A Monastic Life Experience: Jacob Hayden
By Jacob Hayden
I arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe trappist Abbey the evening on July 25th, not knowing quite what to expect. The first day Br. Chris greeted me and told me simply to relax for the first few days. I spent the time joining the monks for their periods of community prayer (the divine office) to acclimate myself to the schedule, exploring the woods during the afternoons and reading some books. Upon entering the cloister on July 27th Br. Chris shared the two rules of the Monastic Life Retreat (MLR): rule #1 don’t worry and #2 show up to the divine office. I kept these in mind throughout the retreat as there were certainly times when I was tempted to worry (like: “even though the sweets are out, should I eat them? Is that very monkish?” Then I remembered not to worry and had a candy bar). What I propose to do with this brief reflection to capture my time as an MLR is go through a typical work day (there are two schedules at Guadalupe: Work Days and Sunday/Solemnity, the difference being Sunday’s schedule has no work and the morning prayers are more spaced out). I will divide the day up using the introductory verse of each of the “hours” of the divine office.
O Lord, open my lips… And my mouth shall declare your praise
At 4:15 every morning the community gathers together to begin the day with prayer. We recite (the only office of the day when we don’t chant) the psalms, followed by a reading from Scripture and a period of silence to meditate on the Word we just heard proclaimed. Then we recite another series of four psalms followed by a reading from the tradition (normally a famous saint’s writing) followed by a period of silence to reflect on the words from the tradition of the Church. Vigils concludes with a closing prayer. Immediately after the conclusion of vigils we pray the Angelus silently while standing in our choir stalls (this is the first of three times throughout our day we stand silently and pray the Angelus silently with the assistance of the bell). Following the Angelus I set my books for Lauds, which is the next “hour” of the divine office (we have 5 books that we use to navigate through the various offices of the day), I head to the refectory(dining room/cafeteria) to grab a light breakfast. Following breakfast I go up to my room to practice lectio divina for 30 minutes (reading, reflecting, and praying with Sacred Scripture). Then most days I’d take a quick nap between my lectio and Lauds.
Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore: from the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.
At 6:30 on works days (and 7:15 on Sunday/Solemnities) the community gathers for Lauds (also called morning prayer outside of the monastic world). Here we prayer 2 psalms and an old testament canticle (a lyrical verse from a book in the Old Testament), followed by a brief reading and some chanted/sung responsories). Following the conclusion of Lauds we shift around and prepare for Mass. Mass is simple and profound. I’ve always thought that praying the Mass with the Monks of Guadalupe is like ruminating on every word of the liturgy, as we pronounce our responses in the appropriate places. Following the conclusion of the Mass I would gather with Br. Chris, Br. Paul and James (the other MLR making the retreat with me) and pray terce (known as mid-morning prayer outside the monastic world). Following this we launched into blessing the name of the Lord through our labor. Work lasted from about 8:15 until 12:15 6-days a week (could be fewer if there was a solemnity during the week). The work ranges from simple maintenance chores (cutting the grass, weeding) to more intensive maintenance chores (chopping down trees and clearing stubborn plant life) to work within one of the monastic industries (my experience of this was packaging fruitcakes in boxes to be shipped). I found the labor to be one of my favorite parts, in the course of my time working with the monks I learned how to drive their tractors, got to take the ATVs out to get to the work sites and used a plethora of power tools and good old fashioned manual tools. It always felt good to come in from work knowing that I had accomplished something with my morning.
O God, come to my assistance… Lord, make haste to help me.
Sext (also known as mid-day prayer outside of the monastic world) marked the end of the work day for me as an MLR (the monks usually still had an afternoon period of work on their schedules). This time of prayer is brief and roughly shares the pattern of Lauds (morning prayer). After we conclude this office the entire community would go to the refractory for our common meal. Here we line up and silently pray the angelus, followed by a blessing of the food by one of the priests in the community. We silently process towards the buffet of vegetarian dishes prepared by the cook for the day (there was a different Monk assigned to cook for each day of the week). As we sat down at our tables and began our meal the reader would begin reading a book (during my time we heard an article from Cistercian studies, a book about Jesus, and started a book about Pope Francis); we would eat and listen for a period of roughly 20 minutes. At the conclusion we’d all stand together and end our meal with a prayer then file into the dish room to drop of our dishes for the monk assigned to wash dishes for that meal on that day. From this point onward I was free to do whatever I wanted. I spent most of my time reading, but also had opportunities to talk with some of the monks and hear about their own vocation stories and their lives prior to and in the monastery, this was a great gift of this retreat as there are many incredible men living in this community. I also would use some time during the afternoon to pray privately in one of the two chapels within the cloister. The afternoon also afforded time to go on a walk in the woods or simply take a nap as the needs of the day dictated.
