The sky threatens rain and is growing darker as I drive west, deep into wine country. It is the afternoon of my 40th birthday, and I will spend the next 48 hours largely in silence and solitude. Tomorrow will be my first day off in four-and-a-half long years; this trip is my husband’s surprise gift to me.
I am headed to a Trappist Monastery. And I could not have conjured up a more pleasing destination, at this moment of my life.
As a lifelong introvert, someone who craves silence and solitude, having babies and becoming a full-time mom has been an excruciating adjustment. Every moment of my life is now shared. Every minute brings a new demand. On the cusp of my 40th birthday, I feel about 80. I am exhausted and depleted.
Two days before my birthday, my husband hands me an envelope. Inside is a computer printout – directions to a monastery in the Willamette Valley – and a note, explaining that a room has been reserved for me, that I will be arriving on Friday and staying until Sunday; that upon my return Sunday, he will be throwing a family party at our house for me. The note tells me to rest and read to my heart’s content.
I am thrilled, but I worry, of course. I worry I will miss the boys too much, or that they will miss me. I worry that I will not have enough time to even begin to decompress, before I have to leave. On every vacation I’ve ever had, it took almost a full week to completely unwind.
I won’t have a week. I have two days. And I have five years of stress to shed.
The monastery sits on the side of a hill, at the entrance to a forested area. It is surrounded by farmland, 1400 acres of which belong to the monks. The landscape is full of the foggy, melancholy beauty of Autumn: trees turning gold and red, a thick carpet of leaves on the ground. I park the car and present myself at the front desk, where I’m met by a tall, stooped monk in a long robe. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Gandalf, from the Lord of the Rings movies. He is not talkative, but he has a gentle wit and a beautiful smile.
I don’t give my credit card, and there are no room keys, here. The monk helps me carry my bags to my room, then tells me that I am welcome to join them for evening Vespers at 5:30, in the chapel, where he will be singing with the choir. “I’ve heard we’re not too bad,” he says shyly.
I want to adopt this man.
My room is small and Spartan. The bathroom is down the hall. The pamphlets by my bed make it clear that this place is meant to be used as a spiritual retreat, as a time for reflection and meditation and prayer. I have not come to pray, or to seek God. I have come with a huge duffel bag entirely full of books – I mean to catch up on my reading, to revel in the quiet. I suspect, though, that I won’t be judged in this place, not even for my lack of piety.
I don’t really want to attend the evening Vespers, but when the bells chime at 5:25 I figure it would only be polite to put in an appearance, since I just got here. The monks have already started singing when I slip through the chapel doors.
The chapel, only recently built, is stunningly beautiful: soaring ceilings, walls of windows, cupolas overhead, lots of polished walnut paneling everywhere. There are six other adults scattered among the wooden pews. I slip into the last one.
About twenty-five monks stand facing each other, on either side of the front-window alcove, dressed in long white robes with hoods down their backs. The majority of them are old men, with wispy white hair. They sing the same four notes over and over, a hypnotic almost-chant. There is no real musicality to their singing; it is in tune, but that’s about all.
The entire scene is otherworldly: the monks, the music, the flickering candles. We could be in the 12th century, or the 23rd. Here, there is only a timeless peace, and reverence. These holy men seem like angels to me – until I see the organist stifle three sneezes in a row. A couple of the others sneeze, too, or pull out white handkerchiefs to wipe their noses, and it dawns on me: Fall colds have come to the Abbey. This sign of humanness touches me deeply, as does the fact that, after decades spent in supplication, almost every one of the monks has a permanently bowed back.
I listen to the words of the ancient Scriptures, being sung and spoken, and I think about the lives of these men; lives that have been distilled down to faith alone, lives so very different from my own. Two tears slide down my cheeks. I wipe them away, but there are more behind them. I am not normally a crier, but now my eyes will not stop weeping. It feels like profound relief is spilling from my body.
For a moment, I think of at least five friends I want to text, to tell them OMG youd love it here You shld come. And then I scold myself back into the moment.
And that’s when I realize what has already happened, what I didn’t even notice at first, because it was so immediate, and silent.
Everything is gone. The stress. The unbearable fatigue. The feeling that the mountain of duties on my back had become a permanent companion.
I have been in this service only a few minutes, and somehow I am already un-shuttered and emptied out. It didn’t take a week, or two days, for serenity to come. It is already here.
The monks would probably call this a mystery of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I call it a miracle, and a gift, that I could never have expected.
Sitting on that hard pew, listening to that somber music with tears flowing down my face, I think, I’m not ever going to want to leave this place.
After Vespers comes dinner, which, I am to discover, is the only non-silent meal of the day. We eat in the retreatant’s dining room, at a table that has been carefully laid out by a now-vanished monk. Everything has been presented with great thoughtfulness, down to the miniature pumpkins decorating the table.
The food is simple but tasty and filling. Guests are permitted to bring their own meat, if desired, but the monks eat vegetarian. Dinner is macaroni and cheese casserole, twice-baked potatoes, salad greens, and stone-ground bread, which the monks make themselves, served with wild honey.
Although we are allowed to talk during dinner, my companions are not chatty; most of us, it seems, are lost in our own thoughts. After rinsing my dishes off, I return to my room and read for a bit. I call my husband to say “good-night” to the boys, and he herds them into a loud, high-pitched rendition of Happy Birthday, which, of course, makes me cry again. It is a sweet reminder of what tethers me so firmly to the outside world.
When the bells toll for Compline, at 7:30, I literally lunge for my printed schedule, double-checking that this is a “public” service. After my experience in Vespers, I mean to attend every service I can.
This time, two of the monks accompany the choir on acoustic guitars. Compline is even prettier than Vespers, because it is truly dark now, and the chapel glimmers in candlelight like a Christmas Eve mass. I cry through much of this service, too; I’m not sad, I’m just overwhelmed by the beauty and peace here.
At the end, the monks gather in front of a large tapestry of Mary, and pray in unison to her – which feels a bit odd, to a Protestant. Afterwards, one of the monks stands at a font and flicks water on his brothers as they file past him. When the monks are done, my fellow retreatants line up, too. I am unsure whether a non-Catholic is allowed to take part in this, but then Gandalf approaches and tells me I am welcome to go forward. I scurry up front, the last person to receive the evening’s blessing.
As we file out of the chapel, the monks peel off to return to their dormitories? workshops? dining room? Other than the services, we never catch a glimpse of the Brothers, except when they take turns manning the reception desk, which doubles as the bookstore checkout.
Which, of course, makes me really, really want to talk to one of them. I have my usual million questions: who designed the gorgeous chapel? Where do they work? Why did they come here? Are they allowed to leave the premises to get groceries?
I begin to formulate a plan.
Next – Part Two: Silent Meals, Reading and the Worst. Map. Ever.