About eight years ago, (in a galaxy far, far away), I was a Roman Catholic seminarian and studying for the priesthood in Toronto. One of the requirements for seminarians was that we go on a spiritual retreat at least once a year to get away from the busy, academic life and all its pressures.
Most of the time we went to these guided retreats, usually hosted by nuns or sisters at a convent somewhere. I'd been to several of them and had grown weary of the warm, fuzzy, New Age-y type of atmosphere that usually prevailed at these things. Gimme a break.
So, that year I decided to go on a real
, hard-core retreat. I booked myself for a five-day stint at a cloistered, Trappist monastery in the middle of nowhere. No talking, simple vegetarian fare, sparse surroundings, and getting up for Vigils at 2:00 am every night.
That's right. Up at 2:00 am. This was going to be the Navy Seals of spiritual retreats.
I had experienced three years of monastic life previous to this, but I knew the Trappists were the real
monks. Hard core."Cold-hard-mean-Christ-the-King. "
The monastery was about 30 miles south of Rochester, New York, and truly was in the middle
of nowhere. There was a little town about ten miles away, and I swear I passed Arnold Ziffle and the Shady Rest motel. And a Wal-Mart.
I arrived and was shown to my "cell" by the monk in charge of the retreatants. This truly was a real, live monastic cell. It was about 8 x 10, had a tiny window, a wooden desk and chair and a single bed. The "bed" consisted of two wooden trestles with a board laid across. On top of the board was a thin mattress, an itchy blanket and a pillow.
There was a schedule taped to the door:
2:25 AM Vigils
6:00 AM Lauds & Mass
7:15 AM Terce
Beginning of work
10:30 AM end of work
11:15 AM Sext
1:05 PM None
Beginning of work
3:30 PM End of work
4:30 PM Vespers
6:35 PM Compline
7:00 PM Retire
(And no, that doesn't read "sex" and "none". Those refer to the short prayers held at the sixth and ninth hours during the day).
There was no TV, no internet, no newspapers, no talking.
Worst of all, no caffeine!!!
Oh my GOD!!
Supper that night consisted of scrambled eggs, cheese, a steamed vegetable, bread and water.
I brought a lap-top just to keep a journal but the lone electrical outlet in the cell wasn't three-pronged. I hopped in my car and "escaped" to the Wal-Mart I'd seen in Hooterville to buy an adapter.
So much for maintaining the integrity of the retreat.
My alarm went off at 2:00 am in time for Vigils. It was pitch dark outside and there really was an owl hooting outside. Really. It was almost a cliche.
God! I was sleepy. Vigils went on forever. Chant chant chant. Meditate meditate meditate.
I brought only two books with me: "The Imitation of Christ"
and Simone Weil's "Gravity and Grace."
Breakfast was bread, jam, butter, water and a banana.
After about a day, it hit me: I am ALONE!
I've never felt more alone and lonely in my life! No one there knew me. I didn't know anyone, nor could I speak
to anyone. The intensity of the loneliness hit me like a ton of bricks. And I was only on the first day. There were four more to go.
I did manage to write quite a bit of insightful things during that time. I'll have to find it somewhere and post it sometime. It was pretty good stuff.
Lunch, the main meal of the day was a bean-y vegetable soup, steamed veggies, fresh fruit, cheese, bread and water.
No snacks were ever eaten nor were they available.
By Day Three, I'd had enough of spiritual reading, meditating and deep reflection. I was going nuts.
I hopped in my car again and sped to the Wal-Mart. I craved something else to read and I wanted entertaining, frivolous fluff.
And there it was. The Holy Grail of frivolity. The newly-published biography of Monica Lewinsky.Perfect!!!
Sure, I'd like to say that I made it through all five days doing nothing else but meditating and only reading the Lives of the Saints
. I'd like to say I experienced unabated, ecstatic spiritual insights for five days and heard the voice of God.
I'm weak. I'm human.
But so was Christ
and so was Monica Lewinksy.
Labels: Cistercian, Monica Lewinsky, Trappist monastery