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

Abbey of Gethsemani • Trappist, KY

The Abbey of Gethsemani was the first monastery I have ever traveled to, so there was something delightful about returning to ‘where it all began.’ While I now sense a greater home at New Melleray (due to my more frequent stays and being from Iowa), I’m still so thankful and reverent of the introduction to the monastic life that Gethsemani gave me.

Gethsemani is the oldest of the Trappist monasteries in the US – founded in December of 1848 and made an abbey in 1851. For most, Gethsemani may be most well known for being the home of Thomas Merton. While that is what initially led me to a Trappist monastery (Thomas Merton’s writings), that is certainly not what has carried me through this continued vision and eventual pilgrimage. It’s more as if the readings of Thomas Merton planted a seed which grew into question after question, which finally led to this pilgrimage (which in turn has led to even more questions).

While my last post possibly seemed to oversimplify the life of the monastic experience, I think it’s important to re instill the concept that potency is found in simplicity, that depth is only where there’s a surface, that pain and darkness reside with those who are willing to feel/deal/experience them; allowing for the contrast of the greatest healing and greatest light.

It’d be easy to say that the life of a monk or nun is simple – that they go about their day in perfect harmony in community, prayer, work, etc. It’s nearly a fantasy of the world that this is the case. But it’s important to note that each monk or nun is not immune to the experiences of those without a monastic or even religious vocation.

A monk at a previous location said to me, “to really say yes to God, you see your limitations are not depriving you.” In other words, how are my pains, frustrations, uncontrollables creating me to be more of a service to others, and ultimately God? While the frequent Biblical reference here may be to that of Paul discussing the ‘thorn in his side’ (2nd Corinthians 12:7), it may be more familiar language for me to discuss the implications of depression, death, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, pain, uncertainty, etc.  Is it ‘just’ the humility of owning our limitations or is it more than that?

To me, it’s more than that. None of us want to be entirely alone. Our limitations are not only connections but also connections that practically force humility and vulnerability.  While my initial reaction to these limitations are to hide them and myself, I realize that without these vulnerabilities, I’d certainly have a tendency to isolate (even more), to hide (even more), to run away (even more), to disappear (even more), etc. With these vulnerabilities, I have a lean towards desperation and need of connection, to know I’m not alone, to know there is healing, to know there is better, to know there is light.

I was so blessed to meet with a monk who seemed to fully understand what I said when I told him, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, why I’m doing this, but I know I’m supposed to be.”  When we see the ‘supposed to,’ or the ‘meant to,’ or the ‘made for this,’ isn’t that a glimpse of light to grasp onto and continue with? Doesn’t that allow us to overlook the anguish, the pains, the loneliness, the desires, the temptations, and the distractions? With that being said, is it only when we embrace our limitations and vulnerabilities that we are able to more fully become who we are meant to be? It’s much easier for me to continue in this pilgrimage with the acknowledgement that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know I’m meant to be doing this.

“…Fundamentally, as Max Picard points out, it probably comes to this: living in a silence which so reconciles the contradictions within us that, although they remain within us, they cease to be a problem. (of Word of Silence, P. 66-67.) … Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.” Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

Holy Spirit Abbey • Conyers, GA

A trip that began with humility, upon arriving a day early late at night and being welcomed by a monk, ended with extreme elation, in being able to meet with several monks regarding the topics I had hoped to discuss.

Going from Assumption Abbey to Holy Spirit Abbey may be an extreme contrast – but not in terms of good to bad or holy to unholy. The contrast these two locations held seemed to be more about style and variety. Both Abbey’s had the dedicated core and clarity of the monastic life (often most described as: prayer, silence, solitude, work, and community).

Holy Spirit Abbey has an intriguing history, which is clearly described in their museum. Once a former plantation, the monastery land was taken over by the Trappist monks in 1944. I was greeted in the museum by one of the founding members, who is now 101 years old, still working, still praying, still engaging in silence and solitude, still joyfully asserting his commitment to this community.

The main thing I received from my conversations here was this: Aloneness, solitude, and silence are NOT isolation. When these monks seek time away or time alone, they still have the foundation of their brothers (or sisters) and community to rest assured upon.

Which makes me wonder – perhaps it was isolation in my life that led me to this trip and need of aloneness and solitude. In this journey, I’ve already felt more connection and depth with others than I have for quite some time. Maybe amongst people I isolate more frequently and define it as solitude? I’ve always said that just because one may be in a full home, surrounded by people, socializing – does not mean they don’t experience true and genuine loneliness. Which, I suppose, adds another point – aloneness is not necessarily loneliness.

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.” Thomas Merton