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five days at our lady

August 4, 2014

Thursday morning, I awoke to a bright, blue sky and a dull headache nesting behind my right eye, excited and at the same time somewhat anxious about my five-day guest house retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. I’d written to Brother Chris about a month prior during one especially ‘dark night’ asking about their monastic life retreat, as well shorter guest house stays, and had received an encouraging reply suggesting that I schedule a guest house stay and go from there.

I’ve been drawn towards monastic life for what seems like most of my life (I don’t remember it myself, my mom told that when I was very young, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her a recluse). But most of my experience had up to that point been with Theravadin Buddhist monasticism. However, due to the influence of various films and books and conversations with others over the past few years, I’d found myself growing increasingly more curious about Christian monasticism, particularly that of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or as they’re more commonly known, Trappists.

I think the first thing that drew me towards the Trappists was their distinctive habits, white tunics with contrasting black scapulars. I know it may sound silly, but something about them is just so aesthetically pleasing and inspiring to me. The second thing that indirectly attracted me to them was Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, which I found had a lot in common with the wisdom of many of the Thai Forest ajahns, whose ascetic lifestyle in many ways mirrors that of the early Christian monks and nuns who lived contemplative lives in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. And later on, what further deepened that interest is their contemplative approach to prayer, most notably what they call ‘centering prayer.’

When I first wrote to Br. Chris, I’m not sure what I really wanted or expected, but I was at least conscious of the vague, reoccurring dissatisfaction with worldly life, and desire to connect with spiritual people and a deeper, more profound level of reality, I often feel spurring me on. Although I’m admittedly skeptical of the existence of something more, something transcendent and beyond intellectual understanding, deep down I want there to be, and I seem to be predisposed to searching for it within the quiet depths of my own soul, whether it be in the meditation halls of Buddhist temples or the guest house of a Trappist abbey.

Arriving at the abbey, however, my mind was overflowing with doubts and worries, and I began to second guess my decision to come. For one, I was completely unfamiliar with Catholicism, and Christianity in general. I started to worry that I’d offend someone and/or make a fool out of myself due to my lack of familiarity and general ignorance of proper etiquette. And as open-minded as I know some within the Catholic Church can be, it can’t be denied that there’s also a very rigid orthodoxy, and I sensed the potential for conflict, both internal and external.

There are aspects and dogmas of Christianity I’m not sure I could ever fully accept, assuming, of course, I found myself pursuing that spiritual path; and even my belief in God — personal, pantheistic, or otherwise — is shaky. I value the idea of God, although I’m not sure how much faith in God I truly have, if any. I think Jesus was a revolutionary spiritual teacher; but I have a difficult time understanding him as God and our relation to him. And yet here I was, about to spend five days at a Catholic monastery, led here by a myriad of conflicting circumstances and desires I didn’t fully understand.

But despite my many misgivings, the abbey was quite inviting and peaceful. Instead of having to give any sort of account of myself or my beliefs, I was immediately given the opportunity to let the peaceful, serene atmosphere at once become a part of my retreat experience.

After a short tour of the guest house area from a kind volunteer named Rhonda, I settled into my room, which was small yet comfortable enough, and was further reassured by a small, four-page pamphlet encouraging me (and all retreatants generally) to “enter into quietude,” listen with ears and heart, and allow my “inner self’ to surface”—to be “revitalized in my spiritual life,” free from the anxiety and demands that often go hand-in-hand with ordinary, everyday life in our modern society. I took a few moments to sit in the rocking chair and allow what I’d just read to sink in and really begin my retreat.

Maybe thirty minutes or so later, I walked over to the church for Vespers. The church, like the rest of the abbey I’d seen so far, was simple and inviting, yet also inspiring a kind of reverence. The high ceiling and skylights gave it a bright, spacious feeling, and its simplicity was humble, practical, and in my mind, just right to put one into a contemplative mood.

After the service was over, which mainly consisted of a mixture of hymns, prayers, and scriptural readings as the monks alternated between standing, sitting, and bowing, I briefly met with Br. Chris, who introduced himself, asked if I had everything I needed, and suggested that we meet again the next day at 9:30am to talk about my stay, the monastic life retreat, and likely whatever else came up.

Right after Vespers was supper (lunch is called dinner), which I ate in the guest dining area with another guy who also there on retreat. The meal, which was simple, vegetarian, and quite good, was eaten in silence, although talking is permitted during supper. Two more ladies on retreat walked in as I was finishing; but they took their meal into another room to eat, while I took a cup of coffee and made my way out to explore the grounds, meandering around one of the man-made ponds behind the guest houses, full of frogs and some fish and frequented by all sorts of local wildlife.

