The following are reflections that I wrote over the course of my four day retreat at Southern Star Abbey, just out of Norsewood. They're a bit episodic but I'm not tinkering with them at all.
The silence is like a blanket, a friend. It envelopes you, cradling you in its warmth. I arrived on Thursday night just before dinner (which was very tasty!), and in some ways it felt like coming home. I was welcomed. I was wanted. I was invited to join the monks for prayer in the Abbey church – which is a very unprepossessing building, very simple, but beautiful in its simplicity. The chant gathered me up and I felt very much part of the prayer.
I joined the monks this morning for 4am Vigils – I was the only guest crazy enough to do this! – and I am so glad I did. Waking at 4am and going out into the dark frosty air, seeing the glory of the stars splattered across the face of the night, I felt very close to God. I did part of the “watch” after Vigils, staying in the silence with God, and went back to sleep at about 5.20, getting up again for Community Mass at 6. I’ve gone to each of the monastic Hours and am feeling really anchored in God’s great grace. It’s also been a most productive day: I decided that I would bring my university study to do in some of the traditional “work hours” (allowing plenty of time for prayer and silence too!) and have got a lot done – more than I have for ages. I was worried I’d struggle with getting up for Vigils but going to bed at 8.30pm last night felt logical (as it was dark and had been for several hours by that point!) and so I actually got a really good sleep – and a short nap this afternoon helped too.
I’m missing the family but only a little. I know they are secure in God’s love. I am secure in God’s love. The silence is a blessing, but also a deep challenge. It is a scary silence. It expands, all the time. God is in the silence, but that silence is like a light, searching me inside, asking me whether I have the courage to let God be God and me be me in God. It’s hard.
I went for a walk on Friday afternoon down to the monks’ cemetery. Very simple, plain white crosses, with the name of the monk and his date of death and age. There’s about 16 of them, so there are lots of monks that have lived and died here. I was struck by that: these monks have given their lives to God here, rooted in this place, watching the play of light on the walls as each day goes over, working at their tasks, praying the Office seven times a day every day for their whole lives, and now they lie buried here in this holy ground. They belong here, more than anyone I’ve ever met. They live here, they pray here, and they will die and be buried here.
What a contrast to my transient lifestyle! A different town most weeks, another hotel room, another place, another group of people to teach, and returning home to our place that we’ve only owned for five years. Although to be fair, I’ve lived in the Hutt Valley a lot of my life, but not in the same way that these monks live here. I leave my house in the morning, I go to work, I come home again. I visit my house....
What does that say about my rootedness in God? Am I just visiting God too? Or am I truly trying to inhabit God’s place, God’s heart, God’s life, in the midst of my wandering externals? There is a great tradition of wandering in the Bible too – and in church history (the mendicant Celtic and Franciscan monks come to mind here).Who is more holy? A monk who lives and dies in one place, or the “wandering Aramean” like me? Where is true holiness found? In one place, or in many places? Or in the way we incarnate those experiences from God’s hands, living love wherever we are?
My companion on this retreat was my dear friend St Therese of Lisieux, through a retreat book called, oddly enough, A Retreat with Therese of Lisieux. I was caught again by her passion and her love, and the very simple ways she incarnated this love. Love for her was about doing the small things in life and giving them to God as offerings of her life and her love. It was quite profound, especially when we got to her “Oblation to Merciful Love”, where she gave herself as an offering to God’s glory. I realised that everything I use, people I love, everything I want to do, is a gift from God’s hand and I don’t own them. They are themselves and not belonging to me.
Today, I went to Vigils again at 4am – the only one of the monastic Hours of prayer I missed during the retreat was Community Mass at 6am yesterday morning, and I went to the Visitors’ Mass at 11am instead. I loved being rooted in the Hours. It didn’t take long for each of the lesser Hours, about 15 minutes for the psalms, but it was a wonderful time of connectedness, and the times between prayers seemed to make more sense and be a lot more productive!