The Benedictine monastery is set amidst sheep pastures. In this photo, you can glimpse the steeple of the chapel, the old white farmhouse that serves as a guesthouse, and the big barn that has become a landmark to local people. But mostly, the buildings of the monastery are hidden behind trees: that seems appropriate because the monks who live there are not ones to call attention to themselves.
It was dark when my friends and I arrived for the weekend. We carried our bags into the women’s guesthouse and set about making ourselves at home. I choose the smallest room, the one we jokingly call the closet. It just barely has room for a single bed, shoved tight between the walls. I pushed my bag under the bed and changed into sweatpants. When I sat on that bed to write in my journal, I could look out the single window. I like small rooms, especially on dark nights: there are no places for monsters to hide.
My friends and I had spent the car ride talking, and we all went to bed early that evening. That’s the first thing I need before I can be contemplative: a good night’s sleep. When sunlight through the window woke me, I grabbed my winter coat and went off for a walk. The monks had already been up, praying: their first service of the day is at 4:45 am. But still, the monastery grounds were mostly quiet as I roamed about, checking out familiar spots: the sheep barns, the apple orchards, the sheep pastures, and the stone bench in the oblate cemetery. The sheep turned to look at me curiously as I walked along the pasture fences.
The wind was chilly despite the sunshine, so it felt good to enter the chapel. It would be empty, I knew: the monks were at breakfast. As I pulled open the heavy wooden door, the musty smell of incense met me, triggering memories. I kept thinking about my visit a year ago, when I knew that my oldest sister was dying. I can’t believe, actually, that it will soon be a whole year since her death. My sneakers made soft noises against the stone floor as I walked into the chapel.
The long stone staircase to my right led down to the crypt, which is my favourite place at the monastery. In the middle of the dark room stands a fourteenth century stone statue of Mary, holding baby Jesus, lit by dozens of flickering candles that visitors have placed at her feet. In this candle-lit room, which smelled of melting wax, I sat cross-legged on the stone floor – to meditate, to pray, and to think about all that has happened in my life since my last retreat.