A couple of decades ago I read The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott. You may be familiar with this biography of a rascally and brilliant monk who spent his days at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. That literary experience sparked a desire in this non-Catholic girl’s heart to visit a monastery. I talked about it quite often with my husband who always gave me a doubtful look and no comment. The subject finally came to a head, strangely because my dinosaur of a cell phone was in its death throes in the weeks prior to Christmas. I could see the wheels turning in my husband’s head. He, along with my offspring, thought I should have a smart phone. I wasn’t due for an upgrade (as I had spent the last few on family members) and unlike Napoleon Dynamite’s brother, Kip, who loves technology, I do not. I stated in completely clear terms that I would not enjoy a smart phone for Christmas and that I would get myself something cheap and simple after the holiday.
I knew before I opened my small package Christmas morning that somehow I had been misunderstood. I would like to say that I didn’t pout, but I did. I, who had preached numerous times to my children about gratitude and graciousness, felt ungrateful and ungracious, especially when I realized the annual cost of my carved-in-stone data package contract could have been used to pay for two retreats to a monastery. In a tone reminiscent of Judas’ and the disciples’ complaint against Mary for her poured out perfume, I may have verbalized that sentiment to my husband. “Two trips?” he said. “You mean you were planning to come back?”
He was partially serious. For someone whose primary love language is words, I had failed to make myself clear all these years that my intention, in going to a monastery was for a three-day retreat, from which I would return … hopefully refreshed and ready to continue as wife and business partner, mom and grandmother, nurse, cook, writer and keeper of my people.
By April, he either overcame the doubts he’d been harboring about the part where I promised to actually return from the monastery, or he got tired of hearing me sigh every time I opened the cell phone bill. My birthday present came in a very funny card with stern-looking nun on the front telling me I was excommunicated from the house for a retreat to St. Meinrad Archabbey. Seriously? I was completely undignified in my response. Yes, I jumped up and down and laughed and cried and visited their site online every day for the next few weeks and emailed their guest coordinator with questions. I counted the days and then the hours. There was the risk that such anticipation would prove too much and I would in some way have a deflating experience. Other than the plague of my own social anxiety, which regularly robs me of peace, I felt no disappointment. In fact, even my pathologic shyness was met head on and overcome by hospitable priests, monks, staff and other guests who did not allow me to feel awkward or unwanted.
I will tell you now that I cannot do St. Meinrad justice either with my words or with my poor personal photos (photography is not my gift), but I will try to convey a bit of the physical beauty of the place and the spiritual beauty of its practices, peace and people. I had memorized the online pictures, but when I saw the spires rise up above the trees after a three-hour drive, I was stunned. Really? This is in Indiana? The archabbey sits in a lofty spot with a little town in its lap, farmland at its feet and plenty of trees and hills for natural adornment. The church is preeminent due to its altitude and size and architecture. The grounds and landscape are pristine with flowering plants and trees perfuming the air. Numerous walkways invite meandering and meditation, as well as provide photo opportunities from interesting vantage points. The guesthouse where I stayed is new and clean and comfortable.
To my way of thinking, as well as to those who visit it regularly, St. Meinrad is a historical and spiritual treasure, one of only two archabbeys in the United States and eleven in the world. In 1854, with the Swiss government hostile toward them, an order of Benedictine monks left their several-hundred-year-old Einsiedeln Abbey, which had been founded at the site of the hermitage where St. Meinrad had been martyred. They settled among a German-speaking and Catholic population in southern Indiana. The rolling hills and lush landscape reminded them of their motherland, even if the summer heat and humidity did not.
Many obstacles, including illness, the harsh climate, lack of funds and even fires, threatened to close St. Meinrad early on, but thanks to perseverance, a supportive community and a gifted Archabbot at a fortuitous moment in its history, the archabbey survived and is thriving. Aside from the monastery and church, St. Meinrad is home to a seminary and school of theology, operates a printing press, manufactures caskets and runs a guesthouse with a year-round schedule of retreats led by its priests and monks. They are devoted to the teachings of St. Benedict, primarily work and prayer and the practice of hospitality.