Once my coffee was finished, I headed back and once again entered the church for the final service of the day, Compline. I tried to “enter into quietude” and truly listen, being mindful of the hymns and my reasons for being there, but I found it rather difficult as my mind’s internal dialogue was unwilling to settle down and observe the same silence as my body. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant or unfruitful experience, though; and as I was exiting the chapel with a somewhat reverent attitude on my way back to my guest house to retire for the night, I ran into two deer leisurely wandering the grounds, grazing on the ample foliage, thus ending my first night of my first stay at a Trappist monastery.

However, sleep didn’t come easily for me, even though I felt tired, and most of the night I tossed and turned and dreamed of things I quickly forgot upon waking. The air was stuffy and humid and I couldn’t get comfortable. Then, just before 1am, I noticed flashes of light outside. At first, I was unsure of what it was; but as I went to the window I realized that it was lightening, so I got dressed, stepped outside, and watched through the tress as flash after flash arced across the sky, listening to the deep, low rumble of the thunder as it grew louder and louder the closer the storm drew to the abbey. Finally, it was upon us, and the rain began to fall. It was wonderful. I’d seen relatively few storms like that since leaving Michigan over ten years ago. I went back to bed and tried my best to let the sounds of the storm lull me back to sleep.

Vigils, the first service of the day, began promptly at 4:15am. I had a rather vivid dream just before my alarm went off at 3:55am that my phone, which I use as an alarm clock, froze during the night, and that I woke up late, slightly panicked and disappointed at the realization that I’d missed Friday’s Vigils. Everything about the dream felt so real, especially the feeling of disappointment; and it was with both a sense of confusion and relief that I awoke for real when my alarm went off.

Although the rain had stopped by now, flashes of lightening could still be seen in the distance, and through the skylights of the church. Like Vespers and Compline the night before, Vigils was a mixture of hymns, prayers, and readings. I enjoyed the reading on prayer near the end from St. Alphonsus Liguori, but was curious about something that came before to the effect of ‘God loves those who fear Him.’ Why fear, I wonder?

The morning air was left damp and chilly from the storm, and I wished that I hadn’t accidentally left my hoodie in Annie’s car. The church itself was quite chilly for Lauds and Community Mass, the latter of which was a bit different from the masses I’ve attended at Orthodox churches. Less ceremony, but no less solemnity or celebration. I did feel a bit awkward at times, though, being the only non-Catholic there (everyone but me took communion); and some of the internal conflicts I was worried about the day before started to surface, such as my difficulty in understand the concept of the Trinity (three distinct persons being a single divine entity), Jesus being the son of God (being wholly man) and God (being wholly divine) at the same time, and the ritual consumption of Jesus/God.

As much as I appreciated the service, I found myself doubting that I could ever believe in all the things that essentially make one Catholic. I could, of course, see and appreciate those concepts in a metaphorical sense, i.e., how the act of eating the sacramental bread and drinking the sacramental wine was a way of remembering and honouring Jesus as a spiritual teacher and the things he taught, as well as the importance of love and forgiveness (forgiving ourselves and others for our misdeeds, and allowing ourselves to be forgiven in return), and symbolically eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, the essence of life and salvation, connecting one to God, to nature, and to one another. But to see and understand these things literally seemed a bit beyond what I was capable of.

After breakfast, I met with Br. Chris by the pond and talked for a little over an hour. He asked me a bit about my past, and told me a bit about his, growing up in California, working in forestry, and becoming a monk. I learned he was continuing his education at Mt. Angel to eventually become a priest. We discussed literature, and he recommended Rumi, Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, and Stranger in a Strange Land. And when talking about Christianity, he more or less said that it’s ultimately all about Jesus and what he embodies—love and forgiveness. These two things are the essence of what Jesus taught, and hence what Christianity itself is really about, which is something I can appreciate. He also suggested that I go for a hike and mediate with the novitiates after Vespers.

Afterwards, the pessimist in me was hoping that I didn’t make too big of a fool of myself and lamenting the fact that I’d actually said shit at one point during the conversation. But I really enjoyed our talk, and we agreed to meet again on Saturday so that he could take me on a tour of the monastery. I spent the rest of my time before Day Hour strolling around, taking some pictures and making friends with a particularly brave and seemingly curious frog who, unlike his fellows, didn’t chirp and swim away as soon as I walked by, allowing me to get relatively close and even coming closer himself.

