“He is a true monk who is separated from all and united to all.”
– Evagrius, 4th Century monk
This past weekend I had the good fortune to participate in a personal retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey near Carlton, Oregon. Trappist monks take vows of silence as part of their cloistered lives of contemplation, and it’s been on my bucket list for a long time to visit such a monastery. I just realized this past year that we have one in Oregon.
The Trappists are a Catholic Order that dates back to the year 1098 in France, but you don’t have to be Catholic – or Christian – to participate in a retreat. I was never asked about my religious affiliation. For a suggested donation of $50 a night, you get a simple room near a pond with a waterfall and three vegetarian meals a day, the same food the monks eat. The monks are men, but both men and women are welcome to visit.
I conceived this as a writing retreat – uninterrupted time to work on my novel – but it turned into more of a life retreat. I just couldn’t shut myself away in my room on such a beautiful August Saturday with so many miles of hiking trails to explore. The Abbey includes 1250 acres of pristine land that the monks have been tending since 1955, huge swaths of oak savanna and Douglas fir surrounded by rolling wine country. I gained about 1000 feet hiking up to a shrine to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Guadalupe refers to a series of miraculous visions of Mary that occurred in Mexico in 1531) and on my way up to the awesome view, I saw the scat of what I think were coyotes, cougars, and black bears.
The life of a monk has always appealed to me – the simplicity, solitude, and quiet meditation, removal from the rush of the modern world to focus on the rhythms of the natural world – but I’m not sure how I would fare with the religious expectations: chanting in the chapel five or six times every day, beginning at 4:15 AM and ending at 7:30 PM. (Retreat guests and the general public are invited to attend all of these services, and they are definitely something to experience – the same 25 or so monks, aged in their 30’s to 90’s, taking their same positions and singing to God, bowing to the Cross and an image of Mary.)
I’ve always felt closer to God outside, in the midst of nature, which these monks are lucky to have literally at their doorstep. And of course, I’ve already committed this lifetime to my family, to my wife and our two children. I won’t lie – a huge draw for me was taking a break from our loquacious five year-old and clingy three year-old (thanks, Carley!) but it sure was nice to be able to step away from my life, if only for two nights, to reflect on how good I have it, how blessed I am on this path that I have chosen, with all that I have been given.
I brought a book along to read on my retreat, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” by Thomas Merton, who is probably the most famous Trappist monk, and I thought this paragraph would be a good one to end on:
“This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.”