Emmitsburg Council of Churches

I loved how the monks bowed

Father John J. Lombardi

 I enjoyed the cows. And, also, the bald eagles, our neighbors-were absolutely spectacular. And the bucolic scenery of the Shenandoah River and Mountains wasn't bad either. A kind of paradise for a week.

I just got back from retreat at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville; northern VA It's a Trappist monastery, meaning it is an offshoot of Citeaux, a reformed-Benedictine monastery and town in France. These monks continue a thousand year Cistercian tradition of manual labor, prayer and community life, and also welcoming pilgrims for retreats and refreshment. I would characterize the monks' life as The Three S's: Sacredness; Silence, Simplicity.

Oh, did I mention cows? They were the surprise treat-kinda like God-- pretty much omnipresent, all around us in the nearby pastures, big black steer, many of them stopping and staring at me as I walked by as if to say: "Whataya you doing here?" Their long dark-eyed gazes and sense of deep presence-unruffledness, these bovine encounters helped shut out the rest of the world into a simple, kinda sacred now-ness of simplicity and agrarian equipoise. Ever notice: everyone likes cows? Maybe cause they're such gnarly-peaceful critters? I think they're so likeable because they never rush-eating their food or going to pasture-they instill equanimity-what everyone wants. On St Joseph Feast Day during retreat we had a special treat. As the Lord Jesus was in the Eucharist on the altar and all the monks and retreatants were quietly praying before Him, cows and steer just outside the simple chapel were mooing and cawing and moaning-filling the sacred silence with animal delight. I enjoyed the holy juxtaposition

Now, back to the three S's. Sacredness describes the monks themselves and abbey life, because they are fixed on worshipping God-being sentinels of the Sacred One. At 3 in the morning they rise, and begin praying, continuing many times during the day, at Mass, during work and in between. The bells ring attention to the Lord Almighty, instilling immediate sense of the supernatural. And, too, sacredness manifests in the monks' long, deep bows, from the waist, to the altar of sacrifice and Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, ever

so slow and pray-ingly, into silence and vulnerability. When I heard Fr. Mark the abbot speak, introducing the Our Father

prayer-it was like a Voice of Eternity: resonant, slow and masculine-yet-calming -what I think and feel God would sound like-the opposite of all the un-spiritual sound-bytes in our gangly world. Lastly, these monks never get excited--they just keep showing up, for prayer-the Benedictine chant and rhythmic prayers are intoxicating. After a thousand years they are bent on faithfully witnessing to the mystery and majesty of God-and praising Him in the everydayness of life without fail.

Silence: this was healing. There were 11 retreatants and we had silent meals together (sometimes with soft music or a spiritual text read). There was no weather channel around, or iPods or background TV's or radios. And you could trust it: silence was the rule (and respecting other's silence) and, indeed, golden. Eventually this "pregnant emptiness" allowed me to hear simple things like the lady next to me at dinner eat an apple: it was kind of spiritual-menial succulence-- as I heard each bite crush down and then soft delicate chewing enjoyment. I enjoyed the zero pressure to talk to others, and also the sounds of monks in the cloister-walking, sitting, ruffling papers or slow, readings at Mass and the chant

Simplicity: The monastic-retreat schedule was simple: rise for Lauds at 3am; 7am Eucharist and 12 Noon Supper (main meal); 2pm Midday prayer; 5.30pm Evening Prayer and 7:30 Compline/Night Prayer. I followed this schedule pretty faithfully as I really enjoyed praying with the monks-or letting them pray and sing for me, and then following these times with meditation and Eucharistic adoration. The guest house was a ten minute beautiful walk from the Abbey chapel, and this afforded time for exercise, meditation and, of course, "cow communication"! The rooms of the guest house are elegantly sparse-as are the meals (rice and beans was one meal-that's it!) and yet the scenery, community and liturgy are ever eloquent making your soul yearn for more (that is, chant, Paradise, and silent or filled spiritual-experiences, and the simplicity which helped "birth" it all). At three in the morning I enjoyed walking to prayers as I looked up in the country sky to the Heavens declaring the Lords' handiwork in a magnificent display of stars and darkness. I found that this retreat is the anti- Spring break of collegians-low impact, high rewards-just what our souls need.

The last day of retreat I went to the River to see a bald eagle w/ Catherine and Chris from D.C. (one of them a self-described "city slicker"). The nest was mammoth- easily seen: both five feet across and deep, made up of large sticks, branches, nestled in a gigantic sycamore tree aligning the Shenandoah. The eagle eventually appeared and seemed to be putting on a show for us, often times just fifty feet overhead, soaring, of course, and when it bent sunward it's head and tail of white feathers gleamed and, when it landed in sunlight, the yellow beak and ruffled feathers were evident and elegant-shiny, ornate and dignified. My previously silent retreat friends said this was a great way to end the retreat and never before saw such a bird so close-and for so long. They took pictures, ooed and awed and we all lingered around this natural God-given blessing for a long, spiritual time. While on retreat, I formulated an aspiration-which is a short prayer phrase to center one's attention and soul on a mystery and repeat thru the day. This one is based on a new book of Dorothy Day (her letters; she was a convert who helped the poor of New York City-and also protested war and violence). The last word in the aspiration is an addition of my own- here's the aspiration: The Duty of Joy: Now In other words-carpe diem-seize the moment, the God given grace now, not tomorrow, and overcome hazards and trials to realize our Providential Father is Lord of all When I was working in the monks honey and fruit cake shop I began praying this and it helped-simply to close the honey jars, seal and stack them, repeat, do again-and enjoy it however simple it was. As I walked around, or prayed or foundered in future plans after returning from retreat, I thought of and prayed the aspiration. It helped. Now you use it!

Also, along these lines, I talked to an elderly monk (only ninety years young!), Fr Mark, who wrote a little book "Feet of Clay: Wrapped in Love--The story of An American Monk," and found this quote: "I attach myself to Jesus by that which He shares with me, namely

human nature. So that thereby I may gain a participation in what He shares with God the Father, namely the Divine Nature." -Bouset. Repeat, use daily!

Now meditate upon what I read in a prayer book Aelred of Rievaulx and English medieval Trappist: "The souls devotion purified by the twin loves of self and neighbor pass into the blissful embraces (amplexus) of the Lord's divinity so that -inflamed with utmost desire-she goes beyond the veil of flesh and on that reduced to silence. The soul fixes her clear-sighted gaze entering into that sanctuary where Christ Jesus is spirit before her face she is thoroughly absorbed by that ineffable light and unaccustomed sweetness. All that is corporeal, all that is sensible, all that is mutable is The soul fixes her clear-sighted gaze on that which IS, which always IS, which IS in itself, which IS ONE. Being free she sees that the Lord is God and in tender embraces of Love Himself she keeps a Sabbath." Now, you do it yourself-go on retreat-and don't' wait or leave it up to someone else. And it's cheap-but priceless!

Contact information= Holy Cross Abbey --901 Cool Spring Lane Berryville, Virginia 22611 for Guest House reservations email information@hcava.org or call 540 955 4383.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi