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Under the Rule of St. Benedict
Posted 02-06-2009 at 09:58 AM by lacuna
Cistercian (Trappist) monk, Father Louis, Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O.
Let us do what the Prophet saith: "I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things" (Ps 38:2-3). Here the prophet showeth that, if at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.
Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse, for it is written: "In much talk thou shalt not escape sin" (Prov 10:19). And elsewhere: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov 18:21). For it belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen. If, therefore, anything must be asked of the Superior, let it be asked with all humility and respectful submission. But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we do not permit the disciple to open his lips.
Dissatisfied with the laxness in monastic discipline, 6th century monk Benedict of Nursia wrote the Rule that all monastic orders follow to one degree or another to this day. Disgusted with the paganism in the deteriorating Roman empire he renounced the world to live in solitude in a cave in Subiaco. In time he came to the notice of a community of monks who asked him to be their abbot. He reluctantly agreed but his strict rule was unpopular with the monks and they attempted to poison him. Numerous legends attend this attempt to murder the monk and eventually he went on to successfully establish a monastic tradition that lasts to this day.
Two of my friends attended a three day conference held at the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia earlier this week. Neither wanted to drive so I eagerly volunteered to drive them up from Gainesville even though I was not attending their conference. It was the perfect opportunity to make the 3 day silent retreat I had longed to make there for some time....
The rain held off for the most part on the drive north but the skies open up with 40 degree rain upon our arrival at the retreat house. We find our rooms, spartan but comfortably furnished with a Bible, a single bed, desk with chair and lamp and a padded chair. My room has a sink but the toilets and showers are down the hall. The retreat house is over heated with an antiquated hot water system that runs between the floors. The house manager apologizes for the temperature and says they are working to fix the problem. Open the window for relief.
The windows are old aluminum framed awnings that operate without a crank. They must be pushed open and when closed they are held in position only with the help of a thick covered rubber band that reminds me of the ones I used to hold my hair when I wore it long. I push the window open a bit but the wind is fierce now and the room quickly becomes too chill. I work positioning the pane until it allows in just the right amount of cool air and angle a ballpoint pin between the screen and the rubber band to hold the window in place.
It's late afternoon and the hour of vespers approaches. I follow the sign in the corridor directing me to the church and find to my appreciation I am but 24 steps from the door of my room to the door that opens into the north transept of the church. The nave is brightly lit and the choir is filling with both monks and visitors from the archdiocese of Atlanta. It's an unusual vespers service as the archbishop is present and will address the assembled monks and laity. There will be no compline this night as he is staying for dinner in the no-women-allowed cloister beyond the south transept.
The spareness of the church's interior strikes me with surprise. The classic bones reflective of the great cathedrals are there in the soaring arches above the nave but the church is stripped of the complex and intricate decorative work found in those larger churches. There are stained glass windows, bright shards of color with no story to tell with the exception of the round window high on the east wall above the tabernacle. Crafted by the monks themselves in their stained glass shop, it is a brilliant, modern depiction of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit transparently pregnant with the Christ. It's vivid and startling.
The church contains no statues, no icons, no frescoes and no crucifix visible to those in the nave of the church. There is a cross suspended by wires above the plain stone altar but in pictures I saw I came to learn it is a crucifix when viewed from the east looking west. I do not know the reason for this. The 12 stations of the cross are plain wooden crosses that are unlabeled.
Rather than the more expected construction of stone, it is - both walls and arches - poured reinforced concrete with highly polished dark terrazzo floors. Though the interior is stark in its simplicity it is suffused with a softness and a loveliness from its colorful windows. And though it is without the more ornate furnishings found in a traditional Catholic Church, it does not lack. Its character is Gothic Zen.
Suppers are silent and lean. Meatless soup and salad is the standard menu each night. After my meal and before retiring to my room I explore the retreat house and am drawn to its library full of books and to my dismay, sitting on a desk sandwiched in between the books of Thomas Merton and other works on spirituality is my particular stumbling block - a computer. My intention in this silent three day withdrawal is to avoid all contact with the outside through TV, radio, newspaper and most especially the computer. I weaken and approach the thing to move the mouse. The monitor indicates a password is needed by retreatants to access the 'Net. I break my self imposed silence to ask another book browser if he knows the password. He replies, "Trappist----". I come to my senses and flee the library. I have brought books of my own from home and will not spend any more time there searching for what I do not need.
My small room on the second floor is in the wing of the three story retreat house that connects directly to the church transept. The tall right angled barrier traps the furious gusts of wind that roar and whip around the corner. The storm lasts through the night drowning out the bells ringing the vigil hour of 3:15 AM in the tower on the other side of the church. And again for lauds and Mass at 7. By mid morning the sun makes an appearance though the wind still blows fiercely and intermittently. The insistence of the wind has excited me and I venture out to explore the monastery grounds. Leaving the house through the main door I cross the quad and go up the steps to the great expanse of lawn in front of the church. Wearing a cape and shawl around my head and shoulders I am dressed the part to participate in a retreat in a monastery with a tradition that reaches back to the middle ages. The wind attacks with a stinging fierceness I welcome when it blows against my cape. My usual and predictable emotion is a steady, even contentment but today I feel supremely alive and joyful.
