St. Anselm's Abbey offers place of tranquillity in D.C. Spirit: Washington's cloistered Benedictine monks welcome a steady stream of visitors looking for a place to be and feel quiet.

March 27, 1997|By knight-ridder news service

WASHINGTON - It's Friday at St. Anselm's Abbey, a half-timbered monastery off a busy street in the city. The Friday Monk has come up the hill and locked his bicycle at the front door.

His Friday place awaits him.

There is the small chapel, dimly lit, where he prays, sunlight scattered around his pew like random blessings. There is the cemetery, where he lingers as a man with a shovel digs a monk's grave. There is a stone bench in the courtyard, where the Friday Monk sits. And says nothing.

He is no monk, despite the nickname given to him by the Benedictines here. Instead of a black cowled robe, he wears sweat pants and a nylon jacket with "Nantucket" printed across it. He has a wife and three children and an office. He's a busy man, a developer of low-cost housing and the minister of an activist ecumenical church.

But for the past 15 years, Jim Dickerson has gone to St. Anselm's most weeks, sometimes spending Thursday night in one of the abbey's simple guest rooms, and on Friday, eating lunch with the cloistered monks. Sharing their quiet.

He says he draws his strength from what he gets here. "Silence is the language of God," Dickerson likes to say, though he doesn't say it on this day, a Friday.

Many people spend their free time gravitating to bars or malls or tourist towns, seeking the comfort of the crowds. An abbey is a private destination. A place apart, as the late monk Thomas Merton would say, "to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God."

St. Anselm's Abbey has had a steady stream of guests over the years, says James Wiseman, a monk there. The people who come - government workers, businessmen, people struggling to overcome addictions - are looking for a place to be and feel quiet.

"If you are always chattering and jabbering," says Wiseman, ""you won't hear the Lord speaking to you."

In his book "The Wisdom of the Desert," Merton, a Trappist, wrote of the early days of Christianity, of the ancient monasteries of those days, and the desert fathers hewing their own fiercely personal roads to God.

Then, as now, silence had to be begged, borrowed or stolen from everyday life. But then as now, there were places made safe for people who dared to claim silence.

These days, the country is dotted with such places, many run by religious communities, offering bed and board for a moderate fee or donation. While Lent and Holy Week are particular times at some, contemplation knows no single season.

It's no coincidence that as personal stereos, car phones and pagers proliferate, quiet becomes more prized, says Joan Tollifson, an Oakland, Calif., meditation teacher and author ("Bare Bones Meditation," Bell Tower).

"I'm really happy to see it happen: a growing interest in silence in counterpoint to the growing noise," says Tollifson. She's a veteran of Zen centers and Benedictine monasteries alike.

Tollifson says she finds peace in both kinds of places.

In Washington, the Friday Monk makes sure members of his church, inner city folks, take their own silent retreats as an antidote to the stress of life in troubled neighborhoods.

Once they learn how to find the silence, he says, "They can take this with them wherever they go."

The appeal of the monastic life calls even to people in busy careers.

"Benedictine Experience" weeks and weekends, held at religious centers across the country, are steadily filling up, says Elizabeth Swenson, who coordinates them for the Canterbury Cathedral Trust in America.

The programs follow the Rule of St. Benedict, a sixth-century monk who devised a plan for a "balanced" monastic life. Now, as in the days of the declining Roman Empire, adherents attempt to live by his prescriptions for carefully ordered days of prayer, work and silence.

"It's a mystery, in a way, why there is such a resurgence," says Swenson.

But participants say the monastic ways of St. Benedict give them new insights into their workaday lives. On Benedictine retreats Harriett Mathews, a Maryland English teacher, has found herself slipping into the rhythms of another kind of time.

And she been touched again and again by the mystery of the monastic silence kept each night after the evening prayers, called the Greater Silence. ""That is so powerful," she says. "You feel very close to those around you. A lot closer than if you were chit-chatting."

She returns home energized, she says, and "focused."

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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