September 28, 2007

Weston Priory: Be still, my Soul

Category: News — Ira @ 2:03 pm

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“Remain open to the Holy Spirit, be aware of the
signs of the times, and strive for growth in Gospel
and monastic values.”
—Weston Priory Handbook
___________________________________________
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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.

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With Puny outside a Queensbury motel

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.

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Eucharist service in the barn

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.

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Long table loaded with the noon meal. The table was a gift from a wealthy
widow who wanted all the brothers to be able to sit and eat together.

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Dining room. Brothers and guests.

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.

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Brother Alvaro seated beside me at lunch.

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Brother Alvaro was the only monk who wore a black habit.

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.

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Ed Buckley (Left) and Kent Hansen

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Ira and Kent

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Ira and Ed

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.

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Outside the Vermont Country Store. A lady tourist took the photo.

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Kent and Ed admiring trout caught by local fisherman

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.

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Baling hay with the brothers

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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.

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With Brother John after the Eucharist service

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At work on my blog in my little room

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.

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(10 Comments) »

  1. Beautiful and insightful description, Ira. The prayer that kept coming to me the whole time I was there whether in the prayer services, the walks in the woods, the meals and the conversations was “Thanks.”

    Christ was kind and merciful to all of us in bringing us together at the monastery. “Who is sufficient for these things?” but God is good. I am still thinking of the thoughts you shared in our discussions and will for a long time to come.

    When I came down off the mountain and got a cell signal and called my wife, I was astonished that I couldn’t speak for a while due to the tears of joy and gratitude that flowed from my heart entered there by the grace of Christ and the bond of our fellowship together. We are brothers in the Lord.

    The tears stunned me. Like our meeting itself, I didn’t expect them, but the minutes Ed, you and I spent together in peaceful silence that last night watching the glory of the rising full moon said more than words can ever say. So I will leave it at that.

    Under the mercy of Christ,

    Kent

    Comment by Kent Hansen — September 28, 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  2. Enjoy your time of “quiet and rest”. Great blogs. Love your writings!

    Comment by Dawn ( — September 29, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

  3. Ira, that sounds very interesting. I am glad for you that you took that opportunity. Time spent in peace and quiet with close friends and God or with God and you alone are very refreshing to the soul. Time spent in the woods sitting on my tree stand are very touching to me. Sometimes we have to clear our minds and listen very carefully so we can hear God’s voice. Bless You!

    Comment by Andrew — September 30, 2007 @ 8:53 pm

  4. In defense of the much maligned Puny – they transport washers, dryers, and dishwashers quite well.

    Perhaps there is another way to consider what Brother John said. How many times were you given “spiritual guidance” that was completely free of a human agenda or worldly gain? Not in service of a particular church or its particular teachings on specific passages, traditions or “a word” or prophetic statement?

    Comment by Glo — September 30, 2007 @ 10:25 pm

  5. How about those Braves and those Mets ???????

    How about those: Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies !!!!!!!!

    All three played spectacular seasons – showing resiliancy, strength and true competitive spirit. Two of the teams played exceptionally high win percentage ball after the All Star game, and when push came to shove at the end of the season, these same teams were almost unbeatable.

    Now begins the second season and, whatever the outcome of the playoffs and World Series, it has been a glorious year for major league baseball. The thrills of these pennant races will be told to grandchildren and discussed in reverential terms in rotissiere legues for years to come.

    I look forward to the days of October and perhaps a few late nights (even with a 4:45am rise time), enjoying baseball at its best and and the drama and suspense of each and every series – whatever the outcome. To live in the moment with each win or loss, heightens the experience and provides a very succinct counterpoint to some of the more mundane aspects of life.

    Go Yankees and Phillies and may the best team win – even if it isn’t one of these.

    THE EVIL EMPIRE RULES

    Comment by Thorne — October 4, 2007 @ 8:58 am

  6. Very glad to find your blog. There’s much I can relate to, being a good friend of Weston Priory- and having made (so far) 14 years of retreats there.

    I hope, at some point, you will be able to visit Taize, France- where there is a monastery that is very similar in spirit.

    (My blog has some pictures and entries from Taize, and their literature is with me as much as the Weston Monks’ song lyrics.)

    Good travels, brother!

    http://laviegraphite.blogspot.com/

    Comment by Abraham — June 19, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  7. A beautiful account. ‘To say nothing trite’ as your new brothers did, is my aspiration. I, who take refuge in words, must learn the value of silence.

