October 21, 2010

A Weekend of Peace...

I had to pull over on the way home.

The engine was off before the car even came to a stop. The relative quiet as I swung the car into a parking spot behind a Walgreen drug store was the first moment of peace I had since leaving.

And then I cried.

The area around the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyer's Georgia, home to 32 Monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance,   is mostly rural and quite bucolic. After twenty minutes of driving toward Atlanta however, the cacophony of the strip malls and billboards of suburbia got to me.

First a guy on a sport bike whizzed past me at about twice my speed. Then the rumble of some way too big pickup truck drew my attention. I had tried to change lanes to make a turn but the driver behind me sped up to block me, only to wind up next to me at the red light a hundred yards down the road. The sheer number of signs which vied for my attention was amazing; McDonald's, QT, Autozone, buy one get one free, sale, sale, SALE! The noise from car radios, from traffic, and even from my own car just wouldn't stop. It all seemed to be attacking me, and all without purpose,  and it made me feel dirty.

Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops, the everlasting suggestions of advertising and propaganda. The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. Even our monasteries are not free from the smell and clatter of our world.
(No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton)

I simply hadn't realized how peaceful it was at the monastery - especially in the church - and was deeply saddened at having to leave, so much so that I had to pull over. In the relative silence of my car, the contrast between the beauty and silence of the monastery and the the grotesqueness of the world brought me to tears. I desperately wanted to turn around a go back.

The Abby Church is one of the largest poured concrete buildings in the south. Every bit of that concrete was hauled up scaffolding my monks, mixed by monks, and dumped wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, one at a time, by monks. As one would expect in church maintained by a strict monastic community, the only visible signage in the church is the Crucifix hanging over the altar, a few simple wooden crosses on the walls and a hand written sign reading "Alms for the food bank" which stood next to a clay pot near the pews.

The monks observe "Grand silence" from the the end of compline (evening prayer) at about 7:30 PM until after Mass on the following morning. Meals are eaten in silence as well. Brother Michael told us that half of a monk's day was spent in silence and I commented that that half of a monks life is spent in silence.

I said, "I will watch my ways,
lest I sin with my tongue;
I will put a curb on my mouth."
(Psalm 39)

The retreat house is decorated almost exclusively with reproductions of some of the greatest pieces of Christian art as well as some original works. There are few signs directing anyone as to what behavior is expected and those that are necessary - such as the ones pointing the way toward the Church - all end with the words, "God bless you." One piece of artwork called to me more than all of the others; eleven apostles stood by Jesus while the twelfth apostle knelt in front of our Lord. Jesus' mouth and eyes were closed in silent prayer while his hands rested on the apostles head. It was clearly the sacrament of holy orders. Paintings of Mary, of Jesus, of children running toward the Lord to sit in his lap told us everything we needed to know.

Brother Michael met with us on Friday night and explained some of the basics of how the monastery operated and what we should expect over the next two days. Lunch is the big meal of the day for the monks and to my surprise, we were to be granted access to a portion of the cloistered area and would be joining the monks for lunch in the refectory (dining room) on both Saturday and Sunday. We toured the library, some common rooms and the refectory itself where Br. Michael pointed out where each of us were to sit. Like the rest of the monastery, the rules were simple... pray first, line up in order of seniority (we were last), sit where we were told and eat as much as you want.

Oh yea... and don't talk.

I can honestly say that the food was excellent! With considerable nervousness (on my part at least), we lined up behind the monks immediately after the Saturday mid-day prayer and walked from the Church, through the silent garden and into the refectory. Only those who are on an "Infirm" diet get to eat meat and since Br. Michael had heart surgery the year before, he enjoyed sausages. The rest of the monks and the those of us on the retreat enjoyed scrambled eggs, several vegetable dishes including grilled fresh asparagus, fruits, juices, coffee, tea and all the bread one could eat. Someone read the last chapter of a book about Flannery O'Connor out loud during the meal.

The lunch menu is special on Sundays. Shrimp scampi, pasta, home-made sauce, vegetables, bread, cake and four kinds of ice cream all put me in proximate danger of the sin of gluttony. The brothers listen to music on Sunday in lieu of reading out loud but I really can't say much for the selection - some sort of french monastic chant. I could hear Br. Hugh humming the tune as we stood in line waiting to fill up our plates.

It was Br. Hugh whom I was paired with in the choir. To hear the liturgy sung was something that I had wanted to experience for quite a while and God granted my wish in a big way. Not only was I hearing the liturgy sung for the first time, I was actually sitting with the monks in the choir singing it along with them! Br. Hugh turned the pages and pointed to the antiphons and portions of the psalms to be sung, each in their turn. The monks on the right side of the church sing a line of the psalm and then the monks on the left side of the church reply with the next line. Br. Hugh hummed the tune even while it was not his turn.

It was nerve-racking to be in the choir stalls singing vigils, lauds, mid-day prayers, vespers and compline right next to the monks. The fact that I can't read music made my anxiety even worse. "Just do what the monks do" was Br. Michael's great advice. It wasn't until Sunday that I was able to calm down enough to actually concentrate on the messages in the psalms and canticles - the liturgy itself - rather than worrying about dropping a book or when to stand or sit or if the monks were all looking at me.

