Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Thursday

I'll admit to being a little bit sad that this was our last time to pray the Vigils with the brothers.  There's something sacred about praying for the world while everyone in it is sleeping (or at least those in our time zone).  As far as a sustainable lifestyle, however, I don't think I'm meant for it.

There is a brother at the abbey who on sabbatical as he writes a book.  His name is Fr. Isaac.  I asked Fr. Guerric about him one day and Fr. Guerric's response was, "Oh, Fr. Isaac is a Benedictine," as though Fr. Isaac's being a Benedictine would explain his behavior.  He is mischievous and funny, and always talks to us even though he isn't supposed to.  I think he likes the idea that he's getting away with breaking the rules.  I sit on his side of the chapel, and he registers a look of impression and pride when the other women on our side turn to the right prayer at the right time.  We have gotten used to him being a bit of a jokester.  Last night, however, as we were leaving Compline to go to bed, he bid us farewell with the blessing of Compline:  

"May you have a restful night and a peaceful death."

I was a little shocked at first, even though we had just prayed to God, "Grant us a restful night and a peaceful death."  It's one thing to pray it.  It's another thing to hear that blessing from someone else.

"You, um, too?" I responded.

Later I thought about what a lovely blessing that is.  It does not deny the reality of death, but wishes for us that our inevitable death with be surrounded by and filled with the peace of Christ.  

And to cement that blessing, we remember our baptisms as we leave the church and go to sleep.  We remember that it is Christ's death and resurrection that give us the hope of rest and peace, both in life and in death.  

I don't think I'll go around saying that to everyone I meet, but I will certainly carry that blessing with me as I go.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Wednesday

I started getting congested the weekend before the retreat, and by the time I got to the abbey I had a full-blown sinus infection.  The only thing worse than getting up at 3:00am is getting up at 3:00am with a head full of congestion and forgetting to take your sinus medication before Vigils begins.   I tried to concentrate on the service, but all I could think about was a hot shower and the tub of Thistle Farms Body Butter I had in my room.  My skin was unreasonably dry from the cold and wind

By the time I got back to my room, took a shower, and slathered myself with lotion I was wide awake.  Plus, I decided that all of my naps the day before had not worked to my advantage and that I should try staying awake after Vigils.  So I worked on my sermon.  Fortunately, the coffee in the Common Room at the Retreat Center is ready by 4:30 each morning.  When I got groggy working on my sermon I headed to the Common Room for some coffee and light reading. I started with Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land.  I only got a few pages in, but I will definitely finish it.

The rest of the day was much like Tuesday.  Instead of three sits, however, we only practiced one.  And in the afternoon we walked the labyrinth before Fr. Guerric took us on a tour to tell us more about the Cistercians and the history of Mepkin Abbey.

I did a better job of staying awake during today's sit, although I still managed to doze off.  And the second half of the sit, after the walking meditation, was only 10 minutes, so I appreciated that.  The labyrinth was a great experience.  Fr. Guerric suggested that on the way in to the center of the labyrinth we simply practice "letting go."  I started walking thinking that I really didn't have much to let go of, but as I walked I started to realize how long I was.  In fact, I got nervous that I would get to the center before I was finished letting go of everything!

There were some low spots in the labyrinth that were swampy from Monday's rain, but I even tromped through those instead of cutting through in order to give myself enough "letting go" time.

During some of the free time I took my camera and explored the grounds with my friend Abbey.  Abbey was a stray dog who wandered onto the grounds one day and never left.  She's not a snuggly dog, but she'll let you scratch behind her ears, and she's always up for exercise.  She accompanied one woman from our group on her runs, and she went with me on my walk as well.

After Vespers we met with Fr. Guerric again to talk about how we will practice contemplative prayer when we return to our contexts.  For some of us the barrier to the practice is time. For some of us it is space.  And for others it was accountability.  I realized that my barrier is distraction.  I already practice contemplative prayer each day, but I practice in my office.  There are distractions in the office, but I had grown to use those distractions as excuses to cut my practice short or to let my mind wander indefinitely.  The decision that I made was to move my practice to the sanctuary where I wouldn't be distracted and wouldn't have excuses to stop what I was doing.  I hope that during Lent I might invite others to join me in the sanctuary for the practice as well.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Tuesday

3:00am.  2:00am Central Time.  The brothers get up at 3:00am because that is their job.  It is their job to pray for the world while everyone else is sleeping.  It is their job to join with Christ in keeping watch over the world.  But all I could think of was getting back into my warm bed for another few hours.

After 3:20am Vigils the brothers engage in 30 minutes of contemplative prayer on their own, followed by a time of Lectio Divina.  By that time breakfast is available, so some of them eat and bathe prior to Lauds at 6:30am. Lauds, not Vigils, is the first prayer of the morning.  Vigils is the nighttime prayer.  Lauds welcomes the day. 

As much as my soul was willing to stay up for meditation and Lectio Divina, I just wanted to go back to bed.  And so I did, setting my alarm for 6:15 so I could throw my clothes back on and go to Lauds. Then breakfast. More peanut butter, toast, and marmalade.  No cheese this time, but there were hard-boiled eggs.  And coffee. Lots of coffee.  Following breakfast we celebrated Eucharist.  I was expecting the Liturgy to be more like the United Methodist liturgy than it was.  I followed along fairly well, except for the responses in Latin.  When that was over we celebrated Terce, and then joined Fr. Guerric in the library for a video by Fr. Martin Laird on contemplative practice.

