When I was the youth pastor at Saint Joseph United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, IN, I was surprised to learn that one of the pastors serving at Saint Joseph went to the Abbey of Gethesemane in Trappist, KY for occasional personal retreats. I’m not sure why this was surprising to me, as I attended a Catholic college, but it surprised me nevertheless. My understanding of the connections between denominations wasn’t developed at the time, even though I had an ecumenical spirit even in college.
I decided to follow in my pastor’s footsteps and take a monastic retreat just after my college graduation and before beginning seminary in Ohio. I found a place online called Saint Meinrad’s Abbey in southern Indiana. I decided to go for a few days just to check out the environment and daily schedule. I ended up meeting Brother William, a Franciscan from Covington, KY, who was there on a retreat as well. It was a great few days getting to know Brother William. It was a meeting between a discerning Methodist and a retreating Franciscan at this Benedictine monastery. No, this doesn’t lead into a joke. Not only were my conversations with Brother William inspiring, but my time with the Benedictine brothers proved to be spirit filled.
I found the daily rhythm of prayer, silence and reading refreshing. It would be the first of several trips to monasteries during my ministry career so far. Since that first visit, I have been to the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Mishawaka, IN and most frequently to Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three River’s, MI. Saint Gregory’s is a Benedictine monastery in the Episcopal tradition.
Every so often I can sense my spirit longing for the schedule of only prayer and silence.These are just two things I have learned and taken from my monastic experiences.
One of the first things you notice as you step onto the grounds of a monastery is the daily rhythm of life structured and separated by prayer. You see the notices of the daily prayer schedule. You might hear the bells calling the brothers and guests to prayer. Their life is not structured by other things, work schedules or meetings, but by prayer. If the brothers are at work in the garden, in the guest house, or in the administrative office, when the abbey bells ring, work stops, and the movement to the sanctuary begins.
Once the brothers come together in the choir stalls of the sanctuary, the prayers begin. The night is interrupted with prayer. The work of the day is paused for prayer. Life is saturated in prayer. It’s a beautiful way to structure one’s life following the challenge of Saint Paul to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:16).
Benedictine and Trappist monasteries begin their days early in the morning for them, in the middle of the night for us. Saint Gregory’s Abbey gathers at 4:00am for Matins, the first prayer office of the day. Throughout the day the Daily Office (or Divine Office) is said with Latin terms that distinguish each prayer time from the next. Next is Lauds at 6:00am. Terce and Mass are observed at 8:15am. Sext is at 11:30am followed by lunch. The brothers gather again at 2:00pm for None. Vespers, which is even observed in churches and cathedrals around the world, is said at 5:00pm. The day ends, or is completed, at Compline at 7:45pm. Each monastery observes these offices throughout the day. “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws”, Psalm 119:164. The monks gather to praise corporately seven times a day.
As a pastor, I recognize that it can be difficult to say all seven daily offices each day. I have vowed to say morning prayer, Vespers around 5:00pm and Compline before I go to sleep. If my day allows, I try to pray midday prayer or mid-afternoon prayer as well. It doesn’t mean that I don’t pray throughout the day at my desk, in a hospital room or in the car, but I do have these intentional times to pray every single day.
I have learned from my brother monks to order my day in prayer. Even if I can’t make every prayer time, if I desire to stay connected with the God who called me, I must be in constant prayer, seeking God’s Spirit and guidance in every moment. After many trips to the monastery, I still find myself praying the Psalms, just like the monks do. I find myself looking at the clock reminding me to be in prayer. I also find myself seeking more and more silence.
My longest stay at a monastery has been one week. That week was spent at the Abbey of Gethsemane. There are signs all over the monastery that read “Silence is spoken here.” I remember coming home after a week of silence and prayer having family members ask me “How can you be silent for that long?” I honestly don’t know, but my soul craves the stillness and silence of a monastery.
The offices of prayer are punctuated by silence. There’s no rush in monasteries. Often the psalms are slowly read or chanted. There are moments and minutes of silence. Many monasteries also observe meditation for 20 to 30 minutes as a community. I have found myself looking at my phone for the time ready to leave my thoughts behind in the silence and move onto a good book. There are other times where I’m almost saddened by the ringing bells marking the end of meditation.
Silence is an important part of prayer that is too often missing in our modern spirituality. We speak to God, true, but how often do we listen for God? Even as Mark tells us, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1: 35). Jesus often withdrew to listen for his Father.
That’s what I hope to do as I retreat at monasteries. I hope to withdraw and find myself complete, whole and at peace in God’s embrace. More often than not I have found that during my retreats. That’s why I often go back, but that’s also why I have also taken much of what I have learned from my monastic brothers and added those disciplines to my prayer life.
I still seek prayer throughout the day. I often seek silence in my times of prayer. Some days are better than others, but I pray that my life will be ordered and structured around the most important thing next to breathing and that is prayer.
I have learned much from my monastery retreats. I might have to write another post which could include learning about community and hospitality among many other spiritual disciplines. I am thankful for those I have learned from and all of the monks and nuns who live the religious life day in and day out. They bear witness to the power of community, prayer and silence and the ways in which those disciplines can enrich our spiritual lives and world today.
Let me close with “A Prayer of Saint Benedict” the father of monks:
A Prayer of St Benedict (480-547)
Gracious and holy Father,
please give me:
intellect to understand you;
reason to discern you;
diligence to seek you;
wisdom to find you;
a spirit to know you;
a heart to meditate upon you;
ears to hear you;
eyes to see you;
a tongue to proclaim you;
a way of life pleasing to you;
patience to wait for you;
and perseverance to look for you.
a perfect end,
your holy presence.
A blessed resurrection,
And life everlasting.
Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI (Episcopalian Benedictine): http://saintgregorysthreerivers.org/
Saint Meinrad’s Archabbey in St Meinrad, IN (Roman Catholic Benedictine): http://www.saintmeinrad.org/
Abbey of Gethsemane in Trappist, KY (Roman Catholic Trappist): http://www.monks.org/