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. A spreading tree presides over the parking area. You choose a parking spot where your car, too, will be able to rest for a few days. You carry your small bag inside. A sign on the bulletin board has your name next to a room number. You check in by placing a checkmark next to your name.
In your room, all is in readiness: a single bed, a small desk with an icon over it, an easy chair, a window with a view of the Shenandoah foothills. You have a clean bathroom all to yourself. You have everything you need, and nothing you don’t.
You admire the view for a moment and instantly have the urge to check your email, your phone messages, your Facebook. You breathe in and out. It’s time for a walk.
You decide to get a better look at the cattle. Afterward, you notice a few people walking up the hill toward the chapel. You join them, remembering that it’s time for Vespers. Inside the chapel, a brother switches on a light. The room is still dim. The brothers come in, some hurriedly, some slowly. Most are dressed in white topped with a brown habit. You wonder if it’s true that they wear cutoff sweatpants underneath. You shiver and hope so.
A very aged brother comes in, pushing his walker slowly. He is so stooped that it seems impossible he could bow more deeply to the altar, but he does. It takes him some time and you wonder what it costs his back. He straightens up and pushes his walker to his spot. You feel chastised by his patience. You sit up straighter, noticing your own healthy back.
A bell rings. The pews creak as the monks stand. They chant: O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me.
After the service you walk down the hill to the guesthouse. Other people walk beside you and you want to chat with them, to wonder about them. But you are not here for that. You try to let go of your thoughts about others. You look at the moon. You keep an eye out for cats. You breathe.
Supper is communal but silent. You have the urge to be overly solicitous at that first meal. The guest master pulls up a chair and reads aloud as you tuck into soup, salad, and slabs of cheese. As you listen and eat, slowly, everything inside you will start to settle.
Their mission statement tells the truth:
All of good will are welcome at Holy Cross Abbey, those of whatever faith, those seeking faith, those not blessed with faith. You will find beauty of many kinds, and you will find peace.