Monastery church

Final stretch of road I drove to the monastery

[I will break my break today by posting one from my retreat. BTW, loved the comments:) Will reply next week. Pax]

I’m alone.

A retreat I have awaited for months. A Trappist monastery in eastern Iowa.

The silence. So rich, full of meaning. It is a capacity, a space to receive. More, a power of awareness. Attentiveness to the moment. The ubiquity of sacrament. God is with us, in Him we live and move and have our being. Hearing becomes more refined and what was before mere “background” is now foreground. The small is great, the quiet is loud, the insignificant signs.

I arrived in my car with Louisiana plates, parked under the Norway spruce and made it in time for supper. A silent meal. Simple. Stark.

Vespers. As the monks chanted the psalms a wild chorus of house sparrows chirped outside the church. This blend of strange, unplanned harmonies and rhythms — chant and chirp — made me think of St. Maximus the Confessor’s description of man as “priest of nature.” We give intelligent voice, in praise and thanksgiving to the Creator, on behalf of all creation. I thought of Romans 12:1 and its description of our priestly action as “rational worship” (logikēn latreian). We alone of all creatures on earth can clothe our worship in language and so echo back to God the Word He spoke in the beginning. In us, “let there be” becomes “let it be.” Genesis 1:3 becomes Luke 1:38. Light becomes life. The Word spoken in the beginning is made flesh in the fullness of time.

I also thought of the preface to the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer (in the Mass):

And so, in your presence are countless hosts of Angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy…

If we are thus attentive throughout our days of work and rest, all that we hear, see, touch, taste and smell is brought into the temple of our bodies and readied as material for the Great Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered, co-mingled with the bread, wine and alms to be lifted aloft to the Creator. Readied for Consecration by our daily prayer, by our daily acts of virtue, by our daily repentance. By our “prayers, works, joys and sufferings.” The world that I take in every day has the potential to be re-created, redeemed within me precisely because I am a dwelling place of God, a locus of sacrificial offering, a nexus of eternity and time ambling about on this tiny plot of land floating in a vast universe. In us, when we live life thus, God casts fire into all things. In us the cosmos becomes one great burning bush afire with divine love, co-extensive with the Risen Body of Jesus.

“Full, conscious and active participation” in liturgy is the labor of logikēn latreianan action of our common priesthood that stitches together heaven and earth in Christ in each moment we live the act of bodily offering. This participation at Mass means not primarily that we join in the singing, movements and responses of the Mass (though it is that), but that we fully engage the priesthood of Jesus that we are at every moment of our lives, bringing it to perfection in the Holy Mass.

I went to bed last night with my screened window and curtain open. No car sounds, no outdoor lighting. Just stars, crickets, a catbird at sunset, a lonely nighthawk at 3:15 a.m. when I awoke for Vigils, a steady breeze from the northwest that whispered through the mesh of the screen. I asked St. Elijah to pray for me to listen to the Voice.

And I could smell the white pine sap. They must have pruned.

I rose for Vigils at 3:15 a.m. Dark. Quiet split the night. One spotlight shone down from the high ceiling above the lectern. And the flame of the sanctuary lamp flickered. No organ, just human voices. And that nighthawk. Psalms were a cappella, recto tono. Echoing softly in the stone church. Slight dissonances in their voices drew me in. An aging community of men, and many of the monks are bent over, using a cane or walker. If I were called to be a monk, I would be a Trappist. How many thousands of times these men have entered the Abbey church before dawn to sanctify the night with the divine Word? The church, unadorned, rough, real, breathed their prayer in and out.

Or so it seemed.

The Guest Master told me today the architect back in the 1800’s who inspired this Abbey’s neo-Gothic architecture once said, “The severity of Christian architecture is opposed to all deception. We should never make a building erected to God appear better than it is by artificial means. It is better to do a little substantially and consistently with the truth, than to produce a great but fictitious effect.” That’s it! That’s why I love Trappist monasteries as my place of retreat from the world, because my retreat is not from, but into reality. It’s why I leave every retreat with them more ready for life in the world. A retreat is poor, artificial, fictitious, un-truthful when it makes you dread returning to life. When I end my days at these retreats I feel sent. I come fleeing but return running.

So many reasons this space inspires this in me. But today what struck me was this. These men, they are poor, live so simply, unpretentiously in their manner of living. There is no ego-fest allowed, no cult of personality. Me is always inverted to We. A Guest Master several years ago told me that those few Trappists who may have become well-known outside the monastery for their work, like Merton or Pennington, in the monastery wear the same habit, chant the same psalms, obey the same rule, engage in the same labor as all others. Monastic life levels for the sake of charity, unity, the common good. Yet when I go to confession to a monk, the color of the personalty is rich, as is the depth and profundity of what I receive! 30 years of going to Trappist monasteries around the country, I have found more healing balm here than anywhere else as they school me each retreat in the self-renunciation of love — the supreme recipe for healing.

All of this is a marvelous critique of portions of our American ecclesial culture.

A time ago, the Guest Master shared with me at my request his vocation story. Remarkable. This point he made caught me: “When I entered here years ago, I was filled with consolations. On a sustained God-high. It was all so wonderful and necessary to secure my vocation. But the day I professed my solemn vows — the day — it all vanished. The Abbot, so wise, said to me: ‘God has removed those consolations from you so that those who come here weary from the world might find refreshment. This is the heart of our monastic vocation, to live Philippians 2:5-11. Christ emptied Himself to fill us, He calls us to empty ourselves to fill others.’ Once I saw this, I was grateful to know this was my vocation. It was easy to bear.”

