In late April, as the turbulent events of the previous months pitched and swirled around me, I decided some quiet time away from it all would be a good thing. So I contacted Weston Priory in Vermont and asked for a week of retreat time sometime this fall. The guest brother, Brother Philip, replied promptly via email and said the last week of September was open. Did I want to schedule it? I did. During the correspond-ence, I asked whether I should send a deposit to hold my room. Brother Philip replied that no deposit was required, the room would be held. And the fee for the week’s stay would be up to me; I could give a free will offering of whatever amount I chose. I was scheduled to arrive Monday, Sept. 24 and leave Sunday, Sept. 30. Brother Philip emailed they were looking forward to greeting me. “Not as much as I’m looking forward to going,” I thought to myself.
As with all distantly-scheduled events, I put the trip out of my mind until a week or two before departure. The busy summer flew by amazingly fast. And suddenly the departure date loomed, only a few days away. I decided to rent a car, as I didn’t want all those miles on my truck, plus the truck’s gas mileage, even with the gas chip, still hovers at a horrendous fourteen mpg.
On Friday afternoon, Sept. 21, Mike, the local Enterprise man, picked me up at work. He was happily driving a Dodge PT Cruiser. I asked if my car was ready. Mike said this would be my car, as the PT Cruiser is considered a full-sized car. I was mildly startled, but decided it was OK. It was roomy with lots of windows. A Cruiser would be cool. I’d never driven one. I asked if it has cruise control. Mike claimed it did.
After signing all the necessary paperwork at Mike’s office, I drove right back to work to pick up my sunglasses I’d forgotten. Everyone there laughed and made derogatory comments about my little Cruiser. A puny little four cylinder, they said. It’ll never get you up and down all those hills and mountains in Vermont. I decided to name the Cruiser “Puny.” I could not locate the cruise control.
On Saturday morning, I loaded Puny with everything I could imagine one would need for a week’s retreat. Shirts, long sleeved and short. Jackets, light and heavy. Plenty of T-shirts. Jeans and shorts. Hiking boots. Sneakers. And my MacBook. So I could blog. After packing everything, I left New Holland and headed for the Lake George, NY area. I decided to take the western route around Harrisburg, as I’d not been through that area often. I hit Interstate 81 and headed north. Puny bucketed along with the traffic at 70-plus mph. Except for a protesting whine and noticeable loss of power up the long hills, the little Cruiser drove decently. But there was no cruise control. Mike had lied. I remembered that he had mentioned he was from Philadelphia. Oh, well. Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware.
I arrived in Queensbury, NY (Lake George) area around 2:30. The weekend’s adventures will be the subject of a future blog.
On Monday morning, I got up and packed my stuff (As always, after I’d left the motel, I realized something had been left behind). I left Queensbury around 9 AM and crossed the border into Vermont around 9:30. First time ever in that state. Puny hummed contentedly along the picturesque two-lane highway, glad to be on the road again after a two-day rest. I stopped at a little country cafe for a late breakfast. Around noon, I arrived at the town of Weston. I was to check in at the Priory at 2 PM. So I putzed around Weston to kill time. I visited the local village store. And a little coffee shop that had free WiFi connections (this blog is being posted from that coffee shop). There I emailed my brother Steve and my boss Patrick with the Priory’s phone number in case of emergency. My cell phone was as dead as a doornail; no service. There would be none all week.
Just before 2 PM, I drove the four miles to the Priory. There Brother Alvaro greeted me cheerfully. I was the first of the guests to arrive. I could have my pick of rooms.
“Good,” I said, “I’ll get to have the best one.” Brother Alvaro looked startled and mildly grieved at my selfish comment. I didn’t even try to dig myself out of that hole. Not the most auspicious start to a week-long stay with the brothers, I decided.
Located about half a mile from the Monastery along a gravel road, Romero House has room for five guests. It would be filled by evening. At first I couldn’t find it, so I returned to the Priory gift shop and asked the lady for specific directions. I said I don’t want to go to the wrong house and get shot. She seemed horrified at the comment and replied that I wouldn’t need to worry about that. People around here are peaceful and kind, she claimed. I thought, these people are going to think I’m some sort of gun-toting nut, and selfish to boot, talking about taking the best room and fearing I’ll be shot for approaching the wrong house. She gave me specific directions and I located the house. Very nice. I chose the end room. In case the guys in the other rooms snore, I wouldn’t hear it from more than one. I was unloaded and unpacked by 3 PM.
