A Monastic Life Experience: Jason Brown
Chanting to the Moon: My Experience as a Monastic Life Retreatant at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Carlton, OR
Jason M. Brown
PhD Student, University of British Columbia
There are two days left in my month long Monastic Life Retreat. It is 4:13am and I am stumbling my way toward my choir stall. I look up, and past the Tabernacle through the large, dark window, May’s full moon is setting through a light haze. I entered the community on April 14, under the blessing of April’s nearly full moon. Though a coincidence of my arrival, my stay coincided with an entire lunar month. I love seeing the moon, and in my modern life try to keep track of whether or not it is waxing or waning. And yet I have never measured time using this most ancient of timepieces. Nor have I punctuated my day with six communal chantings of the Biblical Psalms, but this is life for the nearly 25 monks who call the Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey home.
My first chant was the hour of ‘Sext’ (12:30pm) on April 14. I was very nervous and Brother Richard helped me find my place in the five different Psalters and hymn books used by the monks. As we began chanting, then bowing for the doxology, my body slowly relaxed. Chanting with the monks, my favorite part of the retreat, feels so much different than listening from the pews; I felt quite literally inside the chant itself. The openness of the Abbey church with its high glass ceilings and long windows, made me feel as though we were chanting the day into being, and putting it to rest again at dusk. My days were full: three meals, six chants, two meditation sits, personal lectio divina (the monastic practice of reading of the scriptures as prayer), access to an extensive library, and classes given by the monks on Prayer, Lectio Divina and the Cistercian Fathers.
Despite my busy schedule, I spent many hours hiking the extensive grounds of the monastery which are covered by a beautiful mix of white oak, Douglas fir, alder and ponderosa pine. It was a wet spring at the monastery, and witnessing the annual rebirth of creation during Easter time at a monk’s pace brought greater determination to be present to the earth’s subtle seasonal liturgy of birth, life death. When I arrived, the white oaks were just beginning to break their buds, and the swallows had not yet arrived; by the time I left, the oaks were in full leaf and the swallows were noisily colonizing the storage shed rafters behind the cloister. One feels a deep connection between the monastery and the forests that surround it. Here is a poem recorded in my journal from mid April:
A stand of Douglas fir trees,
planted by the first generation of monks.
They stand tall,
clothed in mossy cowls,
silent as the monks who planted them.
The robins in their copper and grey habits,
far out number the monks,
and sing their own Psalter from the tops of the trees.
My interest in the connection between spirituality and ecology was fostered during my joint masters degrees in theology and forestry. In my current work as a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, I am continuing to explore the spirituality of sacred landscapes, especially forested ones. Brother Chris, the monastery forester, knows the Abbey forests like the back of his hand and showed a deep reverence for trees, especially the rare Madrone. The monastery’s grounds make up the largest contiguous forest in a largely agricultural Yamhill County, and all harvesting operations are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Yet, far from primeval, the forests were almost wholly planted by hard working monks whose forestry operations started in earnest in the late 1960s. Land being an essential part of the Trappist isolation from the ‘world’ and a pillar of their livelihood, a Trappist monastery then is one part church, one part nature park, one part working forest, one part farm, one part university, and one part industrial village. What drew me to the Monastic Life Retreat was a desire to dwell in this holism; the balance sought, not always perfectly, between work, prayer and study. The community centers around the liturgy, but the liturgy is nested within nearly 1,000 acres of monastic cloister, enterprises, farmland and beautiful forest and restored oak savannah.
The monks support themselves by leasing their farmland to local farmers, timber harvests, a bakery, a book bindery and a large wine storage warehouse and labeling operation that serves local vintners. Every morning after Mass, I would work with the one or several of the monks in a variety of these enterprises or on special projects. From cleaning the refectory, replacing light bulbs and folding laundry, to trimming hedges, mowing lawns, boxing wine for shipment, or preparing the garden for planting. Some work tedious, some work difficult, but all of it somehow connected to monastic life. Most mornings however, I worked along side the Abbey Cellarer Brother John. This was a real privilege. In his early 80s, his kind spirit shines through his well worn and patched denim work jacket. He worked circles around me and wielded a chainsaw with the same grace that he did the incense thurible during Mass. Though we did a variety of work in the woods and around the monastery enterprises, my favorite days were spent repairing sections of several trails that lead to the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe at the top of the monastery’s hill. Particularly muddy, slippery or steep sections of pathway became level, graveled trails. In some places we even installed railings and steps.
Not only did this work remind me of my time with the U.S. Forest Service, but it mirrored an inner treading, retreading and clearing of the messy, overgrown and contradictory pathways of my own soul. I was raised in a devout and loving Mormon family in Southern California, with roots in Salt Lake City, Utah. I love my tradition, but for the past several years my soul has yearned for something I did not find there. The Monastic Life Retreat is the latest stop on a lonely and at times discouraging spiritual journey along the winding paths of seeking, sometimes desperately, to belong, to believe, and to practice an authentic, fulfilling spiritual life. While at the Abbey, I had no revelatory breakthroughs, no first visions; just the subtle peace that stillness brings. I had a lot of space to wrestle with my angels, demons, questions, and identity, like Jacob is the desert wilderness. reflecting back, it seems I know less about God now than I thought I did as a Mormon, less about truth, less about salvation. I won’t go into my emerging theology, but it involves being more comfortable with uncertainty, ineffability; and an ever deepening conviction that when I am close to earth, reading the book of creation, I feel closer to God–the Ground of Being, the Absolute, Reality, Life, the True Self.
I am not necessarily called to the Trappist vows, but I am so grateful for my time at the Abbey. It was a privilege and an honor that these kind men shared their time, space and friendship with me during this important time in my journey. I hope to return very soon. To the monks of Guadalupe Abbey, thank you! Your lives inspire me to not just be a more serious contemplative, but a better human being.
Jason Brown is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. His Monastic Life Retreat was from April 15th to May 15th 2014.