Let my evening prayer ascend before you, O Lord, and may your loving kindness descend upon us
Vespers (or evening prayer outside of the monastic world) takes place at 5:30 every evening. From this point forward my day would conclude rather quickly. Vespers consisted of a series of 2 psalms followed by a New Testament canticle (usually something from a pauline letter). After the psalmody we’d hear a reading and spend some time silently reflecting on it. Some intentions for the needs of the Church and the world with a closing prayer concluded this hour. After vespers MLRs had the opportunity to join a few of the monks and some retreatants in the Bethany house for 20-25 minutes of centering prayer. This is a method of praying where one sits intentionally in God’s loving presence, without engaging the flood of thoughts that are sure to assail us in our attempt to be still and know God’s loving presence. Once the gong rang indicating the period of centering prayer was ended I head to dinner (called supper here, lunch is called dinner as it is the main meal) which is generally left overs from the mid-day meal. This was a quick meal, after which I normally had an hour to read before Compline (called night prayer outside of monastic circles). I normally spent this time in the exceptionally well appointed library (one of my favorite spots in the monastery, but I am also a lover of books).
O God, come to my assistance… Lord, make haste to help me.
Perhaps my favorite office of the day, compline is at 7:30 every night. It is essentially the same every day (the only office that has this characteristic), only the tune used alternate week to week. After this office concludes the entire community gathers around the altar and faces the giant tapestry of Our Lady. We sing the Hail Holy Queen, entrust the Church and world to Mary’s protective intercession, and pray the angelus silently. After the angelus we bow towards the icon of Our Lady and proceed to be blessed with holy water by the abbot as we conclude our day. After this I would head to my room, maybe read a chapter from the novel I was reading, journal briefly about my day and then go to sleep, because 4 AM always comes early!
Conclusion: Pro Monasticam
While my meandering through the “typical day” may seem somewhat mundane, I found my time to be transformative personally. The word I kept using when talking with Br. Chris or others about my time with the Monks of Guadalupe was “gentle.” Nothing is rushed. Nothing is forced. One shows up to the things they are supposed to show up to and God works through our faithfulness with His tender Love and Mercy. As I conclude this reflection I find it appropriate to offer a response to a question I was asked a number of times by friends and family as I told them I was spending a month with monks: “cool, but what do monks do? Like how do they help people?” There was any number of responses that I offered up to these questions previous to my time. However, both my experience and providentially the reading I undertook during the retreat has lead me to a new answer. One of the tomes that engaged my mind during this retreat was Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism, towards the end of this compilation of essays from the famous french theologian De Lubac offers a Christian vision of the “new man,” as contrasted to atheistic visions of this same concept. I will quote his comment about the value of the world from a Christian perspective at length:
The real work of a good God, the world has a real value. It is more than just the milieu in which man must act and be engaged, more than the instrument that he must employ; it is,so to speak, the fabric of the world to come, the material of our eternity. It must not be annihilated but transfigured.Man thus has less to free himself from time than to free himself through time; he does not at all have to escape the world but to take it upon himself. (The Drama of Atheist Humanism, 428-429).
It might appear as odd that one would quote the goodness of the world in a defense of monasticism, so often understood as a “fleeing from the world.” But I assure you, there is no flight from the world in the monastery; the world always follows you wherever you go. However, the monastic community provides the structure by which a group of Christians can sanctify the world through their work and prayer. I’ve come to see the monastic life as the sanctification of a particular temporal space, in preparation for the world to come. What happens at monasteries, is what every Christian is called to: the sanctification of the world, through our daily activity. So how do monks help people? They transfigure the world through the freedom of time. Monastic life is not a flight from the world, but a elevation of the world. In the cloister the truth of St. Irenaeus’ famous utterance shines forth: “the glory of God is the human person fully alive” (cf. Adversus Haereses, Book IV, Chapter 20, paragraph 7)
Our Lady of Guadalupe,
make intercession for holy Church,
protect the sovereign Pontiff,
help all those who invoke you in their necessities,
and since you are the ever Virgin Mary
and Mother of the true God,
obtain for us from your most holy Son
the grace of keeping our faith,
of sweet hope in the midst of the bitterness of life
of burning charity, and the precious gift
of final perseverance.