St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, MI
Benedictine monasteries pray all of the psalms over the course of one week, beginning with matins in the wee hours of the morning, through lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers and ending with compline before going to bed. I have wanted to experience this for some time, just had to wait till I could find the right place and the right time. I was happy to be able to block off three full days, Jan. 2-5, to spend at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan, an Episcopal monastery. Seemed to me like a good way to start the New Year.
I went bearing all of my electronics, cell phone, tablet, laptop computer and a full agenda of all I would accomplish during this time. I also went with a bad cold that had started New Year’s Day so my retreat started with a long nap after lunch. Not a bad way to start. After my nap, I discovered: no phone, no internet. Despite being close to Three Rivers, there was limited to no service from my provider in this area. So there was nothing to it but to sleep some more, going to bed at 8p.m. after some reading. So much for all the work I was going to accomplish.
It was good to sleep and be free of all of the gadgets and noise that dominate my life. I did discover that I could use my phone outdoors, standing in the cold. I also found a spot in the vestibule of the guest house where I could get limited internet access, enough to know there was no emergency going on that I had to take care of, no impending deadline that had crept up unbeknownst to me that had to be addressed, enough so I could turn it off confident that the world was turning just fine without me.
Meals at the abbey while I was there were vegetarian, however long on carbohydrates and short on fresh fruits and vegetables. I was here for the total monastic experience and that included the food. At lunch full plates of carbs were placed before you. It felt wrong to not clean the plate, not just because that was how I had been brought up, but because this was the brothers’ food and, in my mind, not to be wasted. Also, who knew what dinner would bring. I had to eat enough to make it to the next meal. No snacking between meals or sneaking to Three Rivers for a quick burger.
The brothers weren’t entirely vegetarian. I had been told that I had missed a feast on New Year’s Day – ham and white zinfandel wine. Other times their fare was very simple and inexpensive. They had had a very good cook however this brother has since died with no comparable replacement. Made me realize just how important good cooks can be. We don’t appreciate them half enough until we are some place without a gifted cook.
Breakfast was self-serve, cereal, toast and juice. The only fruit in the fruit basket was a lone green apple until Wednesday after Mass when I was surprised by an abundance – bananas and red delicious apples, and Thursday morning grapefruit. The main meal was at noon with a lighter fare at night. All meals were eaten in silence. During lunch and dinner a brother read aloud from The Beautiful and the Damned, a book about India. I found my listening skills were not very good, as attuned as I am to watching rather than listening. The brothers laughed at the humorous parts which went entirely over my head.
Tuesday night we were greeted by three sandwich halves. Inside were chunks of cheese that only covered half the bread, green leaf lettuce and ketchup (our vegetable). I surreptitiously peeked into the bread trying to figure out what was inside. Sitting next to me was a friend who had joined me for the day. Across were a newcomer and an associate member of the community, the person who had informed me about Sunday’s dinner and the cook situation. I managed one half sandwich and half of the second when to my relief I saw that others around me felt no compunction to clean their plates. They tore off pieces of bread to get to the parts that actually had cheese. I did the same then finally proceeded to pull out the remaining cheese and lettuce, wiping off the ketchup before eating them. The newcomer managed to slog his way through all three sandwiches, going slower with each bite.
The food appeared and disappeared, locked away between meals. Plates were set ahead of time for lunch and dinner and quietly whisked away the minute they were clear of food. We stood for the blessing before we started then when everyone had finished a bell was rung, the reader stopped and we all stood for prayer. After the celebration of Mass each day, the celebration continued with cookies and coffee. This was the only resemblance to dessert provided.
The silence and solitude were wonderful. I enjoyed the prayers, though I only made it to Matins one time during my stay. The first night I had been wiped out by cold medicine and just made it to Lauds at 6a.m. The third and final morning I had been wiped out by attending all seven services the day before, amazing how tired one can get just from praying.
In contrast to the food we were receiving, daily Mass truly seemed a veritable banquet. I hesitantly joined in some of the chanting, singing an octave low to hide my female voice in the all male chorus. The idea of chanting was that voices were to blend into one voice with no single voice standing out from the rest. For the most part I simply followed along, remaining silent.
A highlight of the prayer time was a half-an-hour in silence with the brothers after Vespers. I didn’t stay the first day as the Guest Master had indicated that if I didn’t think I could stay for full half an hour better to leave after the service lest I disturb the silence for others. With my coughing and sniffling I thought it better to leave others to their silence. As my cold was better by Tuesday night I decided to stay for what was a wonderful experience of prayer and silence. The silence was no burden, rather speaking was a burden after such an experience. It was as if the very effort to move my jaw and formulate words was just too much for me.
Silence and solitude are wonderful gifts, for in them we discover ourselves. I found I was quite self-conscious at first. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to disrupt the brothers’ life in anyway. Not speaking meant I had to watch and follow their lead in situations where I would have asked questions under other circumstances. I found myself imagining all kinds of criticism being leveled against me, the sole woman in a male environment, and in return I found myself being critical of the brothers.
On Wednesday evening compline was prayed in the church. The other two nights the brothers had prayed this alone in their cells. As I joined in the prayers, especially the confession of sin, I thought, what sin could these men have to confess, living such a secluded life of prayer. Before compline had begun the Guest Master had said goodbye to me since I had told him I would be leaving immediately after Mass so there would not likely be time the next morning. From compline to Mass was the period of the great silence when none were to speak. He asked me to pray for them. I thought, how ironic and yet how true, that brothers who spend so much time in prayer would need my prayer.
Prayer can be a dangerous, risky business. We so often think of monasteries as places of peace and tranquility, yet for those who live there, they are beset by the same challenges all of us face, perhaps even greater ones, spiritual dangers. There is no evil in the world which doesn’t exist to a greater or lesser degree in each individual. The noise and rush of society can help us block this reality out but in solitude it comes forth. There is nothing to distract, no-one to blame but ourselves. So easy to fall prey to jealousies, envy, judging, lust, especially in silence. To judge the monk who takes the last piece of bread or who sings louder or shows a display of greater piety as showing off.
I realized that the judging I was experience in my head was precisely my own inner critic leading me to judge myself and then judge those around me. What others in the community thought about me was of no consequence. It was my own inner demon that needed to be confronted. And no sooner was one demon confronted then others emerged. Such is the life of the monks and as such they need our prayers and they need to confess every night. In a society that would make fun of men in habits, that one minute romanticizes, the next berates, theirs is a hard vocation. Still no harder than any vocation if truly from God. I don’t have that call, yet I greatly appreciate the gift of these days, the opportunity to enter a whole new world, a different culture, a counter culture. One does not have to travel to faraway places to experience a totally different culture. One only need go as far as Three Rivers.
Robertson Copyright January 2012