Our congregation organized a captivating two-night men’s retreat to a Benedictine Roman Catholic monastery. As an Anglican, I was initially hesitant about participating in such an event that delved into the lives of Roman Catholic Monks, but my curiosity was piqued. The Monastery Of The Holy Spirit, where the retreat was held, boasts of a long and intriguing history. Its doors are open to all, regardless of their religious affiliation, as part of their mission to unite the Christian community. While we did not engage in any direct discussions with the monks, we were able to discover a wealth of information about their lifestyle and history through their on-site museum. The experience was both enlightening and educational, providing us with valuable insights into the monastic way of life and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and granting me a new respect for simplicity.
The Monastery is, I repeat, open to all, and only charges 100$ for two nights, which includes food and stay. The grounds are beautiful, the church is majestic, and the food was excellent. I cannot recommend to anyone enough to go and visit this place at least once, even and especially if you disagree with the Roman Catholic theology. I must say that it is very humbling to see people with whom you disagree living in prayer more than you are.
Day one of the trip was set in a church nearby the monastery, where we played several rounds of Homerun Derby. I, surrounded by a group of seasoned athletes, made a poor attempt to hold my own. However, even with the rain pouring down upon our heads (and Father Tony pile-driving baseballs into the next state), I find such an activity efficient in creating connections and comradery.
After that, we made our way to the actual monastery, driving up to the apartment-like building that held our rooms. The cement that made up nearly every standing structure on the grounds is entirely white, with vines and age granting a worn look that has stood the test of time, and the architecture is absolutely gorgeous.
The evening was spent having a group lecture on the topic of this retreat: “Spiritual Friendship.” The lecturer, our Parish Developer, has an incredibly intelligent method of writing that involves big words and philosophical concepts. The topic was based on how our culture has removed the need to make personal, intimate connections with others, which is not only necessary, but required in order to be good Christians’. If we say we love God, then our evidence for that should be our love of our brothers and neighbors. If we do not love people, then we must not love God.
Another concept discussed was that of friendship being a “self-gift,” or “self-sacrifice.” Without self-sacrifice or the giving of oneself, then a friendship becomes more like a transaction. Relationships in general require a certain amount of “social debt” in order to maintain a healthy commitment between two parties. That’s just how friendship and love works, and no other person is greater as a role model in this than Jesus Christ himself.
We conversed these topics and others at the lake below the Monastery, many of our group enjoying alcohol and cigars. The conversation was rich and full of discussion, ranging from our personal life, to the current secular dating scene, to theological and biblical rabbit holes.
Day 2 began at 3:30am for many in the group who had made the brave decision to join the monks in early-morning prayer in the sanctuary shown on the right. The somber tone of the monks singing resonated from the ground and bounced all across the ceiling, the high ceilings turning even the lightest step into an audible boom.
The monks themselves were fairly aged, with about two or three bearing all-white robes signifying their presence in the process of joining the monks. While I did not join those brave souls that early, I did join the 7:00am service and observed many take communion. I was surprised to find the liturgy was very similar to our Anglican one, and while I looked out for things I disagreed with in the liturgy, I was even further surprised to find no outright obstructions to my worldview.
It’s very plain to see that every single aspect of the monks’ life is wholly surrounded around worship through contemplation, prayer, labor, and silence. It’s eye-opening to think of what things you would miss if you adopted their lifestyle, or how hard it would be to separate yourself from the vain, secular world. It’s more than that. It’s convicting.
The morning lecture was equally eye-opening. Many concepts were discussed that peeled back even more of our flawed world. One such being that our government is currently structured in such a way as that we can absolutely afford to not make friends with our neighbors. If there is a problem in our neighborhood, rather than making connections and hashing it out socially, we may simply make a single call and get them fined. When was the last time you talked face-to-face with your next-door neighbors? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be in social debt, or provided that debt?
Vulnerability is an essential aspect of relationships. And yet, being vulnerable compromises your own freedom as an individual by creating a sort of “social contract” with others. By putting yourself in that situation, you’re obligating yourself to be there if someone needs you, or pay off social debt. You’re actively sacrificing your own liberties by sharing your own time and energy towards someone else, rather than being self-sufficient. Men in particular are known for being “lone wolves,” a result of a “John Wayne Epidemic.”
If you can, count on your fingers how many friends you’ve made in the past year. Then, do it again, but count how many friends you’ve maintained for ten years. Then do it again for any life-long friends you have. It may be convicting. I myself regret the many friends I thought I was so close to, yet drifted apart as we lost common ground or moved away, and I’m only 18. How many opportunities have I given up through my own ineptitude in commitment? How many people could I have impacted if I had been more Christ-like?
