The first time I went on a monastic retreat, nearly 30 years ago, I accompanied a friend and her seven-year-old daughter, who had requested the weekend excursion as a First Communion gift. I had just begun attending church (Presbyterian) after a long lapse, was feeling tired and wanted to get out of town. (Monasteries often accommodate guests, and they don’t mind if you are not religious.) I brought along writing projects to work on, so I was relieved to discover that guests at Assumption Abbey, where we would be staying, were not obliged to attend the monks’ daily prayers at morning, noon and night. The constant interruptions would surely distract me from my work, I thought, dicing my day like an onion. But I soon found that I got the most work done when I experienced the abbey’s full liturgy, day in, day out. The routine establishes a powerful rhythm, and when there are set times for prayer, work and recreation, it’s easy to work during the work periods. In that monastery I began to believe that there is actually enough time in a day.
Since then, I’ve returned to Assumption Abbey, in North Dakota, and visited many others for a weekend, a month or longer, temporarily leaving behind my husband and domestic duties. Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota is a regular refuge, and the first thing I do when I enter my guest room there is open the curtains to view the lake in the late afternoon light. Before unpacking, I sit down to collect my thoughts. While darkness gathers, I watch the lake turn from blue to silver to black. Gradually, the birch trees on the shore disappear from sight, and the corners of my room fill with shadows. The silence of the monastery sinks into my bones. In the evening, I attend the 7 o’clock service surrounded by 70 to 80 resident monks and a few other guests. We recite verses from the Grail translation of the Psalms, composed for oral recitation. As the ancient poetry washes over me, some lines offer a sensible perspective: “Do not set your heart on riches, even when they increase” (Psalm 62:11). Others strike me with their beauty: “By his word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all the stars” (Psalm 33:6). These poems direct my attention inward, even as they challenge me to look outward and accept my humble place in a vast universe. As a writer, I appreciate their potency—the power of words to reach deep into the soul. I’m reminded how much I loved being read to as a child. After listening to the Scripture, we sit in silence for two minutes to absorb what we’ve heard and then say the Lord’s Prayer.
When I return to my room, I’m too drowsy to open the novel I’ve brought. With no television or computer (on retreats, I write on a notepad with a pen or pencil) and my cell phone turned off, I feel freed from clutter. I am asleep by 9:30 and in church the next morning by 6:30. The reading lights not yet switched on, the space feels womb-like. I sit with the handful of monks who gather a half hour early for the 7 am service and use that quiet time to begin their day.
The abbey’s routine allows for the little breathers I often deny that I need. I may reluctantly set aside my work to attend noon prayer only to find that this break has provided me with the answer to a problem I’d labored over all morning. The slow, repetitive pace of the liturgy fosters reflection, so that both words and time itself take on a different quality. I experience language not as so much verbiage but as words I can attend to because they are surrounded by silence. The day stretches out luxuriantly, an odd yet peaceful sensation that makes me confident I can accomplish what I set out to do.
Returning home after a retreat is always a challenge. As I struggle to recalibrate my daily rhythms, it helps to remember that while I needed time set apart to restore and redirect my energies, the purpose of a retreat is to return me to my ordinary life. Although I can’t replicate the tempo of the monastery, I can offset time’s frenetic pace by reciting Psalms and prayers at the hinges of each day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I can make quiet time for myself, even if that means letting my mind wander as I vacuum or dust.