After the rush of liturgical events that begins the season of Lent, including burning palms for Ash Wednesday’s Masses, decorating the church, inaugurating Lenten Morning Prayer, and hosting the bishop for the celebration of the Rite of Election, I escaped to a much needed week-long silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. In a remarkable and unplanned way my time at Mepkin Abbey perfectly paralleled the liturgical week that began with the announcement of Jesus being driven into the desert and being returned to the world having been Transfigured. The spirit driving me
far from the concourse of men (in the language of the founder of the Cistercians) left me too transfigured as I once again came to experience just how much I am loved by God; I hope and pray that the love I have experienced overflowing within me can now overflow from me to others that they too may feel lifted up and return with prayers of praise and glory to God.
I’ve been being drawn to Cistercian spiritual practices for some time and, although I only first visited Mepkin Abbey after Christmas as part of our vacation to Charleston, I have wanted to make such a retreat for ages. You may be wondering what someone so verbose as myself did for five days on a silent retreat: I did a lot of reading; I meditated on what I read in order to discover the deep meanings therein; I prayed with the monastic community and in silence around the monastery; and I sought to contemplate the loving presence of God within me. For those familiar with lectio divina (see a previous post of mine) you will recognize the above as the four moments of deepening desire for God that comprise lectio divina.
What did I read?
My primary guidebook for the week was Robert Thomas’ Passing from Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat (Cistercian, 2006). During my morning and afternoon work times I read Jerome Neyrey’s Give God the Glory: Ancient Prayer and Worship in Cultural Perspective (Eerdmans, 2007) and Francis Smith’s The World is Charged: The Transcendent With Us (Crossroad, 2003), respectively. I have also been reading Thomas Merton’s Cassian and the Fathers: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition (Cistercian, 2005) and intend to finish that first of three volumes of Cistercian Wisdom on Monday as a continuation of my retreat.
Upon what did I meditate?
During the time I was on retreat I wrote nearly 40 pages of reflections, meditations, poems, and some prayers. Though it would be both inappropriate because of length and discretion to share that all here, I can summarize a few points: i) I came to a deeper understanding of being as I am simply because I am pleased with God rather than trying to act so that God might be pleased with me. ii) I found a greater dependance on God in reflecting that I become like the little child of who finds her rest in God alone, a particularly poignant meditation as I await the birth of our daughter. iii) I felt in a very tangible way what it means to enter into the divine rest (otium) as I meditated that God take up his dwelling in the humble and cleft wounds of my soul that result from the cutting out of the old man, a point summarized beautifully by Baldwin of Ford who prays:
Build in me your tabernacle and rest in me, that I may rest in you…that O may desire nothing apart from you, nothing at all, save only you or for your sake. Thus will I find peace and in my heart will be at rest (Tractati 5).
How did I pray?
I joined in the entire monastic cursus and therefore was steeped in nearly one-third of the Psalms. I began my days at 3:20AM with Vigils with the Cistercian Office of Psalms and Readings which included lectio continua of Numbers and readings from various spiritual writers (Bernard of Clairvaux, Cesearius of Arles, Thomas Merton, et al.). This was followed by lectio divina in my guest room. I returned to the church at 5:30AM for Morning Prayer (Lauds). Having now spent three hours in prayer and prayerful reading, had breakfast in silence with the other retreatants in the refectory followed by another hour of lectio divina before returning to the church for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist at 7:30AM and the
little hour of Mid-Morning Prayer (Terce). Though for the monks the next three hours the monks engaged in physical labor, I spent this time in even more reading—less obviously spiritual in nature and more theological. After Mid-day Prayer (Sext) at noon, I ate lunch with the other retreatants adjacent the monk’s refectory and listened to the same reading they did, taken this week from Richard Rohr’s Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St Anthony Messenger, 2001). This main meal of the day I brought to a close with Mid-afternoon prayer (None) in the refectory. While the monks returned to their work, I once again took up my work with theological reading sitting in the afternoon sun in beautiful garden along the Cooper River and spiritual direction with Father Guerric. After a quick supper at 5:00 I went to the church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament before resuming my place in the choir at 6:00PM for Evening Prayer (Vespers). After catching up on whatever reading I had not completed during the day I returned to the church a final time to pray Night Prayer (Compline) in the dark before going to bed by 8:30PM. Thus my whole day was structured around and filled with prayer—the opus Dei (work of God).
What is contemplation?
tasting of the sweetness of the blessed life which gladdens and refreshes,
inebriation of the thirsting spirit (Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks), the spiritual encounter with God through the text and reserved only for those to whom God showers the delight of prayer. Though I cannot say without fearing some unwarranted boasting that I experienced such a mystical union with the Most High I certainly have been refreshed, renewed and, elevated. As I told Michelle when she asked how my retreat went, however,
You’ll have to tell me based on how my life is now lived.
This wonderful opportunity to go on retreat for which I am so thankful prepares me well for my Lenten journey, a journey I take with the elect preparing for baptism for whom both I and the Mepkin community constantly prayed. This Lenten journey of purification and enlightenment is not just for the elect or for those who take the time to make a week-long retreat but also for all the faithful, a journey retracing Jesus’ own and summed up week-for-verse in Rory Cooney’s
Jerusalem, My Destiny (GIA, 1990):
I have fixed my eyes on your hills, Jerusalem, my destiny!
Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away…
Here among you now I find a glimpse of what might be…
Let no one walk alone. The journey makes us one.