Silence & Snow

March 2017 at Holy Cross Abbey

Do you enjoy silence? My spirit is happier when I have the chance to immerse myself in the quiet of a prayerful place.

This week I was on silent retreat at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, about an hour’s drive from my home. I used to come here regularly — during the decade I served Poolesville Presbyterian Church (2002-11). I used my continuing education funds and time. But instead of working on another degree, I would simply occupy a quiet room in a place fueled by the rhythm of monastic prayer.

More than five years ago, I quit my job as pastor in order to focus all my energies on writing. I found it challenging not to be employed. I created some sources of income: becoming an Air BnB host, supply preaching, and doing administrative work. Some of that activity was in response to financial need, but some was my strict sense of needing to pay my own way, even in our marriage.

One of the “extras” I cut from my life were retreats at the monastery. I told myself I could write in my own study and indulge in silence all day long if I liked. Still, it’s not exactly the same. There is something unique about coming to a place set apart and saturated in prayer. That sense of consecration is what draws people like myself, who come to make a retreat.

Last September I began as the pastor at Hermon Presbyterian Church. With continuing education funds once again available, I was happy to return to the Abbey. As always, I had a list of projects to work on and a stack of books to read. But I also spent hours each day wandering in beauty, sitting in chapel, or simply staring out the window. As a bonus — I happened to be here for the one significant snowfall of the year. There is no prettier place to be when the world is hushed by snow.

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Green Pastures

March 2016 at Holy Cross Abbey

Where do you go to restore your soul? For me, spring always brings a bit of restlessness. On an unseasonably warm day last week, I drove out to Holy Cross Abbey to restore my soul.

I emailed Brother James that morning and he responded that he’d have time to see me after midday prayers at 2:00. I arrived 45 minutes early to have time for a walk. The Abbey’s road cuts through pastures used as grazing land and I love to see the black cows. This day the pastures were unusually active. The cattle were on the move. They traveled with a sense of purpose, an undulating stream of black shoulders and haunches. And one lone white one.

Holy Cross Abbey cattle

A tractor had just deposited lunch onto the field — a long snake of sweet-smelling feed — and a farmer was calling the cattle to Come Get It.

But there was other commotion as well. Two small vehicles buzzed about the field. A farmer stood on the road near me, next to an open gate. He had a long branch in his hand, which he swung. Soon the vehicles had singled out a bull, who came charging across the field. They pursued him right through the gate and across the road into another pasture.

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Re-Entry

January 2013 at Holy Cross Abbey

IMG_0528I just spent 3 days in silence at Holy Cross Abbey. Each day I walked about 3 miles, spent time reading, ate my meals in silence with other retreatants, and ended the day by attending Compline, the monk’s final prayer service of the day.

I like to go on silent retreat twice a year. Other ministers do D.Min. programs, but I am committed to a regular practice of silence and contemplation and writing.

I love the beauty of Holy Cross Abbey, the black cows who amble around, the simple food, and the pervasive quiet. This morning I woke up to the cows lowing. I wondered what all the fuss was about.

My writing can go deep at this place. I find that I can often “push through” whatever difficulty I’ve encountered. And let’s face it, writing difficulties are part of the process, not some kind of aberration.

This time, it was a matter of deciding whether certain sections needed to be included in the book or not. I hadn’t written them yet. I told myself I was afraid of “wasting time” by writing them and not using them. The truth was that I was a bit scared about writing them.

The answer was obvious, as soon as I let my anxiety abate. There is no way to know except to write the pieces and see. So that is what I did. I have said before — and I really believe — that no work is ever wasted. Yet it’s easy to get in a hyper-efficient mode and try to cut corners.

The worst part of being at Holy Cross Abbey is coming home. Re-entry is always a bit of a shock. But during this visit I realized that I won’t always have to face re-entry. The latest addition to the property is the “Cool Spring Natural Cemetery.” Some day I won’t have to leave at all!

The picture of a heron is the weathervane on top of the new outdoor chapel at the cemetery. The forecasters tell us there’s snow in them there clouds.

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Writing at the Monastery

November 2011 at Holy Cross Abbey

I was at Holy Cross Abbey all week. It is the best place on earth for me to get writing done. It is beautiful, silent, full of cows, and prayer. There is no internet, no cooking or laundry to do, the only contact with the outside world is if there’s an emergency. There are prayer services 5 times a day.

