Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, Virginia
The week after Easter I spent three days on retreat at the Holy Cross Abbey near Berryville, Virginia. It was my first retreat in many years, but not my last I hope, and my first time at a monastery apart from visiting as a tourist. My goals were modest: catch up on sleep and spend time praying, reading, and relaxing. I accomplished these goals and learned a few valuable lessons I’d like to share with you.
One thing I learned is that I eat too fast. At our communal meals, eaten in silence, I was usually the first one done, even though I took bigger portions than most. I need to eat less, chew more. The same goes for prayer. Monks pray slowly and deliberately as if chewing on every syllable. I need to slow down and take time when I pray.
Not only do I need to pray more slowly, I need to pray more frequently. Monks pray seven times a day, following the example of the Psalmist: “Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments” (Ps. 119:164). These aren’t short God-bless-us-all prayers but prayer services lasting from twenty-five minutes to over an hour. They even rise every night at 3:30 a.m. and shuffle on groggy feet to the chapel where they pray and read Scripture aloud, their voices still raspy with sleep. Some days I am so busy that I only pray three times – breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
I also learned that monks stay busy too. In addition to their set times of prayer and worship in the chapel throughout the day and night, they are required to perform manual labor. This requirement goes back to the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, which prescribes daily periods of prayer, work, and rest to help maintain a healthy balance. The monks at Holy Cross Abbey run a bakery and sell their products in the monastery gift shop and online, and they also stay busy maintaining the grounds and running the monastery. It’s a good reminder that I need to balance work, rest, and prayer, allowing sufficient time for a healthy dose of each.
A final lesson comes in the form of a wonderful mixed metaphor from the previously mentioned Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” This is a good lesson for all of us. If we listen with the ear of our heart, we may be surprised by what we hear.