In November 2018 I spent four days at my favorite retreat center, St Benedicts Trappist Monastery in Snowmass, high in the Rocky Mountains. Every few months, I feel the need to get away for a period of inner focus and contemplation. With its well-appointed hermitages, no phone or internet and stunning views of the mountains, it is a perfect place to let go of the material world for a while.
An individual retreat is not always easy or comfortable. For the first day or so I have to confront my habitual need to be busy, active and productive. Doing absolutely nothing highlights how much I rely on distraction, entertainment and information to keep my inner worlds full to overflowing. Attending the monastic services helps quieten the mind and open the heart. In the chapel I can feel the ‘spiritual hum’ from the monk’s constant prayer; it settles my nervous system and stills my thoughts.
The monk’s day starts with Vigils at 4.30am, a beautiful service filled with song, psalms and readings. After a period of total silence comes Matins and Mass at 7.30am. After a number of services, the day ends with Compline at 7.00pm. The Trappists, a popular name for the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, follow the Rule of St.Benedict, a set of monastic guidelines, which have remained relatively unchanged since the 6th Century. Their spiritual life revolves around four practices: Lectio, sacred reading; Meditatio, sinking deeper into the meaning of the sacred; Oratio, a spontaneous uplifting of the heart in prayer; and Contemplatio, resting in the formless presence of God.
There is a sense of timeliness and spiritual intention that suffuses the monastic life but monks are real people with ordinary quirks. More earthy and humorous than you expect, they do not seem to have an agenda except to be loving and accepting. Jokingly, one of the monks asked me if I’d like to join the community. When I replied I was not even a Christian, he said,”That’s no problem–we’re very ecumenical here.”
My first experience of the Trappists was 46 years ago. A young monk in Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey in Northern Ireland was a member of the same spiritual practice, Subud, and we became close friends. A stocky, muscular man , he’d been a butcher before joining the monastery–yet he was a true mystic. His descriptions of experiences during the Eucharist transported me to realms far from the material; I’d get high listening to him. The last time I saw him, he had retreated to a hermitage far from civilization to pray and contemplate, just like the Desert Fathers of the 3rd Century. He taught me there are still saints in this world; they are hidden all around us.
I think of retreat as a treat for my soul. Sinking deeper into the inner world, taking time to pray, meditate and read from the spiritual classics refreshes my perception and renews my sense of meaning. I see the world with clearer eyes and can refocus on what is most important–how to live a life filled with purpose and passion. I recommend it: take a few days out of your busy life to go on retreat, to reflect and settle into stillness; your life will undoubtably grow in richness and meaning.