The week of spiritual retreat that a priest must take each year – in accordance with Church (Canon) law – is often the best and most profitable of the year for him in terms of spiritual growth and development and plain rest. This past week has been an extraordinarily beautiful one weather-wise for me, and in all other ways. Perched in the sublime solitude of a serene mountaintop Trappist abbey in the cool northern climate of New England, I was able to take time to re-energize my spiritual batteries and realign my focus for the coming year. My classmates and I have enjoyed this tradition for at least 35 of the past 45 years of priesthood (once in a while, we checked into a different monastery just for a “change of pace”; however, none have proven to be as enjoyable as this one, so far). Also, we are usually joined by a bishop or two, who along with us is welcomed into this monastic community for a short period of time. In this past week, also on this retreat was a part-time (“snowbird”) SVF parishioner.
The monks here number about 55, and that is reflective of their diminishing numbers, though it seems they are getting 1 to 3 applicants each year (it’s barely enough to replenish their former members who have gone to the Lord). They are spread out in individual hermitages as well as in the main monastery building situated on the top of the mountain. To sustain themselves, they have been raising hay (for race horses in New York!), making vestments (you often see me wearing some of them on Sundays and major feasts), producing jellies and jams (Trappist brand) and now brewing their own monk beer (though they don’t offer them to us as part of our meal!). Additionally, from time to time, they are sent out to give talks, spiritual conferences and retreats. There is a Gift Shop at the base of the one square mile property, replete with recordings of singing monks and nuns, religious books on many themes, monk- made pottery, rosaries, crucifixes, medals and statues.
Some of our schedule this week corresponds to the monastic schedule, though we’re not obliged to get up at 3:30 a.m., for the Office of Readings. We rise at 5 a.m., and are joining the monks in Morning Prayer and Mass. It is longer than the usual parish daily Mass, but no one here seems to mind. Some of the liturgies (such as this past Friday’s Feast of St. John the Baptist) are exquisitely executed and May last an hour (including relatively short homilies). Sometimes this might occur twice a week (especially in June). Our breakfast is about 7:15 a.m., and then we can spend some time meditating. A 50-minute conference by the Retreat Master follows (this year’s being given by the Prior of the Abbey). Lunch is at Noon, and the next period of prayer with the monks in the chapel is at 2:15 p.m. We are free to pray, read, rest or have a private conference until Vespers (Evening Prayer) at 5:40 p.m., followed immediately by dinner. At 7:40 p.m., we return to chapel to sing the beautiful Night Prayer, and then return to our rooms for restful sleep. All in all, our experience of monastic life is more the “ideal” rather than the real, but the atmosphere for praying and meditating is without comparison, and the setting is created by the beauty and stylized liturgies conducted by men who are the experts “par excellence” in liturgy and the sacred arts. I would hope that sometime in your life you would get the opportunity to experience even a weekend retreat in such a setting. You will go away not only refreshed, but also will be uplifted for days and weeks to come.