“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” Blaise Pascal
When men and women reach forty, something strange begins to happen. It starts with a subtle burn in their insides. Then, there is this vague restlessness, an undercurrent of low-grade dissatisfaction with their present-day situation and with how their life has turned out. An inner urge follows, welling up from somewhere, to engage in strange and out- of- character activities in an attempt to soothe a vague, but real, internal burn, and to silence this undefinable inner disturbance. It seems they might do almost anything to satisfy this obdurate craving for something not yet known.
Some run away to the wilderness, some take up Yoga, rock climbing, or cross fit training. Others may have an affair, or take up a new lover. Some drop the corporate career and start a small business or hobby, and some buy a corvette.
Then, some go to a monastery.
Although I was raised a Catholic, I had never been in a monastery, nor had I ever met a Monk. Plenty of nuns taught me throughout my years in Catholic school, so I knew about the religious life, or at least that it existed. But it was not past experience that led me to the decision to spend my first weekend at St. Bernard’s Benedictine Monastery in North Alabama. It was a sudden collision of a deep inner restlessness with a casual decision to visit the “Ave Maria” Grotto on St. Bernard’s monastery grounds.
Life had become a monotonous chore; the hours, days, and weeks ran together, becoming something to endure and as of late to survive. It hurt to think of when I was young and full of hope in the future. All I could see ahead of me now was drearily trudging along until I was an old man.
On the outside, I looked as normal as one could: a decent career, a lovely wife, and five children growing up before me. Yet, I felt empty and alone, cloaked by an existential dread that intimated there was not much left to experience – this really was all there is.
Invited by my brother -in-law, who was a novice at St. Bernard’s Monastery in northern Alabama, I drove the 100 miles to the monastery- home of the famous “AVE MARIA GROTTO”.
Nestled in a gentle hill, it was a miniature depiction of ancient Rome, Jerusalem, and the more famous of the Christian Religious sites, meticulously built of stone and glass. After touring the Grotto, I decided to stroll around the property. The monastery grounds covered hundreds of acres of North Alabama woods and fields. It was late October, and the Alabama woods were in their season’s glory. Orange, yellow, and red leaves danced together in the bright blue sky as the crisp fall breeze swept across the centuries old campus.
I quietly entered the main Church and carefully stepped around its perimeter. The Abbey Church is open to visitors for prayer services, private prayer and meditation, or as a tourist to take in its simple gothic beauty. It just happened to be the time of vespers – the evening prayer for the monks. I quietly sat down in the rear of the church as I watched two dozen hooded men bow their heads in prayer. After a few moments, one of the monks tapped the wooden bench he sat on as some sort of signal, and the monks began chanting in unison from their prayer books. I leaned back in my pew, and gently closed my eyes in order to absorb the melodious tones soaring through the spacious Church. This otherworldly singing fell gently upon me like a light rain on dry and cracked ground. I found myself surprised with the whole scene, in this Church, listening these monks chanting the psalms. This was not what I had in mind when I left the house this morning. I felt as if I had been given an unexpected gift. The same monk signaled again by tapping his bench, and they quietly rose and filed out of the Church.
For the next hour, I walked the Abbey grounds, observing the meticulous landscape, the work barns, the old school buildings, the wooded trails bordered by cow pastures. I noticed several monks quietly walking beside a large pond. They moved so gently along the edge of the water that in their robes they seemed to glide. Without speaking, they seemed to be communicating something deeper than words.
It was getting dark, so I returned to my car and drove the 90 miles back home. As I drove down the interstate, back to my life, I reflected on the contrast between my life and what I imagined life was like for these men–men who had consecrated their lives to solitude, poverty, simplicity, prayer, community, obedience, and celibacy. What sort of event or crisis would drive a man or woman to make such a radical departure from the modern world? What did they hope to receive in return? What meaning would enter their lives as a result of this consecration? Yet, were not these the same questions I should be asking of myself? I was reminded of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist and holocaust survivor, who said, “Those who have a ‘Why ‘to live for can bear almost any ‘How’”. What was the ‘Why’ for these Monks? More pointed, what was the ‘Why’ for me? The thought occurred to me that if a brief afternoon could have this effect on me, what might the impact of an extended stay be?
Before I reached home, I had made the decision to contact the Abbey and request a longer visit. I was encouraged by a sign I saw at the Grotto Gift shop; on it was an illustration of two rotund monks, and the words
“All guests are to be received as Christ, and accorded due respect. As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, he [the porter] replies, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please;’ then, with all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God, he provides a prompt answer with the warmth of love.”
