Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey • Wrentham, MA

One’s usual response to Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, is typically a response of senses to their incredible candy. I, however, was lucky enough to experience more beyond that within a greater grasp of this remarkable community and monastic way of life.

My humble arrival began with a rented car slowly coming in through a snow storm to arrive around 3am (just when the sisters are arising for vigils (morning prayer)). I debated between sleeping in my car or disturbing the Great (or Grand) Silence (the time after Compline (evening prayer) the previous evening to the following day – the end time varies). MY instinct was to sleep in my car, but I was reminded of the impeccable hospitality and love of these great places and took a chance on ringing the bell.  Despite my humble arrival, I was received with reverence and humility – a  sister was there who so graciously welcomed me and led me to a place to sleep. She was far less concerned with my attendance of 3:30am prayers than she was with my need for warmth and rest. While this didn’t surprise me, I am still overwhelmed by such a hospitality that is never self-seeking, a love that so graciously gives, and purity of joy from one’s true self.

My conversations at Mount Saint Mary’s were conversations of mutual respect and honesty. I find myself surprised by these common threads in the monastic life because in a sense they are far from the ‘American’ way of life of self-protection and ‘confidence’, they seem to embody a vulnerability and a reverence that can only be encompassed in the word: love.

Each conversation along this trip has struck with either lasting thoughts or lasting relationships, as developed in conversation – this was one of relationship. While numerous thoughts remain with me from my conversations here, the more potent is that of relationship and genuine acceptance in conversation. I know I’m in good company when a conversation begins itself on the topic of loneliness – a topic in which I am far too familiar with and long to understand more about in the depths of it’s origin. It was perhaps best described to me in this conversation why I’ve veered from saying ‘aloneness’ in place of ‘loneliness,’ despite my understanding:  “It is a loneliness that says, ‘there’s space there for the whole world.’” In other words, the ache in aloneness may be loneliness, as it is a reminder that there is space for others, room to take on others’ pains and aches. I had previously seen my aches in loneliness as selfish (while they frequently are) and my pains in aloneness as absurd – but I now realize, perhaps God is just making room for more.

On the topic of silence, I was astonished that the carrying of others for this sister and other Monastics does not end. Silence is, “where I meet my true self and my God but in that meeting I meet my brothers and sisters.” This Sister views silence as a way to reach out and speaks of it as a teacher to discover how close we are as human beings, “My silence never leaves me, but it never takes me from people.”

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“Yet it is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity.” Thomas Merton

“For ah! We know not what each other says, These things, and I; in sound I speakTheir sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.” Francis Thompson: The Hound of Heaven

“We all, at times, suffer from great illusions. We confuse not having peace with not being aware of the peace we possess. When our sensitive nature is all storm-tossed, we not longer perceive anything but the storm, because that occupies the most conscious part of ourselves. But that does not mean that we have lost our peace of soul, but only our awareness of it. All the same, that is enough to render these states extremely painful. This is our usual state in times of trial – an agitated sensitiveness, which makes us say: ‘I have lost my interior peace’; when what we ought to say is: ‘I am no longer conscious of it’.

We should get into the habit of believing in our peace of soul so long as we are not conscious of any grave fault. What is peace, after all, but God present in the soul? Provided, therefore, we have not offended Him gravely, God is there. To offend Him gravely, as you know, one must actually will to do so, and we haven’t come to that yet.”

THEY SPEAK BY SILENCES, by a Carthusian, Translated from the French by a monk of Parkminster

 

Mount Saint Mary's Abbey

 

Saint Joseph’s Abbey • Spencer, MA

St. Joseph’s Abbey is a staggering fortress in the midst of Massachusetts; built with incredible stone and surrounded by the acres of nature that a ‘typical’ monastic so longingly takes pleasure in (point being each one of us is different and there is no ‘typical’ monastic).

I arrived for a brief day trip to St. Joseph’s and immediately stumbled into the church where I was able to take some photos. I usually ensure my aloneness in a place before I begin to take photos (especially in such a sacred space, as some may not understand my reverence in the action of photography and more importantly the small breaks in the silence). In this space, however, it’s much more difficult to determine if one is alone due to the immaculate structure, arches among arches, short walls between the alter and choir stalls, etc. Which strikes a question in me: why does it matter if I am physically alone? In an obvious sense, I’d re-mention the break up of silence (not sensed by me in the midst of creative action but more importantly sensed by others), or the visual appearance of another being. But if one is truly silent and still within, wouldn’t the necessity be more on remaining and less on any interpretation of senses? Long story short, after snapping some photos in the church, I recognized a small still silhouette in the distance – a monk remaining in prayer long after prayer had ended. My immediate reaction was one of regret and almost fear; my final reaction, however, was one of a great sigh of knowing – he is ok; I am ok; we are loved. He had certainly been there long enough to pray for previous snappers, loud talkers, short and long visitors, the silent, the loud, the wildest and calmest of my kind – I was nothing but a reminder for him to pray – and THAT is one of the most humbling aspects of the monastic life. The vast release of judgment not only becomes engrossed in the monks life, but takes over the senses (I suspect this is a deep and difficult practice), in order to truly treat each person in their midst as Christ.

Upon my meeting with a monk, I was greeted with a bright smile, a gift, and a warm warm welcome. Due to my inability to stay longer than a day, this monk was particularly attentive to my needs in seeing the space – but was perhaps even more attentive to my emotional needs regarding the questions and discussion we had. The vulnerability in conversation has struck me as something astonishing; that many of these things don’t even come up with the best of friends, that these places are truly spaces in which there is no room for inauthenticity. The aspects of silence were discussed that causes one to “bump into myself all the time,” and I was reminded that, “God doesn’t want your virtue, he wants your weakness.”

The most potent (yet not shocking) of discussions was about love – that the monastic life is centered upon a concept of not only offering but also receiving love. On contemplation it was said to me, “being contemplated – God wants to look in at me… I want to look at God, He says, ‘no, I want to look at you.’” Regardless of one’s beliefs or background – to think of a God that would want to look upon us (individually) is a remarkable and perhaps surprising thought. Although, I suppose I wonder, what can we know of love without that great gaze upon us?

What. A. Humbling. Thing… to KNOW.

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“’We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence,” Dag Hammarskjold says. “We all” suggests that we are connected with one another even when we are alone; “surrounded by silence,” suggests God is present even when God seems absent.” John S. Dunne, Love’s Mind – An Essay on Contemplative Life

“…The question burns, for love is fire. We have to be assayed by truth to come to purity of heart: all that deviates falls away charred- pretense and dear illusion, the wrong answers we use to hid behind- self’s barriers must crumble. We must be stripped to heartwood, arrow straight – pure gift, a little all, affecting all, which draws all toward wholeness.” Sister Agnes Day of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey

St. Joseph's Abbey

St. Joseph's Abbey