Silence. Monks. Two words that don’t automatically come to mind when you think of me. Safe to say I’ve never been known to be religious, or quiet. At the end of my three-day silent monastic retreat, Father Vincent said to me, “God comes to you. You don’t come to God.”
Those monks, they’re on to something. Sure enough, God came to me. For about 15 years, I’ve wanted to attend one of these retreats, but had not found one that fit my schedule or budget. The last few years I assumed my meditation practice would be as close to a monastic retreat as I’d ever get, and honestly stopped searching. About three weeks ago, this opportunity literally fell in my lap. A style magazine which I never read and never subscribed to, came in the mail and for some reason I flipped through it. There was an article about this monastery tucked in between make-up tips and home decorating ideas. I knew immediately. This was the time to go. Because God comes to you.
Guests are welcome to pray the hours of the Divine Office with the monks, which are 3:30am Vigils, 7am Lauds and Mass, 2pm Mid-day prayer, 5:30pm Vespers, and 7:30pm Compline. Let me tell you, 3:30am is early to walk a third of a mile under the cover of darkness in the dead of winter when you’re not walking home from the bar.
But I attended all the services the first day–witnessing the monks chanting is mystical and breathtaking. I was grateful to have experienced such beauty. The second morning as I walked outside for 7am Lauds, I debated whether I ought to attend service or meditate by the pond as the sun rose. I was literally at a crossroads–the path diverged–when a cat walked right up to me. There are a lot of cats on the property. But I had not seen this cat before. And all the other cats were, well, cats. Stand-offish and skittish with humans. This cat meowed loudly and purred up against me. And literally led me down the path and up the stairs directly to the door of the Abbey. She stopped to wait for me, and would loop back to get me every time I stopped. I’m a big believer in signs. The only other time I saw this cat the entire weekend was when it waited for me by the Abbey before Mass. God comes to you.
My feline escort
I’ve felt a great deal of tension the last few years about religion and spirituality. Even though this was a monastic retreat, I hadn’t expected anything revelatory about the weekend because it was entirely self-guided. I was just looking forward to a weekend of meditating in silence and re-centering myself, away from the pressures and daily grind. To that end, I was successful. I realized this was the first time in a really long time where no one needed me. Even when I go on vacation, it’s with someone. The kids, or friends, someone. I need to care for someone, or make a decision, or something. But this time, no one needed me. It was so freeing.
And I’m having trouble remembering what I did for three days. This isn’t about my brain injury this time. But it is about my brain, and how it finally stopped churning and processing and planning and thinking. It was empty. Not in a Barbie doll way. But in a Being in the Moment way for most of the weekend. Even aside from the sitting and walking meditations–it was so joyous to slowly and mindfully and deliberately eat, and walk, and sit, and soak everything in with gratitude. Letting the moments flow as they came, and the peace that came with each moment. And noticing: Clouds! Bird! Cow! Stars! Cookies! Wind! More wind! Stronger wind! River! More cows! Staring contests with cows–OMG I think I’m a vegetarian now, I can’t eat something that’s just stared me down with such big gentle eyes!
I hadn’t realized how much meditation is involved in prayer, and how meditation opens one up to prayer. I think this peaceful, meditative state (the moments not waking to cows in front of my bedroom window, cows chasing me through the pasture, and cows engaging me in staring contests) allowed me to feel when God did come. God tucked me into bed at night. I swear to you. The first time I’d ever heard the monks chanting during Compline–it felt like a father serenading me to sleep with a lullaby. It brought me back to the comfort of rocking my son to sleep, singing lullabies to him. I felt the warmth and love blanketing me. I hadn’t expected that.
I also didn’t expect that the room doors didn’t have keys–you could only lock the doors from the inside. For a woman who’s grown up in big cities and believes anything that’s not locked down will be stolen, this would have been a big deal. I don’t ever leave my front door unlocked at home, ever. But somehow this didn’t faze me. I even forgot to lock it from the inside when I was sleeping or showering. I had my wallet and keys in my room the entire time. I had to trust that no one would go in and steal anything. And I did trust. It felt safe there. And I realized trust, faith, and hope are all about the same thing–risking your self and ego, opening oneself to loss and disappointment, allowing for opportunities of the unexpected. Funny how I’m struggling with each of those in different realms of my life. When it’s really all about the same thing (yes, everyone else already knows this–once again demonstrating I’m a slow learner).
I also didn’t expect: The Shenandoah River is very green and lazy there. Twin beds are very small. Chocolate covered fruitcake is actually quite tasty. Everyone is very nice and friendly when silent–head nods, hand gestures and smiles go a long way. Cows–I really didn’t expect vegetarian monks to live in the middle of a cattle farm. And there’s a lot of cows on cattle farms.
The big thing I didn’t expect to walk away with was a renewed exploration of faith. I received spiritual counseling from Father James, who I swear can read my mind. I was reading a book (Thank you, Devin Marks) that is transformative for me. And Father James had no idea I was reading this, yet echoed many of the same sentiments. This has helped me reconcile some of my internal religious struggles as I now have a lot to think about. More importantly though, is how I feel. For the first time since I was a child, I was not self-conscious or feeling Not Enough during Mass. I felt at home, like I belonged. I have been searching most of my adult life for a church and religious experience where I would feel at home with a loving God. I felt like my heart and my soul belonged there in that Abbey. And I want to call this my spiritual home, and look forward to going back often. I realize though that more importantly, I need to figure out how to bring this home. Wherever I go, there I am. And God comes to me, I don’t come to God.
Father James suggested I find a rock on the grounds and bring it home to remind me of the peace and stillness and gratitude I felt. Because I don’t do moderation well, I have five. And a picture of this tree. I don’t know why, but this tree means something to me. Maybe God will let me know later. I am still working through my spiritual journey, still finding my religion. I look forward to returning to this monastery, this tree, those cows, and that cat as I figure it out.