Brother Gus, who ran the Gift shop, said the quote was from the Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts written by St. Benedict of Nursia (c.480–547) for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. Beyond its religious influences, the Rule of St Benedict was one of the most important written works to shape medieval Europe and was considered one of the first successful constitutions for community living. Hundreds of religious communities still use it today.
So with a call to St. Bernard’s Abbey, I had arrangements for a weekend visit.
I negotiated with my wife for a long weekend away, and I arrived on a Friday at mid –morning. As I entered the monk’s residence hall I noticed a welcome sign with a list of the guests for the weekend and their assigned room numbers. I was in room 224. Before climbing the stairs to my room, I paused to take in the extreme quiet and the utter simplicity of the monastic residence. Large oil paintings of men in religious attire hung along the hallway walls. On closer look, they were past ‘abbots’ in the history of the monastery. The Abbot is the head of the monastery, voted into office by its members. The word stems from the Aramaic ‘Abba’, meaning ‘my father’. I would later learn that of all the vows the monks take, the vow of obedience to the Abbot is for many monks the most difficult vow to maintain.
“Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything you need to know”
Abba Moses “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”
I entered my room and set my bags on the small single bed. The ancient term for the monks small living quarters is ‘Cell’. The Earliest monks went out into the desert of Egypt to live a more ascetic life as Christianity became legal and no longer a persecuted religion. They lived in small individual huts clustered around each other.
My cell was ten by fifteen feet. Along with the single metal-frame bed, there was a small desk, a plain wooden chair, a sink with a mirror and cabinet above, and a small closet. There was a single crucifix on the wall. The walls were cinder blocks painted a light green. I was wondering what my interior designer wife would think of the sparse décor.
On the bed was a note welcoming me as a guest, and outlining the times of community prayer and the occasions where speaking was allowed. These times were few and brief – only after breakfast and lunch. A time of ‘Grand Silence’ followed immediately after the supper meal until after breakfast the following day. I thought of my normal evening routine at home with evening chatter with my wife and children, the business of the evening, the TV or computer capturing so much of my attention every night. What was I to do from 7:00 pm until morning? There was no radio, TV, computers – Smart phones were not yet invented. I brought with me a few books, and had my writing notebooks, this little green room, and me.
Thomas a Kempis wrote in his thirteenth century spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, “Every time you leave your cell you come back less a person”. Following this same theme, Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher and psychologist wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”. Jesus himself said, “When you pray, go into your closet (cell) and close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees you in secret, will reward you openly.”
It was in their cell that the monks spent the majority of their time. It was while in their cell that they would struggle with both God and their own demons. It was in my cell, that for the next three days, I would grapple with questions; the meaning of my life, if there was another way to live, if there is a God who even cares what I do. It was in this tiny cell in the late night hours that I would struggle to find some meaning and a glimpse of what lay ahead.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Ps. 133:1
As a guest, I was encouraged to participate in the community prayers each day. The rule of St. Benedict lays out the prayer schedule for the monk. The basis for this schedule comes from Psalms 119:64, “Seven times a day I praise you”.
On my welcome note was the following schedule:
4:00 AM Vigils
6:00 AM Lauds
7:15 AM Terce (breakfast)
11:15 AM Sext (dinner)
1:00 PM None (start of work)
4:30 PM Vespers (supper)
6:35 PM Compline (Grand Silence)
7:00 PM Retire
I unpacked my suitcase and went downstairs to stretch my legs before Sext (the late morning prayers). In the hallway a very small monk approached, bowed, and greeted me warmly.
“Hello, my name is Brother Andre, and you must be Bob?”
“That’s right. It’s very nice to meet you” I replied.
Andre had a pleasant smile and a gleam in his eyes. He had grey thinning hair and wore glasses that appeared too large for his small face. “I hope you found your room acceptable. You may have noticed we don’t go in for a lot of extras around here”, he laughed.
“That is just fine by me. I found the room very comfortable, and I am looking forward to the weekend”
“The next prayer will begin shortly, and you are more than welcome to join with us in the monk’s choir area if you like. It is entirely up to you though. We give you our schedule only so you are aware. We invite you to participate at your pleasure. Many of our guests just need a time to get away to rest. Please listen to your body and your spirit, and enjoy your stay.”
His warm and gentle hospitality let me know that I had no reason to be anxious about anything while I was here, at least none originating from the monks.
“Thank you, Brother Andre. I will.”
