As the retreat was winding down, the participants in the retreat took advantage of the time to go to photograph the cloister garden. Being the only non-photographer there, I took advantage of the time to stand in the quiet, shaded corner of the cloister and chat with James. While my husband and his compatriots were making photographs to remember the day, I was sorting out things in may heart, trying to put the weekend into some sort of order. That is my gift and my cross, to explain things that ultimately may not make much sense. The fact that I never completely succeed doesn’t keep me from trying, but of late it has been the source of many a bemused smile.
Our last conversation as a group centered on life in the monastery and what the future holds. There’s a part of me who, having discovered this place and these men, wants to hold tightly to them, clinging for all I am worth to the gifts that I find when I come here. The decline in the monastic population, even since I have been coming here, and the general decline of religious life in America troubles me. But I am learning, like James, not to think too much about it. Monastic vocations are God’s calling and God’s gift. He is in charge of how and when.
Part of me knows that this is of too much value to be permanently lost from Catholic life. The rest of me struggles to be comfortable with change, remembering that my experience is but a tiny fraction of time as seen from God’s perspective. It’s a bit like waves on a shore; ebb and flow. My life seems to have fallen in that period between the advance of waves. I have a choice: I can believe that the beach will continue to dry up or I can have faith that another wave will come in God’s good time. I’m learning to have faith and to understand that, either way, God is never absent from His creation and he never rescinds the gifts of grace.
Another thing the Monastery of the Holy Spirit has surely begin to teach me is that worry isn’t of much use in the grand scheme of things. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Easy words to hear, easy to acknowledge the obvious wisdom, hard, hard to live out. Each time I come here, I get a little closer to living those words in the reality of my days.
We need God’s gift of monks. We need His gift of monasteries. We need the witness of men who take to themselves the most arduous form of community life and prayer and make it real and present to us with both grace and warts, for living in community is never easy and these men do not shed their humanity or their brokenness when they take their vows. I’m finding the warts of humankind almost as important as the grace. Perhaps the warts are grace.
We all need walls to retreat behind, to pray within. We need the sound of psalms being sung in the middle of the night. We need to hear the voices of men in love with Jesus and the church and Mary and—in a way we who live in the busy outside world rarely appreciate—in love with life—all of it, even the end of it. We need to be able to come among men who don’t share our suffocating fear of the natural rhythms of creation.
At Vigil this morning, the songs were sung with the smallest complement of the day, soft and quiet in the expanse of the church. At mid-day prayers today, our last communal service, the lay Cistercians were here in force and they filled the ranks of the choir; clearly they too think this is a place and a life worth cherishing.
Displaced from my customary stall, I sat instead in the pews at the back of the church, content to raise my heart with those who raised their voices in prayer and song. I thought about the journey of the weekend.
It was happenstance that we were here the weekend before my husband’s surgery. The retreat was booked months ago. I considered not coming because photography is not my métier; it is my groom’s. A chance decision by my friend to come along prompted me to book, too. When she had to cancel at the last moment, it left me free to pursue my own journey on a weekend when I very much needed peace, quiet, solitude and comfort.
Some folks say there are no coincidences. The old saying is that when we do not see the cause and explanation, God chooses to remain anonymous. I’m not sure how much I believe that, but I do know that this was a weekend when I was able to relax my guard and listen to my God through the people set around me. That is gift enough.
The whole weekend has been about gifts. Seeing the gifts of others who have the gift to see. Learning something of my own gifts, one of which is the gift of responding to the images that others make. Seeing the gift of being far outside my comfort zone of written words. Receiving the gift of prayers, both here and far away as those who love me and love my husband pray us through our medical journey. Having the gift of easy conversation about God and faith and fears. Feeling, perhaps for the first time in my life, the real, present, immediate and material effect of the prayers of others. Learning that gifts can only be held in an open hand. When we grasp at them we crush and spoil them. The gift of understanding what detachment means and what it in itself gives as gift.
The Monastery of the Holy Spirit has been such a gift in my life. What it will be in the future is not given to me to know. My prayers always include a petition for vocations but the calling is up to God and the hearing is up to man. I do hope that there are enough silent places in the outside world that the men God is calling here can hear Him and will find their ways here to be silent and to sing.
So I hold this treasure with an open hand, grateful for three spring days in Georgia . I am ready to go back in the noisy and busy world, knowing I will carry part of this place with me. For as James implied on that first day, a monastery is a state of mind and heart.