(This is part one of two about my time at St. Joseph’s Abbey)
I recently spent a week on retreat at a Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA. A few months ago we went to a non-violent, peacekeeping catholic community over in Ware, MA. In September, we hung out with organic farmers in Maine.
As a part of the Young Adult Volunteer Program, we go to these other places not only to relax and regroup, but also to learn from these communities. How to live in community, how to make decisions together, how to not tear you hair out while living in community and trying to make decisions together. The simple things.
This past week we learned the art of Silence.
There were no TVs, phones, computers, or phones that pretend to be computers.
The monks fill their day with work and prayer, and seven times a day they stop what they are doing to pray and praise God. We filled our days with books, writing, walking, naps, and prayer, and joined the monks for five of the services.
Bells interrupted my day constantly. They signaled it was time to go pray, sing some Psalms, reflect, and oh yeah, pray. I found myself agitated in the beginning of the week. I couldn’t get into the slow rhythm of monastic life, but I figured by day three that that was the point. To be interrupted, to take time to thank God, a lot.
The easiest and strangest part was the silent meals. Being in a program revolving around food, my housemates can talk at meals. We can chatter on about how baby greens are grown, how to make banana bread healthy, the most ethical source for green tea, and on and on. It’s informative, funny, filled with stories, and it’s exhausting.
And so, for a week, I sat at a table with my dear friends and ate silently. I could hear the crunch of my housemates’ cereal, the ding of the spoons against the bowls, the sip and slurp of early morning coffee drinking. I observed the strange sideways movement of people’s jaws as they chew, and I studied the distinct coloration of my plate.
It was a calming interruption to my normal routine, and somewhat counter intuitive to be around people but not engage with them. My brain had enough rumbling around in it already, and those meals surrounded by people each in our own heads, allowed for some sorting. I am not saying that I figured it all out, but I was allowed the space and time to try.
I am an obsessive over thinker, anxiously playing things over in my head, trying to put the pieces together better and explain everything, and being silent next to someone was very different than my usual contemplations.
It felt supportive, it felt calm, it felt sacred.
Each person simultaneously participating in one of the simplest, most basic human activities, while also mulling over the complexities of being human.
So take some time, grab a snack, surround yourself with people you really like, and just don’t talk to them. Try it out. See what you learn.