Our Lady of the Angels Abbey • Crozet, VA

“Schola Caritatis.” Latin for school of love.

Our Lady of the Angles Abbey in Crozet is the ‘youngest’ of Trappist Abbeys, being built in 1984.  The land was used as a cheese farm, and the sisters of Crozet continue that work to this day. Crozet is tucked away in the hills of Virginia surrounded by gorgeous landscape.

My time in Crozet was brief, as I was unable to schedule a time to stay there, but had a delightful meeting and day trip to the Abbey after my stay at Holy Cross.

My main take-away from Crozet: “love is the great discernment.” The intense simplicity and potency of this statement baffles me. To me, what is the most beautiful about this statement is the fact that in a given situation I may not know what is most loving – but to seek to do/be/say/act in the most loving manner is my futile attempt at discernment.

One situation I have found myself in, on either side of, are times in which I am struggling perhaps with anxiety, depression, sadness, confusion, etc. Along comes a friend who believes the most loving thing is to talk to me, allow me to talk – when in fact many of those times questions do not soothe, kindness does not pacify, words do not settle, and touch does not alleviate. Those are most often times in which I simply need presence, someone to sit with, maybe not say a word, maybe not move a finger, maybe not even look at me. Similarly, I have had this experience on the other side, and I believe it allows the one present to truly experience and be mindful of the one in need. This is where and why love is the great discernment – only listening to love allows one to know which direction to go in a given situation, only listening to love allows one to be mindful of our own and others’ true needs, only listening to love gives us the grace to accept others’ and often our own lack of discernment in loving one another.

“Before we learn how to love, we have to realize how unloving we are.”

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditation The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message. One that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love – either with another human person or with God.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living

(I wonder, what about both? Falling in love with human(s) AND God?)

“My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Thomas Merton

Holy Cross Abbey • Berryhill, VA

The first blatant difference I noticed coming into Berryhill was the weather. It was the my first run in with the lovely winter, and I’m happy to report I was not only safe, but I also gazed in wonder like a child at the delicate snowfall (perhaps it helped that it still wasn’t as cold as Iowa).

I came to Holy Cross Abbey on a very busy weekend – there was a full guesthouse and the expectation of even more guests the following day as there was a funeral taking place. All guests were welcome to attend, so I respectfully attended the funeral proceedings.

Many assume there is pure rigidity in the monastic life. This is one of the things I beg to differ on. I have found and felt more freedom in the lives of these monks and nuns than I have found inflexibility. It’s important to note that any one of these monks or nuns can leave at any time – no one is being held captive or hindered from doing so. This is what makes these places so remarkable – each person chooses to be a part of their community, each monk or nun chooses to go to prayer, chooses to do their job, chooses to pray or not pray, chooses to live in harmony or not with their brothers or sisters, etc. Absolutely nothing in the monastic life is forced, for if that were the case, it would very clearly take away from the beauty of the community, the place, their adoration of God.

One of the main of many topics that came up here was the topic of freedom in commitment. I was able to discuss this concept with a monk who described coming to and going through thresholds in his life offering a grand sense of freedom. He talked about how he came to a point where he knew that if he dug deep into what was before him, he would find something valuable.

For some, this may be where fight/flight/freeze comes into play – for others, this may be where gut instinct kicks in – and for others, this may be where there is no stutter step or tango with a question (ahhh, wouldn’t that be nice). One of the things this makes me think of is the wall, I kept thinking ‘what do I do when I hit the wall?’ Some strictly refer to the wall as that point during participation in endurance sports where fatigue and exhaustion have the potential to take over (mind you, there’s some serious science here we’re not discussing regarding glycogen depletion). However, I’m discussing the wall as more of a metaphoric stance on when difficulties and/or challenges arise. I think it’s possible that our society has made it easier and easier to avoid, disregard, evade, be indifferent to, or even completely run from these things. I also think it’s a lot easier for me to blame society and have some avoidant conversation about what’s wrong with our world, than it is for me to look inward and question not ‘what’s wrong with me,’ but instead ‘what is this asking of me?’ or ‘what can I say about myself right now?’ More than that, I’ve found that the ‘walls’ in my life are often the points of breakthrough – whether they be via the course of heartache or elation. These ‘walls’ shape who I am and give me the opportunity to be more of who I am, be more true to who I am.

I recognize this is no new concept and all of us face these experiences regularly, for some maybe even daily. I’m just trying to face these walls in a new light – that they’re not about what’s wrong with the world or someone else, but rather an opportunity to create me AND have an increasing say in who I am/who I want to be – whether that be taking an adventurous turn down an unknown road (despite my being tired) to explore, or quitting my job to pursue a passion. I think it’s also important to note that when faced with the same ‘wall’ I may choose something different – possibly because I’ve changed, possibly because last time felt ‘wrong,’ or maybe for another reason. I don’t think this necessarily changes the core of someone, instead, I think it demonstrates growth and/or fluidity in one’s self discovery.

“Freedom of choice is not, itself, the perfection of liberty. But it helps us take our first step toward freedom or slavery, spontaneity or compulsion. The free man is the one whose choices have given him the power to stand on his own feet and determine his own life according to the higher light and spirit that are in him. The slave, in the spiritual order, is the man whose choices have destroyed all spontaneity in him and have delivered him over, bound hand and foot, to his own compulsions, idiosyncrasies and illusions, so that he never does what he really wants to do, but only what he has to do.” Thomas Merton, The New Man