Other guests began drifting in an hour later. Two men from California. At around 5 PM, two more from Minnesota. Now all the rooms were occupied. The next scheduled prayer service was at 5:15. Eucharist. It was held in an old renovated barn, set up with chairs. A large opening had been cut into the wall and a canopy attached to the outside for more seating. They only use this setting on nice days. The weather on Monday was beautiful, crisp and clear.
The monks drifted in right on time. One was in a wheelchair (He was Brother Philip, my contact). All the others wore long, loose habits. Off-white in color, they looked like they were made of linen. The habits, that is. Not the monks. Service began with a prayer. Two monks cradled guitars. They strummed and sang. Brother Alvaro led several songs in a high clear tenor. An old, frail monk quavered out a reading from Ezra. More singing. Responsive singing. Finally, the liturgy for the host, then wafers and wine. All were invited to partake. Many community folk came to attend this service. Everyone partook except me. And everyone sipped the wine too. I was astonished, as I had never seen a Catholic service where the laity was served wine.
After the service, the monks and guests headed over to the kitchen, where a simple but delicious meal awaited. Some kind of gruel soup, cheese, bread and crackers, with fresh fruit for desert. Everyone walked through cafeteria-style and got their food. Each guest was then directed to his place at the table. We all set our food down and stood behind our chairs and waited until the last monk was ready to be seated. Then one of them prayed and we all sat down and ate.
Weston Priory, a Monastery of the Benedictine Order, was founded in 1953. No monks survive from that time. The oldest surviving monk arrived in 1957. The Benedictine tradition emphasizes prayer, work, and hospitality. Weston’s founder, Abbot Leo Rudloff of Jerusalem, encouraged his monks to “stay open to the Holy Spirit, to be aware of the signs of the times, and to strive for growth in Gospel and monastic values.” (Weston Priory Handbook) The Priory, while maintaining ancient monastic traditions and values, strives to maintain a “contemporary consciousness.” (Handbook)
From the founder’s admonition to stay open to the Holy Spirit and to maintain contemporary consciousness, the current brothers preach the “justice and peace” message and support radical elements that confront western capitalism. Some of the locals’ cars sported the old peace sign and some were plastered with anti-Bush and anti-war bumper stickers. The Priory supports Plowshares, a radical but diminishing group of individuals that damages warheads with hammers and pours blood over them. As Christ cleaned the temple, so they “clean” the country. Wacko. Many of the brothers’ prayers included the “justice and peace” lingo, which pretty much means take from the rich and give to the poor. But the brothers were kind. And they could chant and sing. Beautifully. None of them asked my opinion on anything, nor should they have. I was their guest, in their house.
I chatted at length with Brother Alvaro during one of the first meals. He was from Brazil, and had been a Trappist monk before joining the Benedictines. Trappists are much more austere. Brother Alvaro arrived at Weston five years ago. He seemed overjoyed at having left the Trappists and was very friendly and talkative.
I spent Monday and and most of Tuesday just finding my bearings and settling in. I was mildly uptight and tense. What does one do at a monastery, with all that free time? Sit and reflect? Pray? Hang out with the brothers? From my normal active day filled with noise, phone calls, talk, radio and TV, just being quiet is a challenge. I attended the scheduled prayers. Morning Prayer at 6 AM. After lunch, Midday Prayer at 1:30 PM. Evening Prayer at 5:30. Finally, Night Prayer at 8 PM.
