“Monks for a Weekend” by John Gardner
Peace. God. Worship. Reflection. Prayer.
Holy Cross, a monastery in the Trappist tradition of the Cistercian Order following the Rule of St. Benedict, is a peaceful place. The monks operate a retreat house open to all at which we stayed. The silent, ten minute walks to and from the chapel for the five daily Offices were opportunities to reflect and pray. Our diverse group included men and women, Catholics and other Christians. We ate delicious, lovingly-prepared food in silence, as a monk read spiritual writings to us.
The purpose of the weekend was to learn more about monastic life and monastic principles applicable for today and, in the process, to listen attentively to what God would say to us during this time of silence. Father James spoke on “work as prayer,” a central focus of monastic life. Father Maurice, who had been with Thomas Merton at Gethsemani in the 1960s, gave his recollections of this famous monk of great humility and seriousness balanced with wit. The lay Companion of the Abbey, Kurt Aschermann, spoke on seven principles of the monastic life helpful for all Christians: 1) Simplicity 2) Silence, Solitude, and Prayer 3) Time Management and Sabbath-keeping 4) Detachment from Things 5) Hospitality 6) Sense of Place and 7) the Benedictine Rule as a guide to forming our own practices to order our lives toward God.
We were honored to be “in choir” with the monks during the Offices, singing the ancient Gregorian chants during the offices along with them after Father James ably taught us the essentials of chanting. For this rare privilege, we wore choir shirts with a small cowl at the back in imitation of the monastic habit. Father Robert, the Abbot, blessed crosses for us to wear.
A major part of our time of course was following the Liturgy of the Hours. The heart of these daily Offices is the Psalms, sung according to a regular pattern, and hymns and antiphons appropriate to the season. Each Office begins with the Psalmist intoning “O God, come to our assistance” and our responding “O Lord, make haste to help us.” A reading from Scripture, short prayers, and the Lord’s Prayer feature in the Offices.
The day began with Vigils at 3:30 AM, worshipping God in the darkness, reading Scripture back and forth, and praying blessings on the day. We then retired to the retreat house chapel for a half-hour of silent prayer, as the monks do. Lauds then follows at 7:00; as the name implies, the focus of this Office is simply praise to God, followed by daily Mass. Midday Prayer just after noon is a pause from work to come together as a community; Vespers marks the end of the work day and centers around the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Compline, the last Office, includes the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32); as we left the chapel, the Abbot blessed each of us with holy water. The Great Silence then begins, not broken until the following day at Lauds.
If this reflection seems too descriptive rather than reflective, it is because the rhythm of the monastic day ordered around work, study, and prayer lies at the heart of the monastic tradition. Around these things the monks order their lives by a Rule to seek God and to be found by Him, and all of it done in community.
On Sunday morning, before we all gathered in the chapel for Mass, Bill led us in the Eucharist in the retreat house. What a miracle of God, and a sign of the hospitality and grace that marks the Benedictine tradition and this monastic community in particular, for a Catholic abbey to encourage the celebration of Eucharist by an Anglican on its property.
We left with gratitude for the monks’ hospitality and with greater peace in our hearts, having slowed down to contemplate God’s grace and listen to the Lord. We saw the peacefulness the monks radiated and the joy they expressed as they spoke to us and bade us farewell, inviting us to return. We left with greater understanding of the ways all Christians can deepen their own spirituality from the lessons the monastic life teaches.
One of our members, an iconographer, gave us cards of icons as a remembrance and wrote this note which summed up our experience: “’Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and find rest for your souls.’ (Jeremiah 6:16). May you carry the peace of this place with you.”
Not all are called to the monastic life, still it continues to occupy, as it has for centuries, a vital place for the benefit of the entire church. We enthusiastically join our prayers to those of the monks that the Lord will call many vocations to the monastic life and to Holy Cross Abbey. And we each left with a commitment to apply some of the monastic principles we learned on the weekend. Even if none of us are called to be monks in this way, all of us are called to seek a deeper union with God.
John S. Gardner is a writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a member of The Falls Church Anglican. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org