That afternoon, the group all went on a hike through a small fraction of the 2,000 acres of spring forest nearby. The Monastery has claimed an enormous acreage of land devoted towards conserving it, and has even dedicated a small patch of natural land to a cemetery. They’ve allowed people of any denomination to have natural burials, only requiring that there be no plastics or metals in the body or casket when buried.
Many conversations occurred during this walk. It was yet another opportunity to grown in friendship and fellowship with each other and practice the lessons we’d heard thus far. I learned a bit about the experiences and pasts of my elders, and we discussed theology. The forest itself was as wild as you could get, and there wasn’t a single moment in which you couldn’t take a picture and get a fantastic result.
The evening lecture after this walk was just as convicting as the first. Given by the Priest of our Church, this lecture outlined steps we could take to establish deep friendships. Too many people collect shallow friendships which have no depth, and quickly find themselves surrounded by mere acquaintances rather than true friends. Here are but a few of the steps that I found most impactful:
- Be Present. Too often you go to a public social event and see a crowd of people two feet from each other, yet staring down at their phones. Social media and technology may take a person 500 miles away and put them right in front of you, but it moves everyone right around you 500 miles away. It takes bravery, yes, but even the simple act of making eye contact may be enough to kickstart an awkward conversation, which eventually leads to friendship.
- Give Presents. This ties in to the act of accruing ‘social debt,’ and inviting others to pay back the favor. It’s part of our psychology that we don’t like feeling indebted to someone, which eventually leads to the paying back of a favor and the further development of a relationship. It’s in the best interest of all parties involved to grant gifts and feel uncomfortable, as though you owe something.
- Be Available. This is yet another example of self-gifting your time to someone else. Relationships take sacrifice, and many times the reason some people don’t have friends is due to a lack of time. Finding that time may be difficult, but if someone asks you to help them move, there is nothing better to develop a relationship than a grateful stranger.
The following Sunday was possibly the most relaxing day we spent there. We joined the Monks for their morning prayer, and then ate a delicious breakfast. After relaxing and talking until 10:00am, we held our Anglican service in a quiet space deep within the church, as we had throughout the weekend.
The service held in that crypt was exactly what we needed to round up the retreat: A liturgy that mirrored that of our Anglican brothers across the country, a homily that tied in every single point that had been brought up throughout the week, and a Eucharist that felt just a bit more personal. The homily sought to bring our attention to the prayer book that we held in our hands and connect every bit of our service to the purpose of our retreat: Spiritual Friendship.
- The Lords Prayer begins with “Our Father,” sharing a sense of community and creating common ground. It establishes a sonship with each other under God.
- The Collect for Purity mimics the purity of the Jews entering the temple, meaning that there should be a devotion to purity in a Christian relationship and to incite one another towards pureness.
- The Decalogue grants us all a direction, to pray for each other during trials as we say: “Lord have mercy upon us,” and “Lord have mercy upon my brothers…”
- The propers add to our focus, to chew and meditate on the verses granted. With that, we can share the insight and knowledge we’ve gained through that meditation with our brothers, deepening our friendships with one another.
- The Creed establishes a common belief, creating even more common ground with eachother.
- The common prayers and intercessions for the world share a dream of a perfect one between it’s readers.
- The confessions encourage us to unburden our own sins and aid eachother through temptation.
- The Thanksgiving provides common gratitude, and pulls us out of bitterness.
- The Dominus vobiscum is an ancient salutation that we should use as common as “hello” to create a special community and bond with eachother. “The Lord be with you,” and the response: “And with thy spirit.”
This trip was definitely a ‘coming of age’ event for me. It was my first real opportunity to join the men in my community and make a personal connection, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I do hope I made a good impression! The monastery also showed me that the simple life is the better life, and while I grew in knowledge of the Catholic tradition, I also grew in my own personal faith and hashed out some theological questions I had pondered for quite some time.
My views on friendship in the Christian life have changed significantly due to this retreat, and a new emphasis has been placed on my heart in making connections with strangers and even close friends. I no longer can tolerate shallow relationships without being convicted, and I commend that to the excellent teaching provided by the staff of CTK, and the comradery provided by its congregation present.
I long for the chance to go back to that monastery and walk the grounds, contemplating as the monks do over the complex meanings of Christ’s messages to us. I cannot recommend it enough that you visit a monastery yourself and experience true somber silence. Below I shall attach links that will lead you to my church and the monastery.
With that, God bless you, and…
The Lord be with you!
Reblogged this on Read Religiously.
Good reflections and well-written. It looks like you got a lot from the experience. I hope you do get to go back. There’s a Benedictine monastery in my area I’ve been meaning to visit—perhaps for a weekend. You’ve inspired me to look into it again.