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.