24 Hours in a Monastery, St. Anselm’s Abbey

| January 28, 2012 | 2 Comments

The Chapel at St. Anselm's Abbey

I spent 24 hours at St. Anselm’s Abbey as a sort of “mini-retreat.” What follows is an account of that experience. I’m posting it mainly for my own record, for posterity, as it were. It’s a long post and I doubt many of the vast numbers of my readers will be interested, so feel free to pass this one by.

First Night

I arrived a little late due to late departure from work and traffic. Got to the chapel halfway through vespers, the daily 6 pm prayer. There were about 8 people in the congregation. The service consisted of singing of Psalms and a reading from the lives of the saints, in today’s instance, St. Timothy.

At the end of the service, Father Christopher comes right to me and greets me warmly. He’s a thin monk of about 70 who seems right out of central casting, bald with a wisp of hair on his forehead and a warm, calm demeanor. He sends me to get my bag and meets me at the entrance of the monastery, a heavy dark wooden door.

He guides me to the dining room. I’m the only outsider. We sit around the edges of the room, all facing in. I’m sitting next to Father Christopher. There is a head table with Abbot James, my friend, Aiden, the former Abbot and Father Michael, who I know from the school, which my son attended. I nod and smile atAiden and he reciprocates. Abbot James reads a prayer from a book and we sit. There is then a reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict on humility.

As the guest, I am invited to go first to the buffet, which is set up in the middle of the room. Salmon with a crust, roast potatoes, peas and a bowl of lettuce. One of the monks is reading a book into a microphone and his voice is amplified. The book is the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and is pretty interesting. The period covered is 1779 – 80 and he’s in his twenties.

There is no talking during supper. The youngest monk, Father Gabriel busses the tables, picking up plates. Not sure if that’s because he’s the youngest or it’s just his turn. I suspect the former, since the rest of the monks are old and wouldn’t move around as quickly as he does. When everyone is done, Abbot James rings a bell and the reading monk stops. We stand for another prayer and shuffle out of the room.

Father Christopher instructs me to retrieve my bag and he takes me to my room, giving gentle instructions on the way. Here’s the bathroom, shower, etc. The room is totally as expected. Spare, with a single bed, a desk, a wooden rocking chair and a sink. It’s warm as he had the radiator turned on. There’s no thermostat, the radiator is either on or off, controlled with a big black knob.

Father Christopher asks what my reason is for coming, just for the quiet? I say yes and that I’d like to attend the services. He seems slightly surprised by that and shows me the schedule of services. Compline at 7:30 tonight (it’s about 6:40 now) and Morning prayer at 6:20 am on Saturday. It’s 5:20 am on weekdays. Midday prayer is at 12:05 pm. There is buzzer that goes off in advance of the various prayers.He leaves and my silence begins.

I’m reading The Quest for God by Paul Johnson, which I simply found in the I Bookstore on my IPad. Seemed like an appropriate book for a retreat, based only on the title. I read for a while and then the buzzer goes off and I go down for Compline. I’m still the only outsider, except for an Indian priest who is a guest in the monastery. I learn later he is visiting to do some research.

When the service is over, about 20 minutes, I have a chat with Aiden to see if we might have some time together tomorrow. He’s anxious to do so, but is busy most of the day and is doing a home Mass in the afternoon. We’ll meet around 4 pm.

Back to my room, the silence and more reading from Paul Johnson. I’m struck by how frequently I hear sirens outside. While the monastery grounds are very expansive and well tended, we are in a tough neighborhood of Northeast Washington. I read and doze and then lay down on the bed and sleep lightly with some odd dreams. I get up about an hour and a half later and that’s when I’m writing this.

The silence is not bothering me as much as I feared. I’ve put away my Iphone after some peeks right after Father Christopher left. I do feel its pull, but have held off, so far. It’s 10:25 and time to go back to bed. Continued reading Paul Johnson’s book in bed. Turns out he’s a right winger. Very strong anti-homosexual section. Funny how, until then, I thought he was a moderate, intellectual theologian. The other issues about God he explored resonated with me. That’s a bit if a revelation that one can be anti-gay and still thoughtful about other theological issues.