I sized up the other guests and chatted briefly with them. Ed and Kent had flown in from Orange County, CA. Alan and Elliot from the Minneapolis, MN area. On Tuesday evening, Ed and I sat in the living room and began chatting. His friend Kent joined us and the three of us attended Evening Prayer together. Then we sat at the kitchen table in our little boarding house and talked for hours late into the night. Ed is a very successful business owner and a deacon and leader in his Evangelical Church. Kent is an attorney and a published author. He ambled off to his room and returned with his latest book, signed it and gave it to me. The title, “Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love through Prayer,” by Kent A. Hansen. I briefly described to them the events that have unfolded in my own life this year. They were very sympathetic and supportive, but amazingly, neither said one trite thing. I was astounded. These guys were Christians in every sense that I admire and respect.
On Wednesday morning, Kent, Ed, and I headed to Weston for some mid-morning coffee. We sat outside the little country store and drank coffee and talked. I continued to be amazed at them both, a high-powered attorney and a very successful businessman, from the fast-paced (and some would say whacked-out) state of CALIFORNIA, no less, sitting there recounting war stories of their lives with God. They were both highly intelligent, deeply thoughtful and very humble men. I absorbed their stories, realizing how fortunate I was to be sitting at this remote spot, where cell phones don’t function, listening to the wisdom and experiences of two men, who in the normal schedules of their frantic lives, would not have the time to sit and expound in such a leisurely and relaxed manner. After coffee, we strolled across the street to the world-renowned Vermont Country Store.
On Tuesday, I had expressed to Brother Alvaro my desire to sit and talk with a brother. The Priory does not offer counseling or spiritual direction, but a brother will sit and discuss monastic life with anyone who wishes to do so. I also offered to help with the farm work for a half day. Wednesday at noon, Brother Daniel approached me and said that I could help with the haying that afternoon, and that Brother John was scheduled to meet with me privately at 4 PM that day. Brother Daniel gave me a bill cap with a Vermont logo and a pair of leather gloves.
After midday Prayer at 1:30, I met Brothers John, Augustine and Placid out by the barns. They had a small field of hay to bale. I offered to stay on the wagon and stack the bales. They seemed dubious until I assured them that I had been raised on a farm. Brother Augustine drove the tractor while Brothers John and Placid walked alongside with forks and scraped in loose hay that would have been missed. They had one small windrow raked around one small meadow, The baler pitched the little 25-pound bales back at me and I stacked them. About 25 in all. After that, we unloaded the small bales into the sheep barn. The brothers were talkative and quite jolly, especially after I asked questions about their farming operation. They have about fifteen sheep, a few hogs that are butchered every fall, some rabbits that are raised for meat, and several dozen chickens to supply fresh eggs. After the haying, Brother Placid took me to a small hillside garden, where I chopped down a patch of cornstalks with a machete and then weeded the patch by hand.
After finishing the field work, I returned to Romero House and showered and changed clothes. Promptly at 4 PM, Brother John met me in the monastery foyer and led me to a small private side room. (I later learned that my private meeting was a privilege rarely granted to any guests. I felt and still feel humbled and honored.) Brother John had arrived at Weston Priory in 1957; he is 83 years old. A short, plump, spry vigorous man, the typical weathered Vermonter. We simply visited, man to man. He was an ordained priest and had arrived at Weston just after it was founded.
At the time, it was a poor and sparse little place; Brother John and nine other novices lived in an old converted chicken house. The Priory had neither the room nor the resources to be hospitable to guests. At first they had a dairy and milked a dozen cows. The Prior stated they would have the finest dairy in the region. Alas, the dairy failed, as the cows would wander among the rocks in the fields, drag their udders and get mastitis.
At the time, post WWII, many young men were interested in joining the Priory. Now there are few or none. The thirteen current brothers are all graying except one. Brother John insisted that he was not concerned; they live day to day in the present and do not worry about the future. Monastic life, he claimed, has always been cyclical. But he did admit that current culture, which is urban, technological, and transient, does not bode well for the future. That, combined with smaller families. Years ago, with large families, parents encouraged a son or two into the Monastery or the Priesthood. Now parents have fewer children and desire to be grandparents, thus much less willingness to guide a child into such vocations.
In the sixties, the brothers began to produce music. Today the Priory is famous worldwide for its music. The sale of CDs now provides all the support needed to maintain the Priory. In the early seventies, the brothers were approached by peace activists. Would they support the movement? They would do what they do best. And so, Brother John said, with a faraway look in his eyes, the entire group would leave and attend the massive peace marches in Washington. Dressed in their habits, they would sing their songs. The singing peace Monks. Was that a mistake? They may have been a bit adolescent, Brother John admitted. Radical elements of the peace movement took advantage of them. But overall, he had no regrets.
