Friday, August 25, 2006

With the Trappists at St. Joseph’s Abbey

A co-worker told me yesterday that I looked less tired than I did before I went on vacation. It was the first time I’d had a chance to relax in a while. I got a little more sleep than usual (maybe because I was blogging less!) It put me in mind of the last time I’d had a chance to unwind…

As an anniversary gift back October of 2004, Anne booked me a weekend retreat with the Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. I spent it with them the long weekend after Thanksgiving. She figured I needed a break and some time away from the stress of work and from our “active” household of children, etc..

How to plan a visit.

(BTW, these are the guys who make the Trappist jams and jellies.. the best you can find anywhere)

It was a wonderful weekend, alternately relaxing and invigorating. The monks were kind, humorful, and patient, putting up with laymen like us who had a real hard time learning how to be truly quiet. They come from all corners of the globe and all walks of life. We accompanied them in their daily office, from Vigils at 3:30 AM to Compline at 7:40 PM. There are about 40 monks in residence. The chant was wonderful, although like Tony Hendra in the book Father Joe, I was wishing the chant was in Latin rather than English. They did chant a Salve Regina in Latin on Saturday evening, with the stained-glass window of Mary in the nave lit up from outside. It was wonderful.

A monk’s routine:

3:10 am - Rise

3:30 am - Vigils, a communal praying of the Psalms

4:15 am - Personal prayer and sacred reading, a light breakfast and attention to personal needs

6:00 am - Lauds, morning prayer, followed by Eucharist and time for prayer and reading

8:00 am - Angelus; the Great Silence ends

9:00 am - Morning work until noon

10:00 am - Tierce, midmorning prayer, in the workplace

12:15 pm - Sext, midday prayer, followed by the communal meal

1:00 pm - Dishes, rest or a walk

2:00 pm - None, midafternoon prayer, followed by afternoon work

4:30 pm - Time for prayer, reading, exercise

5:40 pm - Vespers, evening prayer, followed by a light supper and time for prayer and reading

7:40 pm - Compline, night prayer, concluded with the chanting of the Salve Regina

8:00 pm - Retire; the Great Silence begins

We stayed in very spare but comfortable cells, where we could spend time in contemplation, prayer, and spiritual reading. The guest house also had a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament where you were allowed to visit at any hour, for any length of time.

There was a brief conference on Saturday morning, which presented the only awkward moments. The priest giving the conference may have been a tad too metaphysical for most of us in attendance. Most of the guys who attend these retreats are quite conservative, and the monks are somewhat beyond all liberal/conservative divides and issues. The spirituality of these guys is truly on another plane. When I went to him for confession, however, I found him empathic and quite wise in practicality for someone who had been cloistered for over 50 years.

We ate our meals in silence (well, almost.. they played an audiotape of Desmond Tutu reading his newest book while we ate). Afterwards, we were all responsible for cleaning up, washing the dishes, and setting the tables for the next meal. It is amazing how everyone learns to find their own niche in the work, even in total silence.

All in all, it was a deeply spiritual experience, and made we aware of my own personal need to concentrate more deeply on my prayer life and to take account of my own disposition and tendencies towards controversialism. The next time I go on retreat, however, I think I would like something more directed.

There was one other thing I found out about myself. Although I do need to have my time spent alone in solitude now and then, and although I do get a lot out of contemplative prayer, I wouldn’t have been cut out to be a monk. After a few days spent in there with all of those old gents, I couldn’t wait to see Anne again. ;-)


friar minor said...

So funny; I've been going to Spencer for several years and my experience is exactly the same - great place, great quiet, amazement at how on target the confessors are even in that place.

Another thing that always grabs me when I go there is how they minister holy communion - handling it as if they really believe it is something "critical and precious" I believe I wrote in my notes.

This year I didn't go; I think I've been living in Catholic Boston too long and now when I go there I always meet someone I half know, and then we have to figure out how we know each other, etc., which doesn't exactly fit with the environment of silence and recollection ;)

Jeff said...

Hi Friar,

I didn't know you were New England based. Did you used to live in St. Francis Friary in Brookline?

I agree with what you wrote about how they minister Holy Communion. I'm trying to remember the names of the monks who stewarded us. Our main contact was a German fellow, I think he was brother Roger? He also played the organ in the cloister. Our Saturday reflection was led by a Father Robert? Roger and Robert... I may be mixing them up.

crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

so interesting. I've never gone on a retreat, so It's a vicarious thrill to read about others' experiences.

I've been reading the book My Life with the Saints, written by a Jesuit. In one part, he tells how he and a few Jesuit friends went on a Benedictine retreat at the place where Thoas Merton had lived. He said that one thing that made an impression was that monks spent almost all their time in the chapel praying ... not a Jesuit thing ... and that he didn't think he could do that :-)

Steve Bogner said...

My annual retreat is at the nearby Jesuit retreat house in Milford, OH. It's a bit different than the one you just described; it's a silent retreat, based on the Spiritual Exercixes. We get to sleep in until 7 AM and we don't have to do dishes :)

Jeff said...

Crys and Steve,

What? No dishes to be done on a Spiritual Exercises retreat? Why, those Jebbie slackers! They've been livin' high off the hog for too long. ;-)

Seriously, I really do want to go on an Ignatian retreat at some point.