Later today I’m headed to Holy Cross Abbey for a week of silence. The guesthouse closed to the public in March and reopened at half capacity just two weeks ago — so I’m taking a silent retreat originally scheduled for late April.
I began doing monastic retreats in 2004 so they’re part of my normal rhythm. Usually I look forward to the chance to envelop myself in silence in a sacred place. I typically have a pile of books to read, a long list of ideas I hope to write about, and another list of topics for prayer and meditation. Normally I would look forward to joining the monks for their prayer services at least once a day. In normal times I would receive spiritual direction from one of the brothers.
Silence in 2020
As is true of everything else in 2020, life is not normal, not even at a monastery, which is the very definition of a routinized life. For one thing, the public is not allowed to attend the prayer services — which of course is the right thing. Many of the monks are aged and it’s important to protect their health. For similar reasons, none of the brothers are dispensing one-on-one spiritual direction.
But I haven’t done my normal preparations, either. In fact, I’ve done zero preparation for the week ahead. When I heard that the guesthouse was reopening, I asked if the space was available and they said yes, and I put it on the calendar. Now I’m not sure why.
Why am I seeking silence right now? For nearly eight months I’ve been in some variant of sheltering-in-place. It’s an understatement to say that I’ve been in conversation with far fewer people than normal! I’m technically an ambivert, but tend toward introversion. And still, I’ve felt the pressure of too much time “at home.” Normally I crave silence — and I’ve written about its rewards before.
Soon I’ll drive west and cross the Shenandoah River. For a few days I’ll have a view of foothills and grazing cows. What will happen in the silence? Maybe entering this week without a plan is exactly right. Maybe I’ll go beyond the obvious items — the public health crisis, the political craziness, the economic recession that’s affecting so many — and discover what it is that’s disturbing my soul. I’m sure that gifts lie ahead.
What would YOU do if you had a week of silence ahead of you? Keep reading to journey beside me with a piece I wrote years ago — about going on silent retreat at Holy Cross Abbey.
Come With Me to the Monastery
You clear your desk on a Monday morning, and pack lightly. You drive toward Berryville, Virginia and wonder if you brought enough books.
As you cross the Shenandoah River on Route 7, you slow down for the right hand turn onto Castleman Road. The turn is so sharp that it’s a U-turn. You think how appropriate that is. The road follows the river, then climbs a hill. In a few moments you’re turning right onto Cool Spring Lane, where brick pillars mark the monastery’s entrance.
You pass rolling pastures where beef cattle graze. Along the ridgeline, enormous trees stand singly or in clumps against the sky. Closer by, the black cattle lift their heads and watch you pass, grass dripping from their lips. Their breath forms clouds in the cold air, and their ear tags flutter as they toss their heads.
As you arrive at the guesthouse, a sign reminds you to be silent. The sign is permanent, set into the ground with concrete. A spreading tree presides over the parking area. You choose a parking spot where your car, too, will be able to rest for a few days. You carry your small bag inside. A sign on the bulletin board has your name next to a room number. You check in by placing a checkmark next to your name.
In your room, all is in readiness: a single bed, a small desk with an icon over it, an easy chair, a window with a view of the Shenandoah foothills. You have a clean bathroom all to yourself. Everything you need is at hand, and nothing you don’t.
You admire the view for a moment and instantly have the urge to check your email, your phone messages, your Facebook.
Breathe in and out. It’s time for a walk.
You decide to get a better look at the cattle. Afterward, you notice a few people walking up the hill toward the chapel. You join them, remembering that it’s time for Vespers.
The Prayer Service Begins
Inside the chapel, a brother switches on a light. The room is still dim. The brothers come in, some hurriedly, some slowly. Most are dressed in white topped with a brown habit. You wonder if it’s true that they wear cutoff sweatpants underneath. You shiver and hope so.
A very aged brother comes in, pushing his walker slowly. He is so stooped that it seems impossible he could bow more deeply to the altar, but he does. It takes him some time and you wonder what it costs his back. He straightens up and pushes his walker to his spot. You feel chastised by his patience. You sit up straighter, noticing your own healthy back.
A bell rings. The pews creak as the monks stand. They chant: O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me.
After the service you walk down the hill to the guesthouse. Other people walk beside you and you want to chat with them, to wonder about them. But you are not here for that. You try to let go of your thoughts about others. You look at the moon. Keep an eye out for cats. Breathe.
Supper is communal but silent. You have the urge to be overly solicitous at that first meal. The guest master pulls up a chair and reads aloud as you tuck into soup, salad, and slabs of cheese. As you listen and eat, slowly, everything inside you will start to settle.
Their mission statement tells the truth:
All of good will are welcome at Holy Cross Abbey, those of whatever faith, those seeking faith, those not blessed with faith. You will find beauty of many kinds, and you will find peace.