As our hour drew to a close, I asked Brother John why the Priory did not provide counseling. One must be trained for that; the brothers live a simple monastic life. People are welcome to come and attend worship. But no spiritual guidance is ever offered. But would one not be able to at least point a seeker toward Christ? No. One must find one’s own path. I was stunned. Is Christ not the whole purpose of the Church? Brother John was adamant. One must find one’s own path. Who are the brothers to say what that path might be? But what if one is trained for counseling, would one then be able to point a seeker toward Christ? Ah, but that is a problem. That’s one reason Brother John left the priesthood.
A half-hour after our discussion, Brother John, clothed in his habit and colorful vestments, led the Evening Eucharist Prayer Service. His steady calm voice rose and fell in perfect and chillingly beautiful inflection as he quoted the appropriate passages, calling all to the Lord’s feast and giving thanks for salvation through Jesus Christ. After blessing the bread and wine, Brother John invited all in attendance to participate. People lined up and were given bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. I alone remained in my seat. Had any brother but John been officiating, I very likely would have participated. I simply could not reconcile his private words with his public actions.
My newfound friends, Kent and Ed, were scheduled to depart on Thursday. Ed to a business meeting in New York City, Kent to a conference in Manchester. After Evening Prayer, which closed with a deeply moving song, the three of us sat outside the chapel on a little stone wall in the full moon, in total silence for about fifteen minutes. We then ambled the half mile to our rooming house, sat at the kitchen table and talked for several hours. I offered a few more details of the recent events in my own life. Before we retired, the two of them prayed for me. I cannot express in words what I felt or my gratitude to them. In two short days, in several wonderful, fleeting hours, I had found two true brothers. The bond we formed will not be broken.
Will a man approach God and demand rest for his wounded soul? Will all the praying and concentration of which he is capable force God to relent and pass on His gentle waves of quietness and calmness? Can one go on a monastic retreat and say, “now I am at peace,” and it is so? Will the austere lifestyle and remote setting of the monks, even lived for one week, reach the ear of God and cause His grace and mercy to pour down to a greater degree than it would have in my own home in New Holland PA? I don’t know. I suppose it depends upon the condition of one’s heart, how tuned and receptive it may be to the prompting and guidance of God’s Spirit and His love. At either place.
As I post this blog, my spirit is calmed, my soul still. There is a peace and restfulness about the Priory that cannot be denied. The days meld into each other; the end of my time here approaches. Why did I come? For peace? For revelation? For rest? Or just to get away into an idyllic setting and relax and absorb the events that have over-whelmed me in the past nine months? To meet others who are in pain as I am?
I came, I suppose, to see what would unfold. Open to whatever God led into my life. Or whoever. His answer: two men from California. One an attorney, lead counsel for the largest chain of hospitals in the world. One a businessman with more than a hundred employees. Hard men. Tough men. Educated. Naturally ruthless. Changed completely by their own experiences, transformed by Christ into compassionate brothers, speaking simply and directly to the heart of a wounded man they had never met, but immediately accepted. I marvel at the seeming coincidence of it all. But, and this statement seems not at all trite here at this place, there are no coincidences with God.
And what of the brothers themselves? Do their lives of separation and continuous prayers really bring them closer to God? Or merely allow them to live in an unrealistic bubble, free to criticize the policies of the country that allows them the freedom and security to do so? Where all things should be “peace,” regardless of the harsh realities in the world. Again, I don’t know. I’m glad such places exist and that they can exist. I’m glad the brothers hold four prayer services each day, open to any who would come. I’m glad they sing, lifting their hearts in praise and worship to the Almighty. I’m glad I came. For me and for many a world-weary traveler, the quiet hospitality of the monastery shines like a beacon onto a dark and lonely road.
YOU ARE WELCOME TO POST A COMMENT ON THE LINK ON THIS PAGE ONLY.Share