches off the stone floor. 
Perched on his meditation cushions, in a run-down zendo clinging
to the side of a cold mountain.
From his comfy Trappist monastery in bucolic upstate New York,
he sojourned.
Like a fable from Cervantes, he was taken with the idea, the strong
desire, to visit some of the alternate spiritual communities that
had sprouted like dandelions across the country at that time.
He, whose life was dedicated to prayer, meditation, good works,
and the spirit of Christ, would spend time in the company of other
practitioners who were also searching for purity and harmony.
He found Zen appealing.

I found the Marines appealing.
It remained that way until a redneck drill instructor grabbed my
warm New Jersey body and yanked me off the bus and into the awesome
hell of Parris Island, South Carolina.
The appeal evaporated into a desperate struggle for survival in the
sweat, the swamps, and the sand fleas of that place, where every-
thing from breathing to pissing was in complete control of drill
instructors still holding off the Yankees at the Battle of Pea Ridge.

We had been the third community Father T. visited.
The first was a Vipassana center in New England. Strong daily
practice, private rooms, humane, nurturing.
And heat.
After that he went to a Soto Zen center. Cool, fascinating, with
all the robes, rituals, chants, and plenty of Zen monks.
Firm but affirming. An understanding practice place. You talked to
a monk, or the Roshi, he listened. Often over tea.
And heat.
Then he came to ours, strictly Rinzai Zen and borderline bonkers.
Restrictive, negating, crossing the line into the Mad Hatter’s realm
on a regular basis.
A lively, gentle, intellectual had arrived at the Gulag.
As the guards used to say to new arrivals in the Russian Gulag,
“You’ll probably live, but you won’t feel like fucking.”

Let me say, odd as it may sound, all these disciplines work. In the
right context, with the right raw material and the right guidance,
they may indeed bring the seeker to the “Heart of Christ.”
“We are indistinguishable.”                                                                                                          

At least into proximity of that heart. Crossing the finish line into
His embrace is up to one’s karma, and one’s will alone.                                                                                                                                                                                     

And getting the conditions right is a fragile mix.
The myths and parables sound great, even heroic. But in real
no-time, real no-place, forgettaboutit!
Like the Marines, the Path attracts a lot of dreamers who have no
idea. Those that can’t, won’t overcome their erroneous expectations
are found strewn along the wayside in various conditions of damage, disappointment, depression, and, “what happened?”

The minimum winter temperature in our zendo was supposed to be
55 degrees.
That sounds warmish. It’s not warmish.
Note: you may not wear a coat over your robes, so you must fit as
many layers as you can under them.
Is this a five-layer day, seven-layer, or god forbid an eight-
layer day?
The head monk, Chuck, a former shop teacher in a junior high school,
had his own ideas on the best solutions for deepening meditation
and speeding up kensho.
There are things in the myth of Zen that bring out the primitive
and punitive in some westerners.
As in: lower temps, longer sittings, and seeing your breath in the
frosty air.
Or, if you were too sick to come to the zendo and the dining hall,
our cook, a former truck driver with no talent, none, for cooking,
would not cook for you.
You got leftover muffins and hard-boiled eggs.
Sick as a dog, longing for hot soup, you lean on an elbow in your
sleeping bag and say, “What’s this? A cold hard-boiled egg? 
Where’s my mother?”





Those goddamned Toshiro Mifune samurai movies are killing us!

Our Japanese Zen master was old and charismatic.
From a Spartan tradition vanished in another century in
another land.
He didn’t give much away and looked serious, though from a distance
he did care for us.

But let’s face it, America seemed the Garden of Eden to the old
wood gatherer.
A garden plump with low-hanging fruit, and under his sparse feudal
exterior, he was blown away.

And so we’d gather in the darkness, a little after three a.m., and
find our seats on the tan.
I’d look over and there’d be Father Theophane, like a stray shaggy
specter, climbing up on the meditation platform. Candlelight from
the Buddha altar making the scene droll and surreal.
Like a boxer with more determination and grit than talent, he kept
coming out of his corner when the bell rang. I kind of wished he’d
throw in the towel.
The old guy was dissolving in front of us.                                                                                                                                 
Then one morning his seat across from me remained empty, and
I was relieved.      

But he showed up for afternoon tea and zazen, looking like one of
those big thin birds caught in an oil spill. 
That was the last I saw of him on his feet. A day later I went to
visit him in his cabin.                                                                              

Hey Jesus, are you there? Now would be a good time!                                                                                  

About twice a month, Joan, the girlfriend of one of the senior
monks, would visit for a couple days, don her robes, sit with us,
whack us across the shoulders with the keisaku (a long flat stick
used to keep our focus tight or wake us up during zazen).
I knew her mother in New York City. A busy excitable woman.
Joan was steady and practical, and a nurse.
On the second day of this visit, the head monk approached her:
“Joan, I hate to bother you, but can you take a look at Father
Theophane, our visiting Trappist. He don’t look so good.”
She went to see Father T., sweaty, sticky and immobile in his
sleeping bag.

And so, into the ambulance they loaded our comrade, and drove him
down the seven thousand plus feet of windy mountain roads to a
hospital in the valley where it was always warm. 
Where I was sure they would clean him up and comb all the dried
sweat and snot from his beard and save him from the advanced
pneumonia he had.
I even pictured hot chocolate and canned peaches.


And they did, and then sent him home to the care of his Trappist
brothers. And there he stayed.                 

A community of full-sized hobbits, chanting, praying, working hard
in vineyards and carpentry shops, clean and convivial.
In the spirit of Jesus Christ.                                                                                                           

Every once in a while one of them gets an idea that is a bit out of
the ordinary and goes off in search of something shiny.


Father Theophane, I still see you.




Gary Galsworth grew up in the New York City area. After the Marine Corps he studied painting and filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. His work has been featured in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Pennsylvania English, Broad River Review, and others. He is a professional plumber and a lifelong student of Zen.Meditation. Gary lives in Hoboken, NJ. For more: