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

 

Redwoods Monastery • Whitethorn, CA

The Redwoods Abbey was founded in 1962, when the founding sisters arrived during the winter, to see if they could withstand the trials of weather. Now over 50 years later it turns out they could withstand the winter. Through my interactions with these sisters, in words and experiences, the common theme of non-judgment arose; it is obvious that this feeling in me was born from the depth of love these women have for God, one another, and each person that crosses their path.

I always said I was just an ocean girl, but that was before I met The Redwoods. Perhaps it’s the trees that are thousands of years old next to, and seemingly supporting, a tradition that’s nearing the same age; or maybe it’s the silent roar and kinetic stillness of the forest; or how each of those trees smiled upon me as they gazed upon me and our sunshine. It doesn’t make a difference where this admiration within me came from. All this to say there’s something very special about this place. It cannot be pinpointed or explained, most wonderful things can’t, but it simply is. Also, it isn’t something you’d come across in a day or a vibe you’d get after a few hours – it seems one really has to submit themselves to the traditions both of the forest and the monastery to get this sense of awe.

The topic of mindfulness and the focus on the present moment was something that seemed to resound in my time there. As I was sitting with the other guests for a meal one night, we were all trying to come up with words to describe what the forest meant to us, when one finally said: “It is as if they’re saying, ‘everything is going to be ok.’” We all sat somewhat baffled at the simplicity and accuracy of her statement. Recognizing how vast the world is – in nature, population, size, but ESPECIALLY nature – seems to not only set my soul at ease, but also gives me an acute awareness of the precise moment before me.

“…being able to hold whatever is before me without having to work on it,” was said to me of silence. It isn’t about what I need to do next, the depth of emotion arising in me, the laundry I left somewhere, the panic in lack of motion – it’s that ability to sit with all those things arising and letting them pass to come back to the silence, come back to the space, the peace, the ease. “The moments of silence that come: they’re precious.”

In a previous post I talked about how more questions than answers seem to come up and I’ve been quite glad with that. At the Redwoods Abbey this topic came up again and I was reminded, “the answers are in the questions.” This doesn’t mean some fixated point or determinate decision. To me, it is more about the letting go of the need to know, being ok with the unknowing. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “for it is in giving that we receive.” Which leads me to think, it is asking that we know. To me, not knowing (and coming to peace and acceptance of that) is gaining more knowledge and insight than any amount of false pride in knowing.  To have any sense of knowing is a false sense of control; to have any concept of control is to forge the signature on the check of fate – I cannot sign that. There are few things in life I have control over. In the long run, however, we have no say of birth or death –I have no say in the things that make me more vulnerable than I care to admit. Yet I still find myself sitting with the false layer of knowing, to protect those vulnerabilities that will continue to be exposed.

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“God breaks the heart again and again and again, until it stays open.” Hazrat Inayat Khan

From The Desert Fathers, by Helen Waddell:

“The Abbot Anthony said, “who sits in solitude and is quietly hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: yet against one thing shall he continually battle: that is, his own heart.” …”

“One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secrets that are whispered by all lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I attempt to cultivate this plant in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most rare of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle and the Cross. Nulla silva talem profert. There is only one such tree. It cannot be multiplied. It is not interesting.” Thomas Merton

Redwoods Monastery IMG_1588 IMG_1650