Our Week at St. Joseph’s Abbey

During Lent the Boston YAVs went on a week-long retreat to St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA. We had no idea what to expect, which has become normal for our adventures. We knew two things: that it would be a silent retreat and that the monastery had recently opened a brewery to add craft beer to the line of products they sell.

It was an absolutely beautiful place, still a little too cold to truly enjoy being outside but we did it anyway. We arrived and were shown to our rooms, given a schedule, and told where we could and could not go and where we could and could not talk. As hospitable as the monks are, the guestmasters who work there are very careful to make sure the retreatants do not accidentally interrupt or interfere with the monks’ meditation or silence.

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Abbey Church and part of the cloister

The first day was weird. We attended two services, vespers and compline, and it was unsettling not being used to this type of service– chanting and bowing, sitting and standing, etc. We were done with the day around 8:30 with nothing else planned, in our rooms with no technology (no phones or laptops), and silent. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

But as time went on, by day 2 or 3, I had gotten used to the balance of a fixed schedule with lots of free time, quiet meditation and a lot of chanting. It had become familiar and comfortable. It took a few days to get the noise of e-mail and work duties and facebook and text messages and subway trains out of my head. Earlier in the week I was worried about how to take advantage of this opportunity to be with God– I was trying to force some kind of  calm feeling because that’s how I am supposed to feel on retreat. Suddenly, I thought, I should feel fulfilled and at peace and refreshed and at one with God. Eventually I realized there was no “right” way to a retreat and I could not force meditation and peace or I would only get the opposite.

By day 4 I was able to go for a walk outside by myself and just pray. I started walking and started thinking about all the wonderful people I have in my life and prayed for them one by one. I spent time in the quest chapel of the Abbey church in silence and prayer. I spent time reading in the parlor along with the other volunteers who were writing and drawing together in a wonderful silence. I really enjoyed participating in singing/chanting the Psalms and got used to bowing regularly when we said “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I was blown away the the monks offered us communion, and was humbled that they welcomed us into their intentional, sacred, and cloistered lives. I am glad we got to know Father Peter, an older but spirited German monk who led our daily conference discussion and had us laughing uncontrollably one minute and thoughtful and introspective the next. I appreciated the opportunity for silence, but still getting to know the other retreatants and talking to my fellow YAVs to reflect on the experience. And last, but certainly not least, I loved the ability to nap whenever I wanted.

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Alter and front of the Abbey Church

The retreat wasn’t as silent as we thought it would, but then again we had no idea what to expect with a group of early 20s volunteers staying at a monastery for a week. It was an interesting contrast of a fixed, regulated schedule of services and meals at the same time every day and plenty of free time to do whatever we wanted. We were all able, or at least tried, to put down any heavy burdens we were carrying and just relax. We learned a lot about a true “intentional community” and what it was like to feel called to a certain way of life. I am grateful for the opportunity to rest and the graceful hospitality we were given.

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View from the back of the retreat house

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