During the week there were only 5 of us staying there. One night a stranger showed up and stayed in the emergency room. He was sitting in the vestibule when I arrived, I think he didn’t know where to go or what to do. He started telling me how he was a Catholic from Front Royal and which parish blah blah blah. I said, Look, nobody cares, they’ll just let you stay here. Then I knocked on Brother Vincent’s door.

Over the weekend, the place was full. Of 16 people, only 2 of us were women. All the guys looked like they could be from Baltimore, firefighters or retired cops. Probably Irish or Italian. Some of them are very familiar looking, I suppose we have crossed paths here before. I stay here twice a year, but we never say a word. At least 4 of the guys came together, they were smoking cigars all in a group in the parking lot. Another pair of guys came together.

I look around at their faces at our silent meals, and they are all so beautiful. One man has such acne scars on his face, one can only imagine what he endured as a teenager. He carries himself proud, but slightly self-conscious. I want to go up to him and kiss his face, all over.

Another guy, one of the cigar smokers, is the young punk of the group, with a shaved head and T shirts with rock bands. He is beefy, you can tell he works out. Who are these guys, who come to a monastery with their buddies? What world do they come from?

Many of the guys are almost as old as my dad. One winked at me after he cut himself a piece of pie. I laughed. I’m glad I have the kind of face you can wink at.

Another night, when the guy next to me brought back a slice of fruitcake he whispered to me, I only eat it for the rum. I laughed then too, and helped myself to a slice. It’s very good fruitcake. Baking and selling it is how the monastery generates income.

There are other things I can say about this place, but not until I am an old woman.

Until then I can only say: Visit sometime. Buy a fruitcake. For the rum.

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Progress and Perfection: a view from the monastery

March 2010 at Holy Cross Abbey

I just spent 4 days in silence at the monastery, it was really wonderful.

I read a good novel, enjoyed peaceful sleep, went on a lot of cold windy walks along the Shenandoah River, saw an eagle’s nest, found a dead possum,

saw the reddest cardinal I have ever seen, talked to some cows, cried over past events, found a dead mole, found an owl pellet, crossed a ravine on a downed log,

watched the sunrise, prayed in a chapel, worked on my pilgrimage manuscript, heard someone’s life story, counted the stars, was reminded to always be grateful that my joints don’t need to be replaced, scraped manure off my boots, left my boots behind,

felt inspired about the possibilities of writing, drank too much bad coffee, did some dense theological reading that I actually enjoyed,

and came home to a husband who was glad to see me, a kitchen that showed some progress on a remodel, one daughter who said she missed me, and another daughter flying home from college for spring break. Everything was as it should have been, i.e., perfect. In the teleological sense.

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Write this, or Write that?

February 2010 at Holy Cross Abbey

My silent week at the monastery got rescheduled to next week because of impassable roads after the recent storm. I love going because I can clear my mind and get some writing done. So, help me decide. Which writing project should I work on?

1. revise Novel #2

2. since Novel #1 & Novel #2 have the same characters and some overlapping themes, tear them into pieces and weave them into a new Novel #3

3. try to salvage Novel #2 by slicing and dicing into some short stories

4. work on a query letter to find an agent who represents fiction

5. forget fiction! begin at the beginning of the Pilgrimage non-fiction and revise what I’ve got so far (6 chapters, maybe 1/3 of total)

6. skip to the end my Pilgrimage stuff and continue on — plow through to the end of a first draft (it’s outlined)

7. write a query letter to find an agent who represents non-fiction

8. start something new

9. oh! just nap a lot

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Silence, Please!

February 2010 at Holy Cross Abbey

Last night I dreamt I went to the monastery again. It seemed to me I stood outside the brick pillars that mark the drive and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.*

You clear your desk on a Monday morning, and pack lightly. You drive toward Berryville, Virginia and wonder if you brought enough books.

As you cross the Shenandoah River on Route 7, you slow down for the right hand turn onto Castleman Road. The turn is so sharp that it’s a U-turn. You think how appropriate that is. The road follows the river, then climbs a hill. In a few moments you’re turning right onto Cool Spring Lane, where brick pillars mark the monastery’s entrance.

