My time at a Trappist Abbey last week was one of joy. I arrived in the afternoon, joined the monks (26 of them) in the church for noon prayer, followed by a nice vegetarian lunch (that I didn’t even have to prepare!) After eating, I grabbed my umbrella and my camera and went for a walk. As I scuffed through the wet leaves and puddles on the spongy trail, I was filled with a sense of peace and well-being. Just being there was such a gift. My spirits lifted, the cares and pressures of routine life and holiday preparations faded away, and my heart turned towards God in peace and joy. Ah, what did it matter that it was barely 40 degrees and drizzling, when one was in such a marvelous place.
It is a privilege to attend the Liturgy of the Hours: Vigils, Lauds, NoonPrayer, Vespers, Compline, as well as a beautiful and moving daily celebration of Mass. The monks sang and chanted psalms and hymns. Scripture was read and then pondered over in silence. The church itself was beautiful, decorated for Christmas with tree and creche. Most often there was only natural light, which in this winter season meant that for most of the services, the church was dimly lit and hushed. A candle glowed softly, suspended above the altar. Always, it was quiet and still.
The Trappist monks themselves are a contemplative and cloistered order, and seen only during prayer. Meals were silent, and this tradition held a valuable lesson for me: to be attentive and mindful of my eating, present to the moment. In between prayer times, I walked and prayed on the vast grounds, seeing no one but the deer slipping through the shadowy woods, hearing nothing but the wind sighing in the trees, the birds chirping, my own footsteps squelching through mud puddles and wet grass.
At all times, we retreatants were asked to remain silent and contemplative, open and receptive to God’s voice rather than dominating the conversation ourselves. It was a time to receive, to listen, to trust that God will speak. Prayer welled up from the heart rather than emanating from the intellect. During services and liturgies, only the monks prayed and sang aloud. Retreatants and the local community members simply watch and listen, absorbing the words. There was none of the distraction of keeping one’s place, turning pages, pacing of communal prayers–simply the openness to the Presence and Word of God.
Time seemed to slow down, giving me the opportunity to savor the gifts and graces that God showers on us all.
Ah, how difficult it was to leave this, the Real World, and return to daily life in the city.