March 09, 2005

Leaving for the monastery on Thursday

It's a Benedictine monastery, a small cluster of buildings set on a hillside high above a small river that winds through the valley. The first thing you notice is the chapel, with its steeple reaching toward the sky and its four doors that open north, south, east, and west. But the more memorable sight is the barn, a massive structure, centuries old, with a big white cross painted on the side of it. Benedictine monks are self-supporting; these monks raise sheep, and the sheep pastures stretch in all directions, hugging the buildings against the hill.

Two little guest houses are snuggled up to the barn. I will sleep in the first of these cabins, sharing it with two friends. For five days, we will talk and read and write in our journals. No television. No computer. No radio. No telephone. No housework. No children. No teenagers. No husbands. No students.

The chapel bells will ring six days times each day, calling us to prayer, if we choose. We will eat meals at the guest house, joining in that intimate chatter that happens whenever a small group of women share a meal. I'll take a hike, perhaps, down into the woods or head out on a snowy trail with my cross-country skis. Sunday afternoon, Brother Beekeeper will likely join me, and we will wander through the barns, with him telling me funny stories that go back fifty years or more.

When I want to be by myself, I will climb down the stone stairs to the crypt, descending into a dark, quiet octogan-shaped room, where a hundred or more candles, flames in pools of liquid, burn on a stone altar. I'll sit on the floor of the crypt, cross-legged, staring into all that fire, and I'll stay there for hours, thinking of all the things in my life I am grateful for.

I know what to expect from my trip to the monastery because it is a place that does not change much. Day in and day out, year after year, the rhythm stays the same. The monks, dark robes pulled over farm clothes, gather to pray at the same times every single day. The lovely woman with the British accent who makes the meals at the guesthouse is sure to complain about the winter and all the snow they've had. The chapel will have that same musky smell, filled with incense and candle wax. The sheep will be gathered in the same places in the west pasture.

After we arrive Thursday evening, my friends and I will go to Compline, the last service of the day. The chapel with be dark, lit only by candles. Brother Tractor will play the harp, the same songs he has played every night for thirty years. Brother Beekeeper will wink at me from across the room, smiling to show that he's happy I'm there. I'll breathe in the spicy, musky smell of the chapel and feel my muscles begin to relax.

A simple quiet life with no interruptions. So peaceful that I will be able to hear myself breathing.

19 comments:

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

That will be a nice spring break, jo(e). Coincidentally, one of my grad school classmates is a Benedictine monk, Catholic priest, and (like me) a phenomenologist. His monestary was in southern Indiana, I think. His dissertation was an ethnography of walking a pilgrim trail across northern Spain. The thing that I always think is cool about the Benedictines is that their leading principle is hospitality.

jo(e) said...

Yes, the emphasis on hosptality is perhaps my favorite thing about the Rule of Saint Benedict. Every monastery has to have guest rooms. And if you show up, they have to take you in. I love that.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Wow, Dr. M, I'd love to see that dissertation. My reference to walking 300 miles across Spain (back in that meme of Things I've Done) was that same pilgrim trail, which I walked both as a pilgrim and as a cultural historian.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Blog post, Pilgrim/Heretic, blog post! I go weak in the knees for spiritually and cultural-historianly informed travel narratives.

Sounds wonderful, jo(e). Enjoy the blessed peace and quiet.

Rosa G. said...

Take me with you. I've always wanted to do that kind of thing--it sounds wonderful--a way to get back to yourself and your spiritual self.

Joanna

Dr. H said...

mmmm... I spent one summer living in a convent, and some of the time felt similar to your description.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

P/H, I emailed you a copy of my friend's abstract and diss info. He actually walked it two times, one right after the other. Of course, being a priest, he was well taken care of on the trail.

Friday Mom said...

jo(e), your description of the monestary reminds me of the buddhist temples found at the end of every mountain trail in Korea. I found them to be places of solace and mystery and my hikes to them were deeply refreshing. I trust your time there with friends will be refreshing and rejuvenating. Just thinking about the place lowers my blood pressure. I look forward to hearing some about your time there when you get back

Scrivener said...

jo(e), Have a great trip. When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Tusacany, we spent a day at the Benedictine monastery Monte Olivetti, tucked away at the top of a mountain not too far away from Florence. They had the most amazing frescoes, but even more impressive was the sense of serenity and calm that simply exuded from every inch of that space. We've been talking about going back and just staying at the hostel there, where the minimum stay is ten days, ever since but haven't made it back yet. I can't get the picture out of Monte Olivetti out of my head as I read your description--which means I'm just that much more jealous of your trip.

I'm spending my spring break doing home repair, school work, research (hopefully), and maybe some blogging. Sigh. And sigh again.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Thanks, Dr. M! The diss. looks fantastic - I appreciate you passing on the info.

Jo(e), we'll miss you for the week, but it's lovely to imagine you out there walking with Brother Beekeeper. Have a wonderful time & I can't wait for you to share your stories when you return.

timna said...

enjoy the break.
we used to visit the Trappist monastery in Conyers GA when I was little.

PPB said...

jo(e),
this sounds so lovely....i'm demanding a detailed post on your return. ooh, probably can't use word demand following such a mellow post. i'm calmly requesting it. how's that?

PPB said...

when do you come back? I miss your posts!

YelloCello said...

Ah, what a soothing post. And what a lovely spring break you must be having.

I've been on two week-long silent retreats (via my Jesuit college), and they were at once mellow and intense and restorative. I've always been curious about the Benedictine traditions, too.

Moebius Stripper said...

That sounds so relaxing that I could actually feel my breathing slow down as I read it.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Ooo, guys, she said five days, and she left Thursday, so that means she'll be back today or tomorrow! Yay!

Friday Mom said...

jo(e)- I've noticed a marked decrease in activity in the blogosphere since you left. Not sure what that means, but I think you need to come back and breathe some life into it again!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Maybe this is inappropriate to mention at this time, but have you read The Mermaid Chair? I'm almost sorry your idyllic adventure makes me think of this. BUT, on the other hand, it might interest you. It's an excellent book, though I didn't like it quite as well as The Secret Life of Bees. Mary

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

SUe Monk Kidd