At first, the schedule I was handed when I checked into the guesthouse took me aback. I had envisioned more alone time. I was registered for a guided retreat, so between those conferences times, the four prayers and Mass daily, the days were structured. As it turned out, it was a good initiation. I learned more about Catholicism and St. Meinrad than I would if I had kept quietly to myself. Besides, transitioning from the frenzy of my everyday life to solitude and a sudden stop might have been more than I could handle on a first visit.
I hurried to change clothes and be ready for the before-dinner prayer service. When I stopped for directions at the desk, an older couple I’ll call M & M adopted me and carried me off to church with them. They’d been on many retreats over the decades and she was a graduate with a master’s degree from St. Meinrad. I got a condensed history of the place during our walk. The bells rang as we approached the doors and Mama M warned us to sing more quietly than usual so we could follow the monks in chanting. My eyes got big. Chanting? My heart was pounding. Suddenly, I wanted to run. I wouldn’t know what to do. I told Mama M, “I’m not Catholic.” She grabbed my hand, explained the font of holy water at the door, introduced me to a brother standing inside and sat me down between her and Papa M.
The interior of the church was all I imagined … marbled, columned, stain-glassed and vaulted … elegant and beautiful without any garishness. The monks faced each other in tiered wooden booths across the sanctuary and the congregants faced each other in sections of chairs behind the columns. I followed the chanting and found I could begin to understand the Gregorian notation, which is different than a traditional music score, but I remained quiet so I could listen to the monks. I later learned that cantors often choose the music keys for their chants based on a particular building’s unique architecture in order to maximize the overtones and undertones that can be heard in the singing.
Afterward, dinner was fresh and delicious and vegetarian that night. M & M pointed out a smaller glass-enclosed area adjacent to the dining room. “That’s the silent room. You can go in there if you don’t want to talk.” I saw one woman inside eating alone. I’d had the idea that we all were to be quiet during retreat, but this seemed a good way to order things … quietness for those who desired it and fellowship for those who did not. Maybe next time, I would attempt a quiet retreat.
We walked back to the church for Compline, an evening prayer service for the completion of the day and it settled me. It’s not that I never pray in the evening, because I do. Although morning is when I conduct more thoughtful and undistracted business with the Lord, I pepper him the rest of the day with interjections prompted by new circumstances and thoughts. Evening is different. By the time I’m alone in the evening, I am beyond tired and often feel undone. My nighttime approach to God tends toward desperation … or what my Greek teacher calls ßoáw prayers … anguished cries for help, but I rarely reach the orderliness and expectation of sufficiency I felt at Compline. That was a quiet little epiphany.
Our first conference was after Compline and taught by Father E. By then, I was ready to go to bed, but I quickly revived. The subject was King David, a favorite of mine, and Father E was an adept teacher and good historian. He was funny and sometimes folksy in expression and I could see almost from the start that the picture he painted of David’s messy life was mostly about God loving him no matter what he did.
One more item was on the schedule before bed … refreshments and fellowship. We exited the conference room and found that one of the brothers had kindly arranged a bar of cheeses, crackers, wine, beer and soft drinks for us. I still felt shy, but M & M introduced me to several people they’d known from previous retreats and Father E mingled too. One couple who had recently retired were now oblates affiliated with St. Meinrad, having taken vows to follow the Benedictine teachings as they live and serve in their private lives. Three jolly men who were best friends were there for their annual retreat together. One woman had traveled all the way from Hawaii to be on retreat with her lifelong friend and friend’s mom. I met an elder man who was alone and reminded me of my beloved grandfather. He told me funny and interesting stories of a trip he’d made to Ireland decades before … but some stories that get told at the abbey must stay at the abbey. Shy me fellowshipped and was happy. At 9:30 I fell into bed and slept.
