Retreats are not are novelty to most Americans today. If at one time, the idea of a retreat was associated with spiritual disciplines and religious affiliation, those connections are a thing of the past. When I was a young adult I remember the emergence of meditation retreats and yoga retreats; AA retreats, of course; feminist retreats and male identity retreats. There was still a spiritual focus but then came along motivational retreats, strategic planning retreats and business retreats. All of these describe structured events with speakers and much social interaction. Today, we are used to retreats.
A silent retreat, however, remains a novelty to many people. The silent retreats we offer at Holy Cross Abbey grow out of the monastic tradition which didn’t run retreat programs but offered hospitality. We in the monastic community still refer to the Retreat House as the “Guest House” because that is what it remains for us: our “outreach”, our hospitality to the people who come to us. In this day and age, we cannot afford to use the traditional term “Guest House” on our website, for example. The term Guest House in the Twenty-first Century describes a small hotel, a bed and breakfast, and that’s not what we are about. We have to adjust to common usage to meet our guests at their expectations, so we now refer to our Retreat House. But it remains an offer of hospitality on behalf of the monastic community rather than a business geared to tourism. Offering hospitality is sharing with another what constitutes our life and silence is one of the gifts we enjoy in our monastic life.
I won’t pretend to tell you here what a silent retreat “should” do, since we don’t experience life according to “should’s”. I remember one talented and intelligent young journalist who found a silent retreat here terribly disconcerting, almost stressful. To spend four days with cell-phone turned off–no tweets, no texts–her lap top unplugged, to live with minimal conversation, without background noise or musack (if anyone still understands that slang!) was nerve-wracking. Then there was the frightening reflection: do I really depend on all that stimulation!!??! That experience did not add up to tranquility or restorative healing. But there are other responses.
There have certainly been negative responses, too, about the style of the taste about meals or service or personalities. Since we are human, mistakes and faults are inevitable; on the other hand, there’s no accounting for taste and no one can please everyone. But this ambience does speak–has spoken for decades-to some people. I’d like to quote from a reflection sent us by Donald E. Jackson who…well, let his speak for himself!
In June 1979, I made my first retreat at Holy Cross Abbey with a small group of men from St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland. One of the men corresponded with the Guest Master for our weekend reservation, by finding the address of Holy Cross Abbey through the bread wrapper on the Monks Bread that at that time was being baked and delivered to many of our local supermarkets. Before the construction of the present retreat facility, retreatants lived in the small house below the Bakery; the Guest Master was Fr. Stephen Usinowitz. Fr. Stephen was a man of deep prayer but his winning smile and sense of humor made everyone feel welcome.
Excuse my interrupting but can you imagine how deliberate–we’d say intentional, today–and how carefully planned a retreat had to be when you made arrangements by mail? Most people would not know the phone number of the Guest House–not knowing the phone number was one way of insuring that the Abbey was kept separated from the rest of the world. If the date you requested had no free room, correspondence continued until you found an opening that could accommodate your availability. There were no instant communications. The building Don refers to is an old farm house from the 1920’s. It’s upstairs was converted into eight small rooms, two bathrooms accommodating all the guests. At that time, the Retreat House was only open to men.
My favorite Divine Office in the monastic chapel is the Office of Lauds at 7:00 AM which was integrated with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This Office is the beginning of the new day and was a celebration of all the beauty of nature and all the good gifts God gives us. At the conclusion of the chanting of Lauds, the monks come to the area where the retreatants are sitting and together we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Eucharist. This is a very special time of prayer for all of us.
In the following years, I was introduced to contemplative prayer in several different ways. One was the introduction by Fr. Andrew Gries to the book Word Into Silence by Fr. John Main, OSB of a Benedictine Priory in Montreal. Fr. John Main had rediscovered the practice of Christian Prayer by the early desert fathers and mothers and by St. John Cassian who greatly influenced St. Benedict. This was a major breakthrough to the practice of contemplative prayer in our own day. With this historical background, Marty McDonnell and I formed a Christian Meditation Prayer Group in our Parish (St. Martin of Tours) in 1982. Today, many of the meditators in our prayer group join together to make an annual retreat at Holy Cross Abbey. As our group has matured, we were given tremendous support from Fr. Edward McCorkell, Fr. Andrew and Fr. Mark Delery, as well as from Fr. John Farrelly, OSB, of St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC.
St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries is based on the vows of Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Manners. My many retreats at Holy Cross have strengthened my commitment to the spirit of these vows as a married layman living in the world. Christian Meditation or Contemplative Prayer is based on silence, stillness ands simplicity which are closely aligned to the vows of Benedictine Spirituality.
Each retreat at the Abbey has renewed my prayer commitment to live in silence and stillness before the Lord and join myself with the Cistercian Monastic Community at Holy Cross as they give praise to God each day by their prayer, their work and their love for the Lord.
Don Jackson describes the religious world I grew up in, which accepted silence and asceticism, religious commitment and clear ethics as the foundation for spirituality. Many people today live in a world that is very different. Even people who conscientiously align themselves with the Church, find their lives and living space invaded by noise and busyness. I find it a wonderful and encouraging to meet college students again in our Retreat House, exploring ways to cultivate silence or break away from pointless distractions. Many people without any religious affiliation become aware of how empty and superficial our lives, geared to success, securities and ownership, has become. Where can people find silence and a positive solitude–instead of intrusive noise and loneliness–today, except in a Retreat House like ours? One recent retreatant wrote: It was the best experience I’ve ever had–to be in a place where I can just “be”…without having to be on guard or feel the need to prove myself. It was very liberating. More so, I believe it changed my perspective on life.
May Holy Cross Abbey continue to provide such an environment. May we be open to improving what we share with our guests. May we who live here never fail to appreciate what we have to offer. May we never lack gratitude for the gift of where we live and what hospitality we have to offer.