With that exchange, Andre nodded and walked away. I stepped outdoors, and walked around the building to the pond where there was a small bench. I sat down and allowed myself to relax in this strange yet alluring environment. At that moment, I sensed that what I was beginning to experience was something more than a nice, peaceful, getaway. It was as if the buildings, the trees, the pond, the monks, the simplicity, the quiet, were all conspiring together to open up something deep inside me that had been closed off– something that made me feel at home in a place I had never been before. I was reminded of a line from TS Elliot’s Four Quartets,
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Had I spent this first half of my life reaching, grabbing, doing, becoming, exploring and then stumble here at this second half of life only to find something I have always been searching for? I was at least willing to look.
The Call To Prayer
“Immediately upon hearing the signal for the Divine Office all work will cease.”
Rule of St. Benedict
After a few moments, the Church bells began to ring, signaling the next prayer time was about to begin. With the echo of the bells still hovering over the yard, I made my way into the Church and took a seat at one of the choir stalls. The monks shuffled in one by one from different directions and settled into their stall. At first, I felt a bit like an intruder or spectator, but their smiles let me know I was welcome. For the next 20 minutes, we chanted from the psalter and read selected scriptures. The psalter is a loose-leaf book of psalms set to chant symbols. According to ancient practice, monastics recite all 150 psalms on a regular basis. Originally, the hermits in the desert would recite the entire Psalter every day. The custom later evolved to the reciting all 150 psalms weekly.
I did my best to follow along. There were no music notes, just markings that denote when you should go up or down in melody, and how far. It is all the monks needed. The sound of the monks voices was rich and pleasant, bouncing off the granite walls and stained glass windows of the spacious old Church, echoing through high vaulted ceilings and open spaces as if all the monks of old were joining in the worship and the fun.
There were several periods of silence at each prayer time when I would sit back in my stall, feel the wood against my back, and gently close my eyes. I imagined that I was in medieval days, chanting the poetry of King David with the monks. This sacred space, this quiet and gentle environment, this common purpose of seeking transformation through silence, solitude, and prayer, was working its magic on me. I felt as far removed from my everyday life as that. Just as I experienced it by the pond earlier, this silence was not simply the absence of disturbances in the air, but something almost tangible that was slowly working its way into my mind and my heart. It came as much from my inside as it did from the outside.
“If you learn to pray sometime, somewhere, you can pray all the time everywhere” Stanley Jones
For a monk, to pray is to work, and to work is to pray; meaning that their whole life is oriented to the divine. In all those ‘in-between’ times, there was a silent, deliberate, thoughtful, serene approach to every activity, from eating their meals, managing the gift shop, caring for the grounds, cooking meals, doing laundry, studying, teaching newer monks, or personal prayer devotions.
After prayer, I joined the monks for dinner. The menu was plain, simple, and predictable, even after just three days. It consisted of a simple salad bar, a small serving of meat, a larger serving of vegetables, bread, and an occasional desert. We could get seconds of salad and bread. I would learn later that other monasteries, such as the Cistercians (Trappist’s), were more parsimonious in their servings. I preferred the generous meals of St. Bernard’s.
Andre’s role at the monastery was as the guest-master. Of the monks in the community, only he would join the guests at the table. We could talk at every breakfast and lunch, when I would pepper him with questions.
“How long have you been a monk?” “Do you have Family around here?” “Do you ever get to take a vacation or a weekend?” “What do you do for recreation?” Probably my most intrusive question was “Why did you decide to become a monk?”
I had questions I did not feel appropriate to ask. “Do you ever get lonely”? Have you ever regretted your decision?” “Have you ever been tempted to leave?” So for now, I kept my curiosity in check and decided to embrace my short time.
After lunch, I was free to spend the afternoon, as I wanted. Andre had given me permission to browse the Abbey library, which became my first adventure.
The library was on the bottom floor of the Monastery. As I walked down the stair, past some old bicycles and an exercise bench, I could smell the aroma of history- of the ancients. There were over a dozen stacks of books, twelve feet long, with a central reading area that held a half dozen leather and cloth reading chairs. Four end tables with lamps were scattered around the room. Along the walls were banks of large books encased in glass. On closer examination, these books were invaluable, illuminated manuscripts of the monastic psalter, created in the Middle Ages and brought over from Europe. These were texts painted with gold and colored inks on animal skins, embellished with ornate lettering and designs. Most of these works are found in major museums, and yet, here I am, reading illuminated manuscripts in the basement library of a monastery in rural Alabama.
