It is 3:15 a.m. as we make our way in dark silence to the chapel, a half-mile walk from the retreat house. The beam from our flashlight reflects on a blanket of frost glistening like fairy dust over the fields. Overhead, a nearly full moon and thousands of stars strewn across a navy blue sky provide extra wattage. The entire solar system appears cosmically aligned for this one glorious moment. I am exhausted and exhilarated. It is cold. No, it is freezing. But we do not utter one word; we are in the middle of The Great Silence when speaking is reserved for emergencies. All we hear is the exhalation of our breaths and the sound of pure, unadulterated peace.
I had toyed with the idea of retreating at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., for many years. But when my incoming emails ratcheted up to a thousand and I realized I was starting to twitch when my iPad was out of sight, I finally got the message. It was time to unplug and go off the grid.
Even though this trip is about embracing silence, I don’t want to go solo. “Do we have to wear long hooded robes tied with a rope?” asks my friend Day lightheartedly after she agrees to come along.
As a talker, I had some misgivings. Even when I’m home alone, political pundits yak in the background. My husband was a doubting Thomas. He said I couldn’t stay tight-lipped for more than 20 minutes; that I’d be expelled for giggling. A friend suggested I pack a roll of duct tape, just in case. And my sisters howled at the image of me sans room service, Frette linens or my nightly glass of Cabernet.
But I had faith.
Nestled between the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains, the abbey was founded in 1950 on a 1200-acre working farm. At its peak, 60 Cistercian Trappist monks lived in the historic 18th-century buildings; today there are 10—both young and old, monks-in-training and some who’ve lived here their whole lives. To make ends meet, they lease the farmland as pasture for beef cattle and sell fruitcake, creamed honey and chocolates.
My “cozy” (read: spartan) room and private bath have green cinder block walls. Furnishings are basic—a single bed, chair, built-in desk, floor lamp, nightstand. That’s it. There are no keys. No dead bolts. No safety chains. Doors lock from the inside only. My first instinct is to lock my wallet in the car, but—hold on—this is why I am here, to feel nurtured and safe.
The monks conduct seven daily services. Six are open to the public including Vigils, Lauds, Vespers and Compline. We attend them all. The monks chant, pray, recite passages from the Old
Testament or celebrate the Mass. We never sing or recite a prayer. We remain silent.
The only time we see all retreatants is at meals. A few nod or smile as we pass by. With others, I feel invisible. Initially, sitting at a communal U-shaped table with 15 silent men and women feels odd. After the second or third meal, I acclimate. I enjoy being in my own thoughts instead of engaging in idle chatter.
This is not a place for fussy eaters. Breakfast consists of dry cereals or toast with the monk’s flavored honey. Lunch is a tray of unidentified fish filets, a bowl of potatoes and carrots. While
I don’t usually eat red meat, Shepherd’s Pie is served at dinner. I clean my plate.
To pass the hours between services, Day journals and I spend time reading. Each time I catch a glimpse of my iPad tucked in my suitcase I feel like an alcoholic eyeing a bottle of bourbon. Just once I succumb to temptation. After skimming several meaningless emails I am overcome by guilt, I never reach for it again.
I thought our days might drag, but I discover that Mother Nature is better than any app. The emotional rush of our middle-of-the-night walks to church with stops to stargaze make me think of a quote I found in the library, “the quieter I become, the more I hear.”
Now that I’m home, I’m still no saint when it comes to my iPad obsession. But I am tuning out of mindless background noise and tuning into myself. I am speaking less; listening more. I’ve learned an important truth. Silence really is golden. Suggested donation, $75 to $150 per night. http://www.virginiatrappists.org.
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