Day Hour was a short service, followed by dinner, which this time included tuna salad and what looked like some kind of chowder. Even here, vegetarian really means pescetarian, but there was still plenty for me to eat. And with all the free time I had left, I contemplated my future.

Earlier, Br. Chris had asked if I’d thought about going back to school, and I told him the cost made me hesitant and that the things I was interested in — literature, philosophy, political science, etc. — weren’t very practical things to get degrees in. But what I’m doing now isn’t very fulfilling, and it hardly pays well; and being in a monastic setting, with the peace, simplicity, and wholesomeness of monastic life at the forefront of my consciousness, my longtime desire to ordain became ever more present. But that’s a big commitment, and would mean equally big sacrifices that would be difficult to bear. I felt torn between these two choices, these two lives—one of the world and one apart from it. I longed for the joys and pleasures of both, even though I knew one day I’d have to make a choice. My heart was light and heavy at the same time.

I decided to take Br. Chris’ advice to go hiking and clear my head, thinking that I’d take the easy route to the Hilltop Shrine, following major forest roads all the way. Instead, I ended up getting lost after taking a trail I thought would lead me straight there, then getting turned around after a couple of forks, having to backtrack a couple of times when whatever trail I was on became too overgrown and full of spider webs and poison oak for my taste. I was worried that I’d miss Vespers, but I eventually made it to the shrine and found my way back with time to spare. I’m glad I went. The shrine was quite nice, and reminded me of similar ones I saw on the trails at Abhayagiri.

I sat alone in their Zen-styled meditation hall, Bethany House, for about fifteen minutes or so before Vespers. It was almost like being back at Dharma Rain. Br. Chris told me that one of the previous abbots, Father Bernard, really wanted a place dedicated to meditation; but many of the older monks predated Vatican II and were less than enthusiastic about the idea, and it took him three votes before everyone eventually agreed and it was finally built. After Vespers, I tried to sit and practice centering prayer with three other monks, but had a hard time staying awake, and was constantly drifting off into those kind of spontaneous waking dreams that gradually seduce you into real sleep. It was only a 25 minute sit, but I guess the lack of sleep and two-hour hike really did me in.

I ate a light supper and ended the day with Compline. I think out of all the services, Compline is my favourite. It’s much like the rest, with singing, praying, and readings; but they end this particular service by walking around the altar in the centre of the church, facing an image of Our Lady (Mary), and singing a hymn to her. Then the abbot blesses everyone with holy water as they exit the church for the final service of the day. I’m not sure if it’s what they sing or the way they sing it that I enjoy so much, but it’s a pleasant way to end each night.

Sleep came much easier this time, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off for Vigils. Vigils is always a serene experience. Every morning before dawn, you walk into the dark church at 4am, many of the monks already there, sitting or standing, in prayer and meditation. Then the service starts, with its particular set of hymns and prayers and readings; and even though I’m always tired, I find it an uplifting experience, much like morning chanting at Theravada monasteries.

Listening to and reflecting on some of the hymns or passages that were being recited, however, depressed me. One, detailing the history of Israel and how the people of Israel suffered under oppression in Canaan, reminded me of the current conflict in Gaza and how Israel is now the oppressor. It saddened me to think of this, and of all the pain and suffering there is in the world; and I found myself wondering whether it’s the world that corrupts our good intentions or our ‘good intentions’ that corrupt the world. It brought to mind Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons, and how the demons that possessed people were the ideas and isms that obsess our thoughts, colour our perceptions, and blind us to all else. What can drive out such demons when we cling to them with all our might?

With these thoughts and others in mind, I sat again for another 25 minutes before Lauds and Community Mass. At the sound of the church bell, we made our way to church for the next service; and once again, I found myself pondering the Eucharist, the consecrated Host (bread and wine) of Christ, and what it represents—still unable to full appreciate its ‘mysteriousness,’ but at least appreciative of the sense of community and unconditional love it’s meant to foster and celebrate, transforming offenses made and received into forgiveness, and uniting the many into a collective whole through a sacred bond that transcends all our differences. To me, at least, it’s a spiritual experience that speaks directly to our nature as social creatures.

I napped after breakfast and felt better for it. The lack of sleep Thursday night and the early morning service was catching up to me. I awoke before the alarm I’d set, and spent some time reading by the pond before Day Hour. I saw some of the monks taking care of the grounds and got to thinking about the other things the monks do, e.g., forestry, book binding, making fruitcake, etc.

