At the end of February, I spent a week at Southern Monastery, a Trappist monastery almost 800 miles away. I couldn’t help compare that big, formal monastery with the little Benedictine monastery here in my own state. I felt like some kind of monastery connoisseur. I kept wanting to tell the other guests about MY monastery, but they keep silence there, and it’s hard to have that conversation when no one is talking.
Last weekend back at the familiar Benedictine monastery, I was eager to tell Brother Beekeeper about my experience at Southern Monastery. “I didn’t meet any of the monks,” I told him. “I mean, they were there at services and such, but they didn’t hang out and joke around with the guests.”
He laughed. “Not like us.”
“And they didn’t have votive candles!” I said. Lighting candles for people is one of my favorite forms of prayer. When I’m in Europe, I go into churches all over just to light a candle.
Yes, visiting another monastery did make me appreciate my own – and how well it fits my own brand of spirituality. At my monastery, the small octagon-shaped chapel has four doors facing the four directions. Two rows of windows let in natural light. The simple altar, which stands in the very middle of the room, is built from rocks from the surrounding land. The wooden benches – benches rather than formal choir stalls -- are pulled into a circle around the altar, so that everyone is equal. A long rope hangs down into the chapel: seven times each day, a monk unties the robe and rings the bell, inviting guests to prayer.
The Benedictine monks wear dark robes, which are practical and don’t show the dirt. For some of the services, the monks come in their work clothes, since they do the hard work of running a sheep farm. The chapel is unadorned, except for a vase of flowers next to the altar and candles that are lit for the evening service. Brother Tractor’s harp stands to the side, ready to be played at Vespers or Compline. In the crypt, surrounded by votive candles stands the fourteenth century stone statue of a young woman – Mary, Queen of Peace, they call her. Each day ends with the monks standing around the statue of the woman, singing.
And of course, the monastery is a working sheep farm. The pastures that surround the clump of buildings on the hill are filled with sheep. During any season, I walk through the barns every day, and I hike through the pastures or the woods, sometimes down to the river in the valley far below. Often I can see a flurry of activity in the apple orchards or the gardens. The big barn, filled with hay for the sheep, is just as sacred as the chapel.
But perhaps this monastery is just where I feel at home because it’s a place I’ve come to for so many years. And of course, the Benedictines take an oath of hospitality, which means that they make every guest feel at home. When I told Brother Beekeeper I wanted a photo of him for my blog, he obligingly came by the guest cottage the next day, dressed in his beekeeping outfit. For a fleeting moment, I thought of asking him to pose naked (I mean, it is a tradition, and the monks are all about tradition) but then I figured maybe I could go to hell for taking too much advantage of that Benedictine hospitality.