You pass rolling pastures where beef cattle graze. Along the ridgeline, enormous trees stand singly or in clumps against the sky. Closer by, the black cattle lift their heads and watch you pass, grass dripping from their lips. Their breath forms clouds in the cold air, and their ear tags flutter as they toss their heads.

As you arrive at the guesthouse, a sign reminds you to be silent. The sign is permanent, set into the ground with concrete.

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On Silence

October 2009 at Holy Cross Abbey

I come to the Abbey for silence, and I am overdue for a big slice of the stuff. My week of retreat began on Monday afternoon and will conclude on Friday morning. That’s four precious nights, and I know they will race by. But the beauty of the Abbey is that nothing seems to race, not in the moment. Each moment has its own small life. This moment to pour that cup of coffee. This moment to notice the wind in that tree. This moment to listen to a cow call across the meadow and be answered. This moment to close one’s eyes and silently say thank you.

Mealtimes at first seem a bit strained. How often do we sit looking across a table at someone and say not a word? We don’t know a thing about them, and there is that internal push to bridge the gap. I want to ask: Why are you here?

I remember the first time I came to the Abbey. I thought about the other people quite a bit, noticing the changes in their dress, their mood, speculating as to their past or future. I realized it was the writer in me, creating back story, and wanting to see a narrative arc, the one that would impel them forth from the place.

But I also realized it was the pastor in me, and the subtext of my thoughts was simply this: I need to help them. For the first time I realized how very ridiculous, and indeed, obnoxious this perspective was. This person, a stranger, does not need me. I can trust their care to the Lord. That person is here for a reason, and I need not speculate about what it might be, or where they might go from here. It is really okay for me to do nothing more than attend to my own journey. In fact, I am here to attend to my own journey, which I cannot properly do if I am attending to theirs.

A realization like this is one of the gifts of silence. Can I rest in my own journey and not fuss about anyone else’s? Not even for the supposedly noble purpose of trying to make their journey more pleasant, more comfortable, or somehow more meaningful. I realize with a jolt how wedded I am to the notion of myself as a teacher, as the person who can guide others into a deeper spiritual life. Silence helps me let go of that. Silence reminds me that I am a student before I am a teacher. Silence reminds me that I am a child of God before I am the pastor of other children of God.

The cattle are lowing. Excuse me now, I must go attend.

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KISS

October 2009 at Holy Cross Abbey

I was on silent retreat at a monastery last week. Each evening I would check in with my husband via cell phone as I walked to the chapel for Compline, which is the closing prayer service of the day, at 7:30. One evening as I walked through the silent dusk, my husband excitedly told me that he had scored free tickets for the KISS concert. Did I want to go?

Of course, I said. Then went into the chapel to listen to the monks chant the Psalms.

It strikes me that I am equally at home/not at home in these two worlds, silence and heavy metal.

Last night was the concert: KISS Live 35. I’m not a KISS fan, but I am a member of my generation. And I’ve got to hand it to a band that can still be touring, 35 years later. Longevity is not to be taken for granted. I feel good about my marriage going strong at 25 years, and my hat is off to any creative group that can keep it happening.

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Into Great Silence, a movie review

Into Great Silence is a movie about a monastery in Chartreuse, France, in the Carthusian order.  As the title suggests, the movie has no soundtrack, and simply follows the white-robed monks through the daily activities of their contemplative lives, which include long stretches of silence.  The seasons change in noticeable ways as the year goes by. There is virtually no dialogue, as the monks converse only once a week for a few hours. Two brothers join as novitiates (perhaps there is some other term) and are robed in black. Other brothers become even more aged as the year progresses. All of this is observed with a compassionate but silent camera. I believe that the goal of the movie is to allow the reader to participate in monastic life for a couple of hours, rather than merely to observe it.

Our kids came through the room as my husband and I watched the nearly-3-hour movie, and thought we were nuts.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and it made me itchy to go on another silent retreat at Holy Cross Abbey. It has been too long since I was there! I am a daughter of the Reformation, but have a deep appreciation for many elements of monastic life: the discipline of daily prayer, the liturgy of chanted Psalms, attention to stillness, an intentionally slow pace.

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