One of the biggest differences between Christian and Theravadin monasticism that I’ve noticed is the role of work. Theravada monks and nuns are mendicants and depend almost exclusive upon the generosity of the laity. They’re prevented by their rules from working for money (they’re not allowed to even handle money), and are only allowed to eat what’s offered to them by the laity each day. They do ‘work’ by writing, taking care of the monastery grounds, building and maintenance projects, etc.; but work in and of itself isn’t a part of their vocation proper. Christian monks and nuns in the Benedictine traditions, however, must labour to support themselves. They can’t depend entirely upon donations. It’s an explicit part of their vocation to work. But, despite this, both seem to acknowledge the need for prayer/meditation and study to be balanced by labour of some sort.

Day Hour came and went quickly. I read some more by the pond, then met with Br. Chris again, who took me on a tour of the cloistered area of the monastery. The tour lasted about an hour and half, and one of its main purposes was to show me around so I could get a better sense of what being a Trappist monk entailed and help both he and I to decide if their month-long monastic life retreat was something that might be good for me.

The tour began in the church, and he told me about the history of the construction, details about the design, and the people who helped with it all. I really liked symmetry, and was impressed to learn that the wood for the pews, altar, and monk benches was all local, most, if not all, coming from their land. I was then taken into the cloistered area, which is generally off limits to the public, and saw everything from their library, infirmary, and rectory to their dormitories, laundry room, and office space. The entire layout is incredibly nice and well thought out considering the construction took place in three stages. It mirrors the church in both its symmetry and simplicity. While not as austere as some of the Thai Forest monasteries I’ve seen, it was far from lavish and expressed a genuine contemplative atmosphere.

He also explained that in their tradition, working to support the monastery is an important aspect of their vocation, and told me about the various things they do. The way it’s set up, they have two accounts, one for the various jobs that support them financially, which is for-profit, and one for donations, which is non-profit and can be borrowed against when the former doesn’t provide enough to support the monks’ needs. Finally, I was given a fairly detailed tour of their book bindery, which, sadly, in the age of Kindles and iPads, isn’t as busy as it once was.

At the end of the tour, Br. Chris gave me a gift, which was a hardcover copy of Benedicta Ward’s English translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (where Merton gathered his favourite sayings from for his book, The Wisdom of the Desert) handcrafted and bound at their bindery. It was an extremely pleasant surprise. Not only because of the gesture, but also because I was eying a paperback edition of that very book in their bookstore. It couldn’t have been a more fitting gift; and I took it as a sign that maybe I should give some serious thought to attending one of their monastic life retreats.

I also thought it rather humourous and intriguing that, when I returned to my room and opened the book to a random page to read an excerpt, it happened to be a story related by Abba Daniel about an inhabitant of Scetis who, out of his simple faith, thought, “The bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol”—the very thing I found myself thinking the past few days during mass, having trouble understanding it any other way.

As the story goes, two old men heard that he said this, and knowing of his outstanding way of life and that it was not said in malice but out of simplicity, went to see him and exhort him to change his position to one in conformity to the church, i.e., that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ. The man replied that, “As long as I have not been persuaded by the thing itself, I shall not be fully convinced.” So the two old men suggested they pray about this mystery throughout the whole week in the hope that God would reveal it to them.

At the end of the week, all three went to church together on Sunday, and as the priest placed the bread on the table, a child appeared to the three men alone. When the priest went to break the bread, an angel appeared with a sword and poured the child’s blood into the chalice. When the priest cut the bread into pieced, the angel cut the child into pieces. And when they went up to receive the sacraments, the man alone received a morsel of bloody flesh and was afraid, crying out that he believed it was truly the body and blood of Christ, upon which the flesh immediately became bread. Then two men said to the third, “God knows human nature and that man cannot eat raw flesh and that is why he has changed his body into bread and his blood into wine, for those who receive it in faith.”

Suffice it to say that the story wasn’t enough to fully convince me, and I imagine that as long as I haven’t been ‘persuaded by the thing itself,’ I too, shall not be fully convinced.

The rest of the night was much like the one before: Vespers, meditation, supper, and finally Compline. Off and on, I imagined what it’d be like to live with the monks for a month and participating in each service, and I felt preemptively sorry for anyone that’d have to hear me mangle hymn after hymn because I’m so tone deaf. I don’t think there’s a rule against not being able to carry a tune, but that might change after they hear me try to sing.