As I browsed the stacks, I realized I was now in the intellectual and spiritual realm of the ancient and modern monastic mystics. Although raised a catholic, I had never heard of, much less read, most of the authors in this collection. My spiritual diet was the Baltimore Catechism, with its one sentence question and answers. Now, I was in the presence of the western world’s spiritual giants: Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, Catherine of Sienna, Theresa of Avila and the 20th century Trappist monk and father of the modern contemplative movement, Thomas Merton.
For the next several hours, I planted myself in that library and thumbed through numerous volumes of classic spiritual writings. As I perused the texts, I understood I was reading content that was not simply designed for information, but for transformation. I felt a change of consciousness taking place just in the act of reading these texts. This change aligned with the same change of consciousness occurring in me from simply being present in the sacred environment and in the daily prayer rhythms of the monastery. It was all conspiring together to change the way I thought, I felt, and I perceived life.
The monastic tradition has a term for this type of reading spiritual literature – “Lectio Divina”, translated “Divine Reading”. It is considered the chief occupation of the monk outside of community prayer. Lectio Divina is a process of reading spiritual texts at increasingly deeper levels until one is so immersed in the text that they slip into contemplative prayer, sometimes referred to as ‘resting in God’. The story is told that St. Theresa of Avila was so in tune to this that often the simple act of opening a spiritual book on her lap would put her in a deep state of contemplation.
Although it was almost four hours later, it seemed like a short time when the Church bells rang the call to vespers. I got up and started out to the Choir, and as I walked, I joined with the monks making their way as well. Whatever task a monk is engaged in, whether it was Lectio, working on a vehicle, mending a fence, mowing the grass, tending to the buildings, working in the Grotto gift shop—whatever their task, he would stop immediately upon hearing the bells, and make his way to the ‘Work of God’. This was an important demonstration of his vow to obedience.
We filed out of Church after vespers into the dining hall for supper. There was some small talk going on in the short walk, but once in the dining hall we were all silent.
We would eat our supper in total silence, while a monk read from Kathleen Norris fine book The Cloister Walk, a memoir describing her own nine-month stay at the St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. As I looked out at the monks at dinner, all dressed alike in tunic, scapular, cowl and hood, I was amused when the monk read from The Cloister Walk . “I could suddenly grasp that not ever having to think about what to wear was freedom that a drastic stripping down to essentials in one’s dress might also be a drastic enrichment of one’s ability to focus on more important things.”
The Rhythm of the Day
“Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems. You shall possess the good of the earth and sun -You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.” Walt Whitman
On Sundays and religious feast days, the monks enjoyed wine with their dinner, which added to a sense of celebration and joy in the air on this, their Sabbath rest day. I reflected on this ancient practice of the Sabbath rest still alive in this place, and how it infused into the day a special delight being preserved here among these men.
After supper, we had a few moments before the bell rang for compline, or night prayers. It is in the night that the monk is encouraged to remember how fleeting life is, and that we are all on pilgrimage while living on the earth. The prayer of compline also reminds us of this: “Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end”.
I passed the hours after compline walking up and down the Abbey gravel road in the bright moonlight. The Abbey grounds were set in rural North Alabama, away from any city lights, which offered a brilliant and silent night walk. As I walked, I reflected on how the Community prayer times at each phase of the day made the whole day sparkle with significance. What a contrast to the passing of time I was used to, with the day seeming to just roll on endlessly until sleep, and then up to repeat the monotony again.
There were no built- in stops that helped me gather myself and question what I was doing, why I was doing it, and if it made a difference to anybody. Here at the Abbey I was beginning to settle into the rhythm of monastic life, moving from one part of the day to the next, pausing seven times a day to pray in community, returning to private work, whether it was manual labor or the labor of private prayer, meditation, and reflection. I thought of Walt Whitman’s admonishment to take time to pause throughout the day, to stop the automatic sleepwalking and celebrate each phase of the day.
In this short weekend, I was awakening to the value of pausing throughout the periods of each day.
Pausing in the early morning when hope and anticipation flood in with the first rays of sun, and pausing again in the mid-morning as the sun rises and warms the fields and the heat.
Pausing again at noon with its natural break in the day’s activities, and pausing in the afternoon to take time to look back at what has been done and a look forward to the evening ahead .
Pausing in the evening as the sun begins to set and all of creation seems to slow down and embrace the coming night and pausing for the night watch where silence , solitude, reflection and above all, gratitude, reigns supreme.