What struck me the most about the brothers was their spirituality. Dogma and doctrine, systematic theology and the biblical basis for Catholic beliefs seemed to be obvious truths, no more to be questioned or debated than is the need to breathe air or the efficacy of gravity. Catholic doctrine, the primacy of the Pope, the authority of the church - in short, all the subjects which this blog takes most seriously seem to be taken for granted by the monks. This monastic community is made up of men who are obviously less concerned with the mechanics of devotion than they are about quietly seeking the face of God.

The whole experience had a spiritual quality, almost akin to mysticism, which I was really unprepared for. The turning point was when I asked about asceticism and mortification in the context of penance, mentioning The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis by name. Father Elias snapped, "Oh, I would never read Thomas Kempis!" and continued,

Do you know that they found scratch marks on the inside of his coffin? He tried to claw his way out... He was buried alive. You can fast if you want to but the process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ is a process of subtraction. Subtraction of greed, of selfishness, self hatred, and gossip. All these cover the divine image.

I usually carry a leather-bound and zippered copy of Thomas Kempis' work with me and this day was no exception. I started to reach for this very book, stacked neatly between my journal and a large type edition of Christian Prayer in the seat next to me, but stopped just short. I didn't have the guts to bring it out.     

It's no secret that I'm interested in apologetics. The study of God's word and the teachings of the Church which God created for our salvation thrills me. Finding a forsadowing of the Eucharist in the Old Testament excites me. Observing how the Holy Mother of our Lord in the New Testament was prefigured by the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament gives me great joy. That God himself put that love into me cannot be denied. But I think that God led me to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit to see a side of our faith that I'm not too sure I'm ready to acknowledge, let alone understand. It is a side of our faith which simply contemplates the Truth  himself.

And that is what I really took away from the weekend; the need to find a quiet place and to stop trying to figure it all out, the need to slow down, the need to learn how to meditate, and how we all need to try to get as close as we can to the beatific vision - union with the trinity - as is possible on this side of the grave.

And Father Elias' words still ring in my ear... It is a process of subtraction.

I hope that God continue to bless all the brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, all the monks and nuns in cloistered monasteries and convents throughout the world, and all the active religious, who offer prayers to God on our behalf, knowing that sometimes we are too busy, sometimes too careless, and sometimes too distracted by the "Mechanisms of modern life" to do so for ourselves.

And I hope that God blesses the men who were on the retreat with me. I pray that they are at peace.



Mindyleigh said...

What a stunning post...I hope you can write more here about Thomas Kempis and exactly what Fr. Elias meant by his response about the grave, etc. I'm confused by that.

Tim H. said...

Thanks for posting Mindy and thanks for the kind words. I'm not too sure I fully understand what Father meant myself. Reading your question now has started me pondering and I thank you for that.

Hmm, just thinking out loud...

Anyone who has read The Imitation of Christ will agree that it does not exude hope and enthusiasm. Kempis' focus seems to be on severe pennance, mortification, and suffering to the point of "Drinking the bitter chalice of his passion."

Contrast this with Merton who writes of God knowing that we are not perfect, that we will inevitably make mistakes, and of God being pleased with the fact that we tried to please him - what he calls pure intention - even though we sometimes fail. Merton writes of God taking more pleasure in our pure intention than in our perfect performance.

I don't know enough about Kempis' life nor death to be able to say for sure, but based on Father's claim that Kempis was buried alive, I think Father was trying to say that a life of severe pennance and mortification for it's own sake is a tortured life - which for Kempis (accoring to Father) was so strong that it manifested itself physically, even to the grave.

Not enough space here but Chapter 6 of No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton talks of "False Asceticism" and the soul silencing the flesh by "An act of violence." I think father was warning me about pennance for pennance sake and mortification for mortification's sake.


patrick said...

I am not sure what the monk's point was concerning Thomas a Kempis, but no where is there any real documentation about him being buried alive. The Imitation of Christ, like all books, is not for everyone but it has been one of the most important and most loved books for centuries. Next to the Gospels, St Therese says it was her favorite book and Ronald Knox died while he was preparing a translation of it. Even in the past 20 years a number of new editions have come out and gone through many printings.
perhaps the good monk should be a little more humble next time he says something about old Thomas!!

Tim H. said...

Yea, I had read that the claim that Kempis was buried alive was not true. Imitation of Christ is my daily devotional. I carry it with me almost all the time.

Thomans Merton wrote, "If my soul silences my flesh by an act of violence, my felsh will take revenge on the soul, secretly infecting it with a spirit of revenge. Bitterness and bad temper are the flowers of an ascetism that has punished only the body."

I think this was the Brother's point. He is the novice director for the monastery and probably has to break some people of the false notion that monastic life is a life of self inflicted pennance made intentionally devoid of joy. That isn't what God wants of us anyway and not what Kempis writes about either.