This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing in the next few days about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and I think that it will take several blog posts to unpack it. So I’ll start by describing the monastery itself, and some reflections on the structure of the retreat in general.
Holy Cross Monastery is a Benedictine monastery in the Anglican Communion, and is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. A number of monks reside there, and the primary ministry of the monastery is to provide for individual and group retreats, like the one I attended. This was a special retreat program, but one can also spend several days there on one’s own, for a “self-guided” retreat.
I was there for less than 48 hours, but it didn’t take long to begin to appreciate the rhythm of the place. The monks gather for worship five times a day, for the “daily office,” Matins (7 am), Eucharist (9 am), Diurnum (12 noon), Vespers (5 pm), and Compline (8 pm). Guests are welcome at all worship experiences, and I took advantage of these opportunities. It was so deep and holy. Not only was there a rhythm to the day, but I could just glimpse the rhythm of the church year as well. Each office follows a particular pattern, but that pattern is adjusted based on where you are in the liturgical year, and where you are in relation to Sunday. I liked that. I resonated with the idea that worship moves in concentric patterns, around the day, around the week, around the year. I imagine that over long periods of time, worshiping like this would yield a deep and subtle wisdom about the nature of time. And the chanting…oh, the chanting and the incense were wonderful. Just wonderful. This was my kind of worship.
And I felt a rhythm to the place beyond worship as well. There were only three items on the schedule for our retreat, three items that repeated themselves throughout the time there. They were: worship, teaching, and meals. That’s all it was. 7:00 Matins; 8:00 breakfast; 9:00 Eucharist; 10:30 learning; 12:00 Diurnum; 12:30 lunch. Et cetera. It was all about feeding our souls, feeding our minds, and feeding our bodies. And all the food was exquisite. The food for the body was prepared by a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America (right across the Hudson River); it was simple yet absolutely delicious. The food for the soul, as I described above, was simple and holy, yet deeply rich. The food for the mind, the addresses by Rev. Martin L. Smith, were also deeply rich. I’ll get to them in future posts.
This was a “silent retreat,” which meant that from the evening address on Friday through to the morning address on Sunday, all attendees were expected to keep silent. Words of worship were an exception. The monks did speak at meals to share a few brief announcements. And certainly Rev. Smith did speak during his addresses. But other than that, silence. And let me tell you, for an introvert like me, silent retreats are awesome. There were about thirty or forty of us there, I think, but I never learned anyone else’s name. I never found out where anyone was from, who they are in their “normal life,” how many kids they have, what they think of the weather, what they think of President Trump. I didn’t realize how much I dislike small talk with strangers, how much anxiety wells up in me, until that small talk was taken away. I could sit in the common area with my journal or a book, sipping my coffee, while a dozen others were in the room. And I had no fear whatsoever of being interrupted. I had no anxiety about how much to open up to someone, how much to say, how much to keep silent. There are probably several good reasons for silence at a spiritual retreat: Rev. Smith said that we didn’t want to get in the way of anyone’s conversation with God, prevent a revelation that might be unfolding to that person. But I think for introverts, it’s just an awesome gift. I can imagine it’s hard for extraverts, but you know what? There are plenty of places out there for them. I’m glad to have a place for us too!
And that’s enough for today. I will talk more about the retreat, including the labyrinth I walked there, over the next few days.