My recent sabbatical stay at a monastery was enlightening but not particularly easy. It ended up far more challenging then I ever imagined – especially the initial 48 hours. I’m not seeking pity for having to endure such a unique experience. For many, the thought of spending extended time unplugged, isolated, and silent with nothing more to do than focus on God and one’s own spiritual life while surrounded by Trappist monks is quite appealing. It was for me too, which is exactly why I chose to do it in the first place. I certainly don’t regret it, mind you – but not to admit how hard it was would be less than honest.
On arrival day, anticipation grew as I drove slowly onto monastery property. I turned the corner of a tree-lined driveway and I could see it off in the distance. Situated well out of view of cars traveling the local country road stood a pallid medieval looking structure. The Abbey church and cloister rose high above the surrounding trees. It was a massively impressive four-sided four-storied edifice with a significantly sized retreat house attached by long corridors to the north side of the sanctuary. The Abbey’s architectural design conveyed the monastic desire for directness in the clarity of line and uncluttered veneer. It was a Gothic structure built by the monks themselves constructed mainly of concrete with touches of brick, stone and unfinished wood. Its simplicity was oddly beautiful.
The romanticism of it all came to an abrupt halt once I walked through the door of the monastery retreat house where I’d be lodging. Immediately, an institutional type smell hit me square in the face. The interior bouquet was easily recognizable. It carried a strong upfront nose of mothballs and old people with a hint of Lysol and a subtle finish of musty cellar. Not very inviting. Yet soon enough, I would come to realize it was simply the odor of unpretentiousness – and mothballs.
It was late afternoon when I finished unpacking. I had just enough time to conduct a brief exploration of the property before supper. The travel day was long and I was hungry. “Wonder what they serve people at monasteries?” I asked myself while walking the friary. It wasn’t long before I learned how monks, at least the ones I was staying with, rarely eat meat. Soup and salad is the dietary mainstay.
Award winning author Kathleen Norris, wrote a memoir about her monastery experience and summarized it well, “To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily, one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), monastics sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self, and diminishes our ability to distinguish desires from needs. It’s a price they’re not willing to pay.” [The Cloister Walk] Translation? The food is modestly bland and unashamedly average but nutritious enough to live on. An obese monk is an ecclesiastical anomaly.
My time at the monastery was intended to be a silent retreat. And for the most part, I kept my mouth shut. But contrary to popular belief, Trappist monks do not take an oath of silence. They do in fact talk – just not very often. As it was explained to me, “When you’re talking, you’re not listening.” They are much more inclined to chant – which is essentially singing passages of Scripture, mostly from the Psalms.
Five times a day the monks gather in their gothic-like sanctuary with its high vaulted ceiling, arched pointed pillars and stained-glass windows that provide the primary source of light for the sacred space. Their prayer and worship times or “divine offices” start early in the morning and continue periodically through evening. Make no mistake, during the day, monks work at the monastery – farming, baking, and managing the Abbey store and retreat house. Everyone has a specific job to do. However, it’s not as if their work life is interrupted by times of worship but rather their worship life is interrupted by work. For the monks, God comes first, middle and last – a little work happens in between. That is literally how the day is scheduled.
The monks gather for Vigils at 4:00am before the sun rises. By way of prayer, singing, reading and chanting, the monks say “good morning” to God. Lauds and Mass are at 7:00am. Midday prayer begins at 12:15pm. Vespers are at 5:20pm [also known as evening prayer or evensong]. Compline is at 7:30pm followed by The Grand Silence at 8:00pm continuing to 4:00am. Between times spent in the sanctuary, monks eat, work, and sleep. They have personal time available between Vespers and Compline, but some of that time is consumed by eating soup.
During my stay, I tried to attend all of the daily offices – but confess to missing a couple Vigils. Not used to rising at 3:45 am, I rolled over at the sound of my alarm convinced even God was thinking, “Guys, it’s too early for all the chanting. Go back to bed.”
No question, my favorite office was Compline [pronounced, complin]. It represented the end of a full day. With all their work “completed” it was time for the monks to thank God for his grace and goodness – basically saying “goodnight Lord.” During Compline, the abbey sanctuary is completely dark with the exception of three candles burning up front behind the high altar. The candles illuminate an ornate box of some kind sitting atop a horizontal slab of snowy marble roughly the size of a dorm room refrigerator – only a tad bigger and much cleaner.
As bells ring in the distance, one by one through the darkness, monks appear seemingly out of nowhere. Like ghostly specters in flowing robes and hoods, they enter and bow toward the altar then glide to appointed places and stand facing the front. Each evening, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been hurled back into a 15th century European cathedral or an Umberto Eco or Ken Follett novel. I loved it. There was something hauntingly beautiful, reverent, and sacred to it all.
Compline is repeated with the same psalms and canticles every evening, so monks know it by heart and can sing it in the dark. For approximately 25 minutes, they sing hymns, recite biblical texts, and chant – the sound of their voices echoing throughout the massive stone structure. Whenever the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned in the liturgy, the monks bow in veneration.
At the end of Compline, bells ring and the monks silently form a line as the Abbot [head monk] makes his way to the front near the high altar and turns to face his brothers. One at a time, they all approach their leader, bowing before him while he waves his aspergillum dispensing a generous dose of holy water on their heads as the final blessing of the day. I was invited to join the line and receive the Abbot’s blessing each night as well. Just for the record, the water used in the aspergillum is not only holy – it is also quite cold. Given the frigid temperature of the abbey church [I wore my coat at every service, the monks wore hoods with some also donning black pullover hats], I may have seen it as an even more blessed experienced if the Abbot heated the water a little. But for the monks, loving and serving God is not about personal preference or comfort. Once blessed, the monks retire to bed. It is 8:00 o’clock at night.
Early in the week, I met a monk near the Abbey store. His name was Brother Michael. After chatting a couple minutes, he asked if I’d like to have breakfast with him. Somewhat surprised [not that monks eat breakfast, but that they would mingle with the likes of me], I said “yes.”
In a small private dining area where speaking is permitted, Brother Michael and I talked about life, God and monasticism. I learned that monks are normal men who simply desire above all else, to know, love and listen to God. After 20 years of monastic living, Michael exuded an inner peacefulness and humility that was captivating. He asserted that we all have “a monk within.” We all have a longing for God and a need for five things in life; prayer, silence, solitude, community and work. It was a delightful discussion that ended too quickly.
Brother Michael invited me to return to the abbey as a “guest monk” and spend a month participating more fully in the monastic experience. I’m not sure that will happen but I’ll never forget him or the week I spent in silence and solitude. As I continue to reflect on it all, here are a couple things I learned about…
NOISE – In a loud and chaotic culture, silence and solitude are difficult to pursue even for a short period of time. It took at least two days at the monastery before all the noise in my head began to quiet down and at least three days before I started being comfortable in the silence. I found the monk adage true, “If you’re talking, you are not listening.”
GRACE – For monks, the monastic rules that govern their daily lives are not seen as burdensome but in many respects – freeing. The rhythm of spirituality the rules help create allows them to keep their focus on God. I suppose it’s hard for us on the outside to understand, but in many ways for monks, the rules are viewed and experienced as a measure of divine grace. This fact reminds me that God’s grace comes to us in many different forms.
RHYTHM – I also realize my personal life lacks a spiritual rhythm in which God is acknowledged, praised, and listened to throughout the day. I want to work on establishing such a rhythm – not that I want to be a monk, but I’d love to experience a more God-centered, simple, disciplined, and contemplative life. The words of the psalmist are meant not just for monks, but also for me, “Be still and know that I am God.”