Beyond Words

Retreat: Guests at Holy Cross Abbey near Berrryville, Va., find their spirits refreshed by the sounds of silence.

March 05, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

You're one of 15 at the dinner table, and not a word is being spoken. You steal a glance at the fellow across from you. His eyes dart away. You want to nudge the lady beside you, ask where she's from. She, too, looks away.

Silence. No matter how discomfiting, you must observe the silence. That's why you've come.

Finally, the Guest Master enters. He, at least, is allowed to speak at meals.

His floor-length robes, long limbs and salt-and-pepper beard lend him the gravitas of a priestly Abe Lincoln. He quietly counts heads to make sure all are present.

At length he speaks.

"I want to tell you a story about a Buddhist monk," says Brother Stephen Maguire, your host and guide for the weekend, in a voice as low and still as the nearby Shenandoah River.

"This monk was seeking enlightenment," he says. "One day he got hungry, just as you and I do. He encountered a food vendor in the street. He looked in the vendor's cart, and there he saw some hot dogs."

"Well," the vendor said, "what do you want, my brother?"

"Sir," said the monk, "make me one with everything."

First a pause, then low groans and laughter spread through the room.

Brother Stephen tugs his goatee, his eyes glinting. He's not offering frankfurters for dinner tonight, but rather cornball spiritual jokes -- that and beef stew with noodles.

Line up and serve yourself. Your retreat at Holy Cross Abbey has begun.

You never know what the silence will bring, but there's plenty of it at Holy Cross. The Roman Catholic monastery lies 95 miles southwest of Baltimore -- 1,200 peaceful acres in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley -- near Berryville, Va. The two-hour drive is itself a form of deceleration: first the city outskirts, then the suburbs, then increasingly smaller towns and finally the grand, gently welcoming expanse of Blue Ridge Mountain country.

Twenty-five Cistercian monks live here in the foothills, apart from what the rest of us call civilization, on a rigorous schedule of prayer, sacred reading, group worship and manual labor.

"We tend to keep a slower pace," says 70-year-old Brother Stephen, whose job for the past 14 years has been to meet, greet and acclimate visitors to that more languid rhythm. "That way you can listen."

Members of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance -- otherwise known as Trappists, for the ancient French monastery LaTrappe -- do nothing if not listen, and have done so since their inception at LaCiteaux in Burgundy in 1098.

They devote their lives to seeking God in accordance with the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict. The rule is a complex affair, but basically it calls for formally scheduled prayer, spiritual reading and engagement in self-sustaining manual labor.

"Then are they truly monks," reads the scripture, "when they live by the labor of their hands as did our fathers and the apostles."

Visitors don't have to keep the same schedule as the brothers, and it's a good thing: Monks' days begin long before dawn, when they rise for the 3:30 a.m. office of vigils, a service in which they pray the Psalms and ask God to intercede on an unworthy humanity's behalf. Long hours of individual prayer follow, along with meditation on the Bible, up to four more worship services, labor on the grounds or at the monastery's bakery and three light, simple meals. They retire at 8 p.m., when the stillness of night prevails.

The monks aren't just trying to soothe jangled nerves. Silence affords them the chance to "grow ever more deeply in the love of God," according to the monastery's literature.

Like many facets of monastic life, the practice of stillness is a form of letting go -- a release of the false, controlling self that is so enmeshed in worldly affairs that it's incapable of contemplating the living Deity.

The monastic life "involves a dying-away of one part of us," says the genial Brother Benedict Simmonds, "so that another part may come to life."

Lucky for visitors, hospitality is another key precept in the Cistercian world view. Most Trappist monasteries -- there are 12 for men and five for women in the United States -- sponsor a retreat program of some kind, in which individuals or small groups can stay at the monastery for a few days' prayer and relaxation.

As you drive onto the abbey grounds, first you'll encounter the monastery's gift shop, then the main cluster of buildings, anchored by the 18th-century plantation-style house called the mansion.

A quarter-mile to your right, at the end of a long drive, a two-story brick lodge nestles against the wintry Blue Ridge foothills. Inside and out, it looks something like a pristine Motel 6. Its amenities, while simple, are modern. The house contains 15 single rooms, each with a single bed, a private bathroom and shower, a writing desk, a comfortable chair and a spectacular view of the grounds. There are no televisions, and the only phone line in the building is the one the Guest Master uses to conduct business.

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