A Monastic Life Experience: Ron Walker
By Ron Walker
Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey is located only an hour away from my home. Several times a month, for the last four years, I have driven down to the small Oregon town of Lafayette to share in the hospitality of this monastic community. When I make my visit, I observe their evening prayer offices of Vespers and Compline, participate in a contemplative prayer sit with the monks, admire the lovely peaceful landscape, and then drive home. The Abbey has become one of my spiritual homes, a thin place for me.
A thin place, as described in the Celtic tradition, is “one of those rare locales where the distance between heaven and earth seems to collapse. Where the visible and the invisible worlds come into closer proximity, like a veil has been lifted.”
I was thrilled to be accepted into the Monastic Life Retreat (MLR) program at the Trappist Abbey this summer and to be given the opportunity to spend a whole month in such a place. I have been asked to share with you something of my experience.
Daily life in a monastic community is busy and includes six offices of prayer, a mass and a regular work schedule. It is a uniquely structured environment and you will find that monks value each and every moment of their day. As an MLR, your afternoons are relatively free, so you will quickly be faced with an interesting question: How and where will you spend your silent time when there is nothing of your normal life to distract you?
Let me suggest that you start by looking for a quiet place, or two, where you can be by yourself and simply breathe in the goodness of this place. A comfortable spot where you can reflect on your day, your life, or just sit with gratitude for being welcomed into this wonderful community. I found new places everyday where I could welcome the silence and consider just how I would pass on the gift of this retreat.
One place where you might reflect on your day, is the reading area just steps from your room, that overlooks the garth. The garth is a beautiful, enclosed garden, mindfully created and cared for, as everything is here. Birds, large and small, fly into this garden from the forest, looking for a respite and an undisturbed drink from the fountain. You will find most of the wildlife on these grounds, including the deer, to be unconcerned with your presence. The view of the bell tower from here is striking as it looms high over the garden. You might notice that this view of the tower is different than others you have seen. You are experiencing the tower for the first time from inside the cloister. It is a reminder that the MLR is a special opportunity and should be savored every minute that you are here.
Just as the offices of prayer change with the sacred light, so does this reading area change throughout the day. If you return at night the bell tower seems larger, and looks as if it has receded somewhat into the forest behind. Looking up at the tower you might even recall Thomas Merton’s essay Firewatch:
“Now is the time to get up and go to the tower. Now is the time to meet you, God, where the night is wonderful, where the roof is almost without substance under my feet, where all the mysterious junk in the belfry considers the proximate coming of the three bells, where the forest opens out under the moon and living things sing . . . . . ”
Gethsemani in 1952 was a different place than Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2015; but still present in the air here is the mystery of the Trappist life that Merton so beautifully wrote about.
During your free afternoons, you might find a contemplative moment in the Refectory. Late in the day the room feels like a study area in a small university and you could find yourself sharing it quietly with one or two monks reading or translating an ancient text. At other times during the day, this is the place where the whole community comes together. For the midday meal all the monks sit here evenly spaced at long heavy tables along wooden walls, eating in silence. They face the center of the room and look onto smaller tables where other monks offer warm smiles and guiding hands to the elders of the community; those who might need a little help eating their meal or getting back to their room. There is no wait staff here, the community takes care of itself. And this room is kept spotless. I learned how to mop the floor and wash the dishes here my first morning after breakfast. I noticed that the Abbot was on the schedule to do the same after lunch.
But for all the activity of the day, the Refectory was made for darkness, save the soft light on the Ikon above the Abbot’s table. The light switch for the Ikon has a note asking you to please leave that light on at all times. One morning before Vigils, about two weeks into my retreat, I smelled freshly brewed coffee in the Refectory and walked into the dark, silent room to help myself. At the far end of the room was the Ikon, ever illuminated. You really don’t have much choice but to take your coffee over to that side of the room and sit. After that first encounter, it became my practice to sit there for a while every morning before Vigils. You might want to give it a try.
The last office of the day is Compline, and with it comes a silence in the community that will be honored until the next morning. But if your day is not feeling quite complete, and it is summer, you may want to walk outside for a few moments down to the porch at Bethany House. Your vantage point there is on a hill above the pond with a view over your shoulder of both the guest house and the church. There will be just enough light left to see the reflection of tall firs on the surface of the water when you arrive and the large resident carp will still be there loitering not far from shore. Within minutes though, daylight and birdsong will give way to darker shadows and the voices of crickets and frogs.
“The things of time are in connivance with eternity. The shadows serve You. The beasts sing to you before they pass away. The solid hills shall vanish like a worn-out garment. All things change, and die and disappear. Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”
The coolness of the air will remind you that it’s time to go in; you’ll have plenty of time tomorrow to sit with your unanswered questions. Bedtime comes early here at the Abbey, the bells announcing Vigils will be heard long before the sunrise. And don’t forget your morning sit with the Icon.
The Monastic Life Retreat is an unforgettable, very personal experience. I hope you treasure the time that you have been given with this loving community, and that you find in the silence new insights about yourself and the contemplative life.