At 4:00 am each morning, I would wake up to the sound of a solitary monk pacing up and down my hallway floor. I could hear the sound of his sandals shuffling and his robes brushing against himself. It was as if he walked alone with the alone, up before anyone but God so that he could have him all to himself.
At 5:30 am each morning, a loud, shrill buzzer would go off in the hallway. There was no snooze alarm with nice soothing music or talk radio. You could hear the monks tumble out of bed, splashing water on their face, and opening and closing their closet doors, and then shuffling down to the Church for 6:00 am ‘Lauds’ to greet the new day.
Not having a prescribed task as a guest, I spent my days in reading, meditation and writing in my cell and in walking outside. I felt I had landed in a different country with a different culture, in a different time. Although I did not speak with anyone for these next three days, with the exception of Andre at breakfast and lunch, I did not feel alone. I did feel that I had entered in some small way into the life and the community of these hooded men: men who had surrendered everything, even their own private lives, to the care of an unseen God and his representative on earth, the Abbot. The most curious thing for me was that without ever having been here before, I felt at home. Maybe T.S. Elliot got it right. Maybe somehow, having gone around circles the first half of life I just might be finding my way home.
The weekend was ending. I would be leaving to return to the modern life of the 21st century with its multitude of distractions, diversions, and temptations– back to a life of grasping, of restlessness, and of dissatisfaction. Would these three days have a lasting effect on me? Should I have gone out and bought a Corvette instead? At least I would have that to look at come Monday morning.
To Live in the Shadow of the Monastery
I expressed my concern to Andre Sunday just before leaving. I asked Andre “Is there a place for someone like me, a husband and father and full-time worker, to live a life like you and the monks here– a life that is more deliberate, more contemplative, more in rhythm with the day? Or is this life reserved for monks and nuns only?”
Andre smiled. “I thought you would come to that question before your left. We do not live here simply to hide away from the world, but to be a witness to the world of another way to live, a deeper way to live, a life that is connected to our creator and acts in harmony with this creator as do all other creatures. We are on watch, we are witnesses– as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote,
“We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners,
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.”
“There is a way for you, if you are so inclined, to continue to grow in the monastic way within your current state of life.”
Brother Andre looked at me now with an earnestness that went way beyond simple hospitality.
“You could become an oblate, which is a commitment to follow the spirit of the rule of St. Benedict and this monastery in your everyday life. Oblates meet here regularly for weekend retreats to learn more about contemplative living in the modern world and to support each other. In this way, you too can become a witness to another way of living, and do so as you rub right up against the modern world.”
As I drove the two hours’ home, I could not think of anything but the weekend experience. I thought of the words Andre left me with, and if it was possible for me to have just a little of what I experienced this weekend in my own life. Would I have it?
After that initial visit to St. Bernard’s Abbey, I became an Oblate the Abbey, meaning I promise to make an effort each day to live a life of thoughtfulness, gentleness, tolerance of others, and charity. I seek to participate as often as is practical in weekend retreats and other activities associated with the Abbey. Today I can think with some pity on my younger self who went to the Grotto in listless despair, and then with gratitude for that surprise gift ushering me into a way of life I never imagined.
It is a pilgrimage I have been on ever since. I am unwilling to cease my exploring. Over the years, I have visited several other monasteries around the country. I sometimes stray from the spirit of Benedict– a life of reflection and a contemplative way of approaching each day. Yet, St. Benedict allowed for this general weakness in all of us in our pursuit of a rich and meaningful life. That is why the most fundamental Benedictine dictum is “Always, we begin again”.
The shadow of St. Bernard’s still covers me today, intersecting with my life. I sense it whenever I pause and take in the simple gift of life. It follows me each day I choose to be open to explore and allow myself to be surprised. It follows me each day I that I consciously decide to begin my life again, stepping out into it with anticipation and gratitude. I grapple still with my need to wrest and wring satisfaction out of my days, yet the shadow of the Abbey penetrates it and reminds me to accept and receive with openness each morning, each midday, evening, and night.
I have since moved 2600 miles away from Alabama, so it has been a long time since I have talked to Brother Andre. However, I will never forget the supreme gift he and the monks of St. Bernard’s monastery placed in my heart. I hope Andre is still there at the Abbey, doing for others what he so generously did for me–greeting the guests sitting across the table at mealtime, smiling, and if they ask, declaring to the new Guest, “Yes, you too can be a witness to this way of life, even outside these walls. Here, have some more bread.”