6:07 am

Slept pretty well. The sirens subsided and the room didn’t get too cold or too hot. Terrible pillows, though. Got up without the alarm at 5:50 am. Took a peek at the IPhone. Noted that Kevin White, former Mayor of Boston, died. Must blog about that.

7:30 am

I attended morning prayer. It was a mix of the Psalms, readings and hymns. Except for the readings, which included a Bible reading and a non-Biblical religious reading about St. Thomas Aquinas, everything is sung. There was one other non-Monk, besides me. Just the two of us sitting in the pews. And, like last night, there were twelve monks in attendance. Only one, who was wearing street clothes, was unfamiliar to me. He’s apparently a visiting priest.

I was struck with the thought that these monks have done this virtually every morning at this early (one might say “ungodly”) hour for decades. It’s such a different life than the one I lead.

After morning prayer, Father Christopher came over to give me further guidance. There’s no served breakfast on Saturday. You make your own. There’s toast, oatmeal and cereal and, of course, coffee. I made my way from the chapel to the kitchen and dining area.

As usual, no one speaks. About four or five of the monks came down, quietly prepared their own meal and sat silently in the dining area to eat. This time, however, there’s no one reading over the loudspeaker. So, it feels awkward to be eating with other people and not to chat. I finish my toast, banana and coffee pretty quickly and go back to my room.

9:30 am

Just returned from 8:30 Mass. A few unfamiliar monks, including one who appears to be in his 20’s, a very rare sight indeed. He could be a “monk in training.” A few more congregants in the pews, about 5 or 6 people.

Nothing between now and noon. Just silence.

11:45 am

I decided to set aside Paul Johnson’s Quest for God on the IPad and opened a book I’d brought along on something of a whim. It is a very small hardcover entitled How Generosity Works, The Intention to Benefit Others. It was a Christmas gift from my wife, Rita, and I figured it seemed consistent with the spirituality of a retreat. So, I snatched it as I was leaving the house this morning and tossed it into my suitcase.

Inspired by Buddhism, the book is a fictional story about generosity of spirit. I was some ways into it, really enjoying the story and its spiritual sensibility, when I decided I needed to know something about the author. It was only then, upon reading the author’s short bio that I realized it was written by a friend, which is why Rita gave it to me as a gift. I’m sure Rita told me that when she gave it to me, but I forgot. Sorry, Rita, if you’re reading this.

Janet Ettele is a sometimes fellow vacationer in the Adirondacks at the camp our family visits ever year. She always seemed to have an inner peace and now I know why. The book is wise and compassionate. It is very well written and vivid in its depiction of the setting, a snowy New England town. Finally, it has a plot that truly carries the reader along. It was a very fitting book to read under the circumstances. I recommend it highly.

12:45 pm

Mid day prayer was a short service with psalms sung and a reading of the same gospel that was read at morning Mass. There was a smaller group in the pews that included a father and his son who appeared to be about 13 years old. They are also staying at the abbey for the weekend. A commendable father-son bonding experience. I’m not sure my Danny would have appreciated such an experience at that age….or even now.

Unlike breakfast, there was a lunch served, praise God. Since my breakfast was just toast and a banana, I was ready for lunch. Same ceremony as dinner. A prayer as we stood. We sat and heard a reading from the Rule of St. Benedict, again on humility. Then guests are served first and the reading continues from the biography of Alexander Hamilton. We learn of his courtship of his wife.

Lunch was pea soup, followed by meatballs with mushroom sauce. It was good and hearty. After lunch, back to silence. Time for more inspirational reading. I’ll wait for Aiden to return, visit with him and then go back to the world at about 5 pm.

Category: Catholic Church, Religion

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  1. David L. Durkin says:

    Just beautiful, Bill. What a fortunate experience! I’m mulling it over, now.


    (Iron Davey)

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