At 5:00 I rolled out, put on sweats and trekked to the dining room for a cup of coffee. Monks want coffee at 5:00 too. I greeted two with a nod and went to pray. Mass was at 7:30. Before it started I was touched to notice several elderly brothers I had not seen in the previous prayer services escorted in on walkers and motorized chairs by helpers. A few looked as if it was a supreme effort for them. I thought about how it would be good to grow old in such a community where there were many to minister to their needs and many to relieve each other’s burdens in the ministering of those needs. I thought about people I have known who have struggled as an only caregiver of someone sick or disabled. Often times in ministering, they themselves die a little every day … from exhaustion, isolation and even understandable resentment. This was a very sweet sight and it did me good just to see it.
After Mass, M & M showed me where the Host was kept. The room was a half circle with windows and seats … a beautiful and solemnly holy place to pray and contemplate Christ’s sacrifice of body and blood.
On the way to breakfast, I met the woman I saw in the quiet room the night before. I smiled, but did not speak out of respect for her silence, so I felt a little shocked when she spoke to me. She explained she had been there a few days and was finished with that part of her retreat. I detected a slight accent from a far country. As it turned out, she was from that country years ago, but now lived in far state where she worked at a job that impressed me for the intellect and education I knew it required. We ate breakfast together and she was a fascinating woman who emanated the steady quietness and wisdom I would like to be real in me. I also discerned she was a sister, so I asked and she said so. I had 50 or 100 questions for her and she had words of encouragement for me.
I met a retired priest who wanted to talk about books. We smiled that I, the Protestant, was reading Augustine’s City of God and he, the priest, was enjoying One Thousand Gifts by Anne Voskamp. I also heard rumors of a couple of rebel retreaters among us who might have been involved in an underground church officiated by a woman priest. Is that possible? All of my socializing exhausted me and I went to sleep in my room for an hour. Later, during a photo walk I visited the ponds and the monks’ cemetery with row upon row of carved stone crosses and one new grave of a recently passed brother everyone was still mourning. I found the Scholar Shop, a nice little bookstore with quite a few books I hadn’t previously encountered and decided to buy a St. Meinrad Prayer Book. On the way back, I’m pretty sure the priest who had blessed me during Communion that morning whizzed by on a bike wearing cycling gear, but he was going too fast for me to tell.
As I write this, I remember thinking and praying in the days leading up to my retreat that I hoped that I could see God in a way I had not been seeing him. Maybe I would gain new insight into Scripture or find a new level in prayer. To a degree, both of those things happened. I was already familiar with David’s story and have even written about him, but Father E’s teaching reminded me that David’s story was really God’s story. David dared a life that often nosedived into shocking failures because God promised to never leave him. It was God and his unconditional favor to which David wildly abandoned himself that birthed the kingdom that will not end. What could he make of my life if I weren’t so afraid?
As to finding a new level in prayer, I would say rather that I recognized a new dimension … that of entering the prayers of others and having them enter mine. Prayer has been integral to my life and even often effective, but I am a private woman and my prayers have been private too. During one of the services where we sat facing one another singing our prayers, I became distinctly conscious that we were not alone in our own heads and hearts, but together. As I have continued praying through my St. Meinrad Prayer Book, I am reminded that many others are praying the same prayers on the same days and maybe even at the same time and I am enjoying the thought of that unity.
My few days at St. Meinrad also reminded me that life needs rhythm and I found it briefly while there. My life, for whatever reason, has been arrhythmic of late and I need to cultivate that again.
Nevertheless, God most memorably showed himself at St. Meinrad in the people I met. It was M & M treating me like their daughter … and the young monks ministering to the old and sick ones with the recognition of Christ in them … and the priests who blessed me even though I am not Catholic … and the sister who patiently listened to my searching questions and provided wise and thoughtful answers … and the cook in the kitchen who labored over our food and also made us feel she was happy we were there … and the monk with the kindest of eyes who squeezed my hand goodbye. All of these, and more that I haven’t mentioned, revealed the love of my Father and sent me home praying I could be like each of them.