The Cistercians are a contemplative order, which means that their primary focus is on the inward life.  Fr. Guerric hoped that our time at the abbey would help us to pay better attention to our own interior lives, and that we could spend much of our time in quiet contemplation. It sounded so much easier than it was.  After the video Fr. Guerric took us to the chapel to begin our first “sit.”  I made it through the first half of the twenty minute sit before I caught myself falling asleep.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone back to bed after Vigils.  The catnaps only made me more tired. 

The walking meditation was a welcome break, but once again I fell asleep during our second twenty-minute sit. 

After a break, our next activity was noon prayer (Sext), followed by lunch.  The Cistercians tend to be vegetarian, so we had curried vegetables, some steamed mixed vegetables, salad, and fruit. During the noon meal one of the brothers reads aloud from a book.  We assumed that the book would be something overtly religious in nature, but after a few minutes someone in our group realized that they were reading from The Boys in the Boat.  It was a pleasant experience to be read to--to sit back and drink a cup of coffee and just be present. 

Our afternoon consisted of two more one-hour sits and (for me) many more naps.  By the time supper rolled around I was just about numb.  But I made it through Vespers and Compline before finally collapsing into bed at 8:00pm.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Monday (Part 2)

Reflections on Grand Silence.

I experienced two particular feelings as we left the church after Compline to begin the Grand Silence, neither of which I expected.  The first was a teeny tiny bit of panic.  It only lasted for a second, but it was definitely present.  What if I needed something and couldn’t ask for it?  What if I had something I desperately needed to say to someone?  Of course, had there been an emergency, or if I was in real need I could have said something. But how often are we ever just cut off from speaking to others? How often are we given a cutoff after which we no longer speak?  So though the panic lasted for a second, I was still very aware of it.

The second feeling was a feeling of humility.  In those first moments of silence I became aware that though there were many things I might want to say—even worthwhile things—those things were insignificant in the presence of God. There was nothing I could say that was worthy of God.  I experienced my own smallness, the smallness of my thoughts, and the smallness of the words that I was forbidden to speak in the presence of God.  It reminded me of what I so often forget:  that profound silence is often the only appropriate response to the vastness of God.  We are so used to noise. We are so used to trying to assign words to every thought we have. And the world of social media has tricked us into believing that every thought we have is worth sharing out loud.  But those words and thoughts—in the presence of God—are petty and small. This is why we need silence.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Monday

I showed up not knowing what to expect.  Jaylynn, the woman who coordinated the retreat had sent us a schedule, and the only thing I noted was that the brothers prayed at 3:20am and we were invited to join them.  I suppose I also noted that there would be ample time later in the day to take a nap.  I had also looked on the website at pictures of the accommodations for retreatants and was pleased with what I saw.  So I was empty of the dread that comes from not knowing the condition of the place where I would stay.

As we began to arrive in the afternoon, we met with Fr. Guerric, who gave us a brief orientation and suggested that we meet again after Vespers at 6:30 to talk about how we would structure our day on Tuesday.  I hoped that the structure would include naps.

Supper was at 5:00.  There is a guest refectory next to the monastic refectory.  We were not allowed to eat with the monks in their dining room, but we still kept silence during our meals.  The noon meal is the big meal of the day, so supper was simple.  The monks laid out bread, peanut butter, jelly, cheese, some relishes, and a bowl of apricots.  Cereal and milk were available as well.  We helped ourselves to whatever dishes and utensils we needed from the cupboard and tucked in. 

Fr. Guerric told us that Trappists eat quickly, which is ironic since everything else they do is so contemplative.  I suppose that one could eat both contemplatively and quickly, but he said that they like to finish quickly so that they can get back to work.

I enjoyed my supper. It was simple and nourishing.  I helped myself to things I normally wouldn’t eat at home:  cereal and a thick apricot marmalade that was just this side of heaven.  Not together, of course.  Marmalade with peanut butter on a thick piece of brown bread.

At 6:00 we celebrated Vespers, the service of evening prayer. 

We were invited to sit with the monks in the choir area, but in a special place designated for guests.  The monk nearest a member of our group on each side guided us through the prayers when we got lost.  I don’t remember much of the service itself, except that I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Fr. Guerric had already clued us in that we were to bow “profoundly” to the altar anytime we passed, but some other things that we caught pretty quickly were the “knock” and the profound bow at the Gloria Patri, which followed the singing of every Psalm.  The knock is the sign that the service is about to begin, and the response is to make the sign of the cross, bow to the altar, and then sing the Gloria Patri.

AspergillumAfter the service was over we met with Fr. Guerric to talk about Tuesday.  The Trappists are a contemplative order, and he was very interested in helping us learn to practice contemplative prayer.  So we schedule three “sits” during the day on Tuesday that would consist of 20 minutes of contemplative practice, 10 minutes of walking meditation, and 20 more minutes of contemplative practice.

The final service of the day is Compline, a beautiful and contemplative service of prayer in which we pray for all people to have a quiet night and a peaceful death.  As we left the service we stopped before the baptismal font where one of the brothers splashed us gently with water using the aspergillum as we remembered our baptisms.

And then began the Grand Silence.