    Comment by Anita — January 23, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  8. The Westin Prioy “Listen” music has been my entre to meditation and hopeful spitirualty since the early 1970’s. For me, it is clearly inspired.

    Living near Atlanta, the Trapist Monastary of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga has been the site of some of my deepest spiritual experiences.

    Somehow, when monks separate from the regular pace of day-to-day American life, they help us focus on what is really important. What a gift.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think I understand. Tom

    Comment by Tom — May 21, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

  9. Ira,
    I really enjoyed reading this. It was spiritually calming. It also took me back to thoughts of my Catholic roots. Funny, I quibble about the Catholics, but they are my people. They were the first to introduce me to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, they missed the part about how loving God was and didn’t encourage Bible reading. But their devotion to God, on their own terms and in their own ways, taught me about the holiness and power of God.

    In grade school, if I recall correctly, we attended church everyday. The church and school were connected by a parking lot where we played 4-square, dodge ball, chase, and on the swings, hot metal slide, and monkey bars. For we girls it was all done in a plaid knee length skirt, white blouse, and navy or dark green knee socks. Of course, there were the dreaded fuzzy tights which my sister and I had to wear since my mom was a heat-freak. None of her kids were going to be cold, by golly. Believe me, we weren’t.

    The church had beautiful wooden glossy pews that we kids loved to slide down on our behinds. A sure fire way to get a whack from one of the nuns. The stained glass was so beautiful when the sun shone through it. The golden tabernacle housed the soon to be body and blood of Christ. After the priest prayed over it and the congregation responded to his prayers it was thought the white host and sweet purple wine turned into the real deal, Jesus’s body and blood. It’s difficult for me to hear the word “elements” when the selected individual from my Evangelical church leads us in communion. I don’t dwell on it too much. It just catches my attention.

    I know this was written a while ago and you probably don’t remember much of what you wrote, but I wanted to make mention of the words of Brother John. Catholics can be a strange lot. They have no issue with drinking or smoking. Priests fit right in at a Friday fish fry with a band belching out polkas or Irish dirges. In many ways they’re just one of the group. Of course, there are restrictions. Afterall, priests were the mediators between their flock and God. That’s what we were taught, at least. Maybe some of them didn’t like that. Maybe Brother John didn’t.

    There’s something to say about finding your own way. You have to work for it. YOU become the seeker. Have you ever heard of young Native Americans going on a quest to, in a sense, complete their identities? They fast, go off into the woods by themselves, pray, and wait. Who do they pray to? The spirits, I suppose. Then, after however long it takes, a connection is made. They return to their tribe with a vision and new way of seeing themselves.

    Maybe Brother John looked at it as the Natives do. Or maybe he’s a fruitcake that should be kicked off the God Squad. Whatever the case, he believed in what he spoke.

    You were very blessed that day to meet up with such sensitive roommates. It’s so very hard to find people who are in touch with what goes on in the human heart. And to just listen.

    Loved the pictures. Nice and green and naturey. Can’t go wrong with that.

    I so enjoy reading your stories. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful gift.

    Comment by Francine — April 24, 2013 @ 1:33 am

  10. Hi. I am thankful I found your site and read your blog. Especially this one, I find this very descriptive and informative. I don’t normally read blogs in their entireity but your manner of writing brought me to the end.

    I am a middled-aged Filipino. During my college years back in the 80’s here in the Philippines, I was exposed to the songs of the Weston Priory. I must say I am most familiar with their first songs like Listen, Wherever You Go, All I Ask of You and many more. After the endless listening to their songs, I realized I wanted to be one of them. First, I wanted to know more about them. You see at that time, there was no internet; or maybe there was but I simply did not know. That prevented me from knowing more about them. The knowledge that the monastery is in the States and I’m here in the Philippines slowly erased the very strong urge then.

    Since I have the files of their songs in my computer ( I kind of digitized them from cassette tapes years back) I listen to them while working in the office. This morning suddenly, I was moved to google Weston Priory and brought to you blog. What you’ve written kind of filled what I’d missed in the past years. I wanted to know what life is like at Weston Priory. It seems that I had cast my youthful heart in that priory.

    I am married now but the call seems to be always there. Perhaps one of these days, I will have the luxury of staying , like you, for a week, not In Weston, but in one priory here in the Philippines.

    God bless.

    Comment by Jinggo Atillo — November 20, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

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