The monastery with its lake, is home to scores of Canadian and domestic geese and wild and domestic ducks. When I round the front corner of the church I spot the geese on the lawn feasting on bread someone now gone had left for them. The smaller portion of the round loaf disappears quickly and the Canadian geese guard the remainder possessively against the domestics, nipping at them when they get too close. Their cacophonous honking makes me laugh.
Beyond the church near the cloister are the greenhouses protecting the bonsai plants and gardens crafted and tended by the monks. Beautiful specimens ranging in price from 25 dollars to many hundreds are for sale here. Across the broad front lawn and hidden behind some trees is the bakery where they make fudge and fruitcakes the sale of which, along with their stained glass windows, funds the running of the monastery. The monastery owns approximately 2,000 acre of land some of which is leased out for farming as the monks no longer personally work the land. It was mostly cotton fields when it was acquired by the Cistercians in 1944. Now a portion of the wooded area along Honey Creek is dedicated to the establishment of a green cemetery.
North of the retreat house is the Lake of the Holy Spirit. The slope down to the lake is awash in yellow with a thick drift of newly blooming daffodils. The flowers and the geese and ducks on the edge of the lake draw me down the brick steps to the path through the pine trees leading to the water. The wind still surges in strong gusts but the geese stand steady and balanced on one webbed foot with heads tucked under their wings. How peculiar that they do this. It seems it would be so much easier to stand on two feet. There must be a reason for this stance but I don't know what it is. Two ducks are bravely diving in the cold water. One wild and one white. Despite their difference they appear to be a team as they float and dive right next to one another, not competing over what might be in the lake, unlike the geese fighting over the bread on the front lawn above. Each dive sends their bottoms straight up, their small feathered tails pointing towards the sky. Their webbed feet churn furiously in the water for 5 or so seconds keeping them up-ended while they search. I don't know what they are hunting as I watch for several minutes and never once do they bring anything to the surface. Still they persist in their quest. They may not feel the cold but the ceaseless wind comes across the lake unabated and sends me back to my warm room in the retreat house.
I maintain my silence acutely aware of each sound I hear, like the soft tick of the battery operated alarm clock in my room, the bells in the tower in the cloister, each marking the progress of the day. My own actions inspire contemplation as I listen to the sounds they create in the otherwise stillness. The whisper of a page turning, the rasp of one jeans clad leg rubbing against another when I cross my legs, the rush of water when I fill a cup - all force a reflection on the intention and results of my coordinated movements. Solitude intensifies sound, most especially the sounds of silence. The tinnitus shrieking in my head and the rhythm of my breathing sound loudly when I listen for them and disappear back into the silence when I do not.
The day is bright and cloudless as afternoon disappears towards evening. The wind has died and I find I miss its invigorating roar as it whipped into my corner of the quad. The bells have tolled the mid-afternoon call to prayer and then the call to vespers once again as the shadows lengthen.
I enter the church early and watch the monks file into their choir stalls. Dressed identically in the loose white, hooded robes worn over their more familiar white and black Trappist scapulars, they maintain their own unique identity in their personal choice of hair length and beard. Some wear their hair in the conventional length. Others are shaved bald or even have a tonsure. Those with beards have them grown to full length, none are goatee type. It is the full treatment or a shaved face. Dark pants, khakis and jeans peak from beneath the robe hems. Work boots, tevas and birkenstocks with socks, loafers and athletic shoes are visible. These common, ordinary wardrobe touches are poignant counterpoint to the mystical otherworldliness of the ancient habit.
I sit quietly in a pew rather than the choir and let the rich baritone of their chanting blanket me. Sung purposefully and intentionally it is the song of love sung from the heart to the lover of one's soul. It blesses mine and renews my joy that there are those who still have a desire so strong for God.
I linger in the pew after vespers and watch as the monks depart from the choir, most going towards the cloister transept for supper. But 8 or 10 scatter to darkened corners of the church where I have seen chairs placed. There they sit quietly, hoods over their heads, hands folded, fasting through supper hour for the hour and 40 minutes to compline. I do not yet have the spiritual capital to maintain this vigil and depart to my own supper in the retreat house. Compline is the last office of the day and is perhaps even more beautifully sung than vespers. When it is completed the monastery will enter into the Great Silence at 8 o'clock and it will be strictly maintained until the vigil sung at 4 o'clock in the morning.
Arriving along with the Great Silence is the repaired and moderated heating system. The soft sound of the heated air coming through the vents stirs the silence again. I realize then I had heard it earlier, but yet I had not. It had drifted into my room when I was listening for and hearing other things. How long it was there before I heard it I do not know. It crept gently into my presence and I knew it not because I was not listening for it.
And as all things proceed even without our knowledge or our awareness, as the heated air filled my room with warmth through the cold night, the bells in the cloister rang yet again at 3:15 as they do on all nights and I heard them not, for in my sleep I was not listening.
Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama in 1968 shortly before Merton's death.
The Dalai Lama visiting the grave of his friend Father Louis at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. The Dalai Lama reportedly wept when informed of Merton's tragic and untimely death.
Wrapped only in a shroud, Cistercian monks are buried within the walls of the cloister adjacent to the church. The small burial plot in Conyers had 2 fresh graves, the red clay of Georgia uncovered with grass.
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