Sunday, Vigils was longer than usual, and included a reading from Thomas Merton’s The Living Bread, which focused on the mystery of the Eucharist and how it, and Christ’s Church, are one mystery, not two. It seems I can’t escape this theme.

Lauds was also longer, and on Sundays, starts forty-five minutes later as well. Afterwards, I ate breakfast and found a copy of Merton’s Living Bread to read before the start of mass. One thing that I found interesting was his explanation of the importance of ritual sacrifice as a “response to a deep religious sense of the sacred, the ‘holy,’” and that the “higher and purer the religion, the deeper is the meaning of the sacrificial act.”

He also speaks of us rising higher in the ‘religious scale’ (implying a type of historical, as well as individual, progressive spiritual maturity, I suppose); and as an example, he compares the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, which were rebuked by the prophet Isaias, with the “development of an idea of interior sacrifice in which man offers himself instead of offering victims” underlying the spirit of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the ideal man, Jesus, who is also, paradoxically, God—an “infinite propitiation for all offenses that have ever been committed against God [or divine moral law].”

And in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which I’d started reading a couple of weeks before, Merton writes of the importance of our mutual dependence on one another for our salvation, reinforcing the need for this spiritual, sacrificial union with God and each other in the form of the Mystical Body of Christ, quoting this passage: “You are the body of Christ and members of one another… And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not your help; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you…. And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; and if one member glory all the others rejoice with it.” For him and many others, this supernatural union is the only thing that has the potential to unite all of humanity together in a truly universal and salvific way.

Despite my own skepticism, all of this at least helped to impart to me the deep significance given by people of this faith to the act of taking communion; and as I sat through mass, I tried to keep that in mind and perceive it from their perspective—that the bread and wine they were accepting was God; and that God is love, so that they were all uniting in love with God and one another. As for myself, being non-Christian, I had to settle for my own communion of cookies and coffee when it was over.

Later, I headed down to the pond to do some reading and think about why I was there. On one level, I’m drawn towards the monastic way of life in general. It appeals to me for some reason; it always has. I tend to fell at home in places like this. On another level, I sometimes get this sense of a possible fulfillment to the spiritual search I think many of us are called to make to fill an otherwise unfulfillable hole in our hearts, and I’m naturally drawn towards religious people and places in the process, both for guidance and for inspiration. It’s a deep, intuitive feeling of something more underlying life, a reality that transcends our temporal, subjective experience. At the same time, I fear that this feeling is only a mirage, a delusion, a psychological distraction, leaving me bewildered and lost in a proverbial desert of uncertainty.

During Day Hour, they opened the tabernacle, revealing the Eucharist. I sat and stared at it for a long time, even after the service was over and most everyone else had left and were eating dinner. Part of it was just enjoying the moment; but I suppose part of me was also hoping for some sort of sign or vision or something. (It was quiet and serene, but nothing I’d call miraculous happened.) At Vespers, they did a special ceremony where one of the ordained monks censed the Host from the tabernacle and took it out to bless everyone before closing it back up. At Compline, I felt sad knowing tomorrow was going to be my last day here

I awoke Monday morning with the faint memory of some strange dream. I attended Vigils, which included a reading from St. John Vianney on how prayer stretches the small heart of a small (finite) creature all the way to God (the infinite), and then sat with Br. Paul in the meditation hall for about an hour as the sun rose. After mass, Br. Chris came by, asked if I had a good stay, and told me to think about attending the monastic life retreat, which I think is something I eventually want to do.

As I finish writing this on my last day, I don’t know what kind of lasting affect this time (or any future time) at Our Lady of Guadalupe will have on me, if any. I don’t know if I’ll ever find God or become Catholic or both and one day enter a Trappist monastery. Conversely, I don’t know if it’ll strengthen my conviction in my Buddhist practice, or throw me altogether into even deeper uncertainty.

Living a spiritual life can be difficult, especially for those with faith in something that’s vague and undefined. Often, there’s no guiding star, no clear map, no obvious road signs pointing the way. How do you reach a destination if you’re not even sure where you’re going, let alone the way there? Is it God I’m searching for? Is it some kind of enlightenment? Both? Neither? Sometimes I think it’d be so much easier to just ‘stay put’ and live a thoroughly worldly life and simply forget about such things; but as much as I try, my restless heart continues to push me onwards in spite of myself.

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