The Guest Master then said to me, “Your being a husband and a father is the same. The same exchange.”


Today’s readings at Mass, amazingly, contained this line from 2 Cor. 8:9:

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.

8 comments on “Alone

  1. AMDG says:

    “The world that I take in every day has the potential to be re-created, redeemed within me precisely because I am a dwelling place of God, a locus of sacrificial offering… In us, when we live life thus, God casts fire into all things. In us the cosmos becomes one great burning bush afire with divine love”

    I would like to take this to a place of deep interior silence and dwell with it for at least a week (or a lifetime)!

    You don’t mention it explicitly, but to my ear it cries out: baptismal priesthood.This sacrificial offering that we are to become — both locus and offering, priest and victim at the hands of the Priest.

    And that Fire cast into all things, the Fire of Love, bright with God’s own Glory. It calls to mind JPII’s Novo Millennio Ineunte and his insistent plea that we gaze upon the Face of the Resurrected Jesus.How I long to be wholly transformed, radiant like the face of Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai — all of my life reflecting God’s Glory.

    Thank you. Prayers for a deeply blessed retreat.

  2. DismasDancing says:

    This response was originally prepared in reply to your June 5th post. As Providence would have it, I suppose it is most appropriate to send it because of this post. BTW, I know you know this with every fiber of your soul, but one is never alone! Especially for all the great reasons you enumerate.

    “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the Kind of Creation…!”

    ‘…O Lord our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth! For thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens…
    3For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded.
    4What is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him?
    5Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour:
    6and hast set him over the works of thy hands.
    7Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover the beasts also of the fields.
    8The birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, that pass through the paths of the sea.
    9O Lord our Lord, how admirable is thy name in all the earth!’ (Psalm 8:1;3-9) Douay-Rheims)

    Sometimes, my dear friend, I am driven to a soul-shaking, full-body shudder when I read your posts. For, as I glide through some of the majestic and often-poetic descriptions of your experiences in life, an amazing sense of Deja’ Vu overtakes me as you invite me (us) along for the ride. Such is the case, especially when you share not only this beautiful post but also those like the “Holy Spirit as Temple-in-residence” post a week or so ago. Having read a good bit about St. Francis and his view of God’s Creation, your observation of, participation in, and deep personal connection with the beautiful “playground”, within which Our Magnificent Creator allows us pretty much free rein to explore, opens wide a beautiful invitation to find Our God where He may be found—right in front of us, if we would simply open our eyes. “Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found: call upon him, while he is near.” (Is 55:6). (Douay-Rheims). One of my favorite axioms: “There are none so blind as those who will not see!” Not “cannot. But “will” not. Sadly, I am not familiar with Walter Inglis Anderson or his works. But, I could find it easy to enjoy more of his extraordinary gifts.

    So much of what you post is evocative of my own life’s journey. Your joy reminds me so much of my own as a youngster: exploring the undeveloped woods around us; discovering the totality of life in the sadness of loss when one of the dogs died, or a fox or wildcat killed our chickens; joie de vivre becoming newly refreshed at witnessing the births and lives of a variety of creatures from ants to lambs. Through all of it, I began to understand bit by bit the “what?” that God’s Circle of Life encompasses. In fact, if memory serves me, I had been following your posts, enjoying them, but not tempted to respond. My first response was generated when you so tenderly wrote about your daughter suffering the tragedy of the death of a beloved pet bird, death being the hardest facet of that eternal Circle to deal with. As so many youngsters are wont to experience, a loving father (you) conducted a necessary funeral service in the back yard as one of God’s creations was laid to rest with dignity. The honest reflection and tender handling of that quasi-emergency for your daughter deeply touched my bride and me. We had only recently lost one of our own beloved Miniature Schnauzers to liver cancer; so, the child in M and I showed forth through tears; and I shared the experience with you. And the Circle turns.

    Finally, your upcoming retreat (now, in fact). Heavens, how I would love to join you. June 4th just past, I was privileged (after 4 years of trying) to be invited to the Manresa Retreat House for one of their three-day retreats conducted by Jesuits. Throughout your post (opened when I returned home), I translated the grandeur of what you were describing to the beauty of what and where Manresa is just west of NOLA. In total silence for all but about three hours of the retreat, one has the privilege of experiencing the presence of Our Lord in heart, soul, mind, and spirit, but also in the amazing beauty of centuries-old, awesomely-majestic oaks that have seen the faces of and listened to thousands of penitents’ petitions. All seeking greater intimacy with the Great Creator Who made both of us. Wrapped and cuddled within that beauty, spending hours within that Garden, one can indeed find Him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: My Lord and My God! Looking up at the star-filled sky a final time before retiring for the night, eyes flowing with tears of both sorrow and intense joy, my soul hears the ancients singing Psalm 8. In humble thanksgiving, my wretched soul prays,

    “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee, How Great Thou Art!, How Great Thou Art!”

    Peace, my friend.

  3. Melissa T says:

    Well, Welcome! You are in my town…I love the Monastery and have attended Compline there on a number of occasions- it’s a haunting and holy experience. I hope you found your quiet spiritual time edifying and renewing!

  4. Carol Reed Shutley says:

    Leaving for a five day silent retreat tomorrow. As a talker I am nervous about five days of silence. Pray for me.

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