It was a little bit like stepping into a time capsule.
Only a month after the retreat on the ancient spiritual practices, I was on my way to a monastery. I have started signing my email, "Retreats R Us” because this one was my third in a month and I still have one more to go to.
I signed up for this one a long time ago when I started following one of my favorite writers on her blog. Macrina Wiederkehr is a monk who has written several books on contemplation and reflection. And, yes, you can be a female monk. According to Sister Macrina, you don’t have to be a man to be a monk. All you need is a monastery. I won’t bore you with more details than that, especially since Latin is involved and, mostly because I don’t understand any of it. I just know Sister Macrina called herself a monk. And I know for a fact that she lives in a monastery because the sign on the building says so.
On my drive to Fort Smith, Arkansas to the St Scholastica Monastery, my imagination kept picturing ancient stone walls. It turned out to be a whole compound of about three huge buildings with a 1950’s look. The monastery was across the street from a brand new mall but, thankfully, had enough trees as a buffer zone that once inside the walls you never thought about the mall. Everything inside has been so well-maintained that it looked brand new. It was like stepping into a time-warp.
But not the time warp of the middle ages. More like 1955. My accommodations were almost an exact replica of my college dorm but with carpet instead of linoleum. The buildings were connected by wide halls with windows on each side. They kept an array of potted plants in the sunlight of the halls. Anytime they could use natural lighting instead of electrical they took advantage of it.
I wasn’t sure which of the six doors to approach since I couldn’t see lights on in any window. As I was walking up to one door, another door opened and a woman called out to me. She turned out to be Sister Magdalen. She got me registered and took me to evening prayer since it was time, then finally to my room. All of this was done walking with a tired but energetic limp and much huffing and puffing. She mentioned losing her cane.
When I saw her later with a cane I congratulated her on finding it. Oh, no, she admitted, she had not found it, merely “swiped” one she found laying around. Later, I saw for myself the occasional odd wheelchair left here or there, sitting in the hall, forgotten by a sister who decided to walk and left the chair abandoned. This is only one of the signs that the church is aging. Several of the sisters were on walkers. It was almost like visiting an old folks home. Of the about 20 or 30 nuns occupying the monastery only a handful were under 40.
When Sister Magdalen showed me my room I fell in love with it. It was comfortable; no more, no less. I had enough to keep me comfortable but not enough to distract me.
My room reminded me of every dorm room in every college except this dorm didn’t foam at the mouth every time you wanted to light a candle. In fact, they offered a healthy dose of unattended candles everywhere I looked. Almost evey nook and cranny had candles mostly because there were tiny chapels tucked away everywhere and each one had a candle burning.
The room had two twin beds, a reading chair and a small desk and chair. There was a clock that was unplugged and I didn’t plug it in. I figured if the whole purpose of the retreat was to get in tune to God then I would transfer over to “God’s time.” Both evenings I went to bed around 9 pm and woke the new morning around 7 or so.
This led me to my biggest problem: There were too many things to read. Should I read Sister Macrina’s books before we started the retreat so that I was well-prepared? Or should I read the books in the lounge that I wouldn’t have access to once I went home? It's the devil to have Attention Deficit Disorder like I do but sometimes it comes in handy-- to be able to read four books at once, easily shifting my attention from one book to another. I sometimes end up having a “theme read.” I’ll start out with a book, fall in love with the subject and get three other books on the subject and read bits and pieces from the various books flitting from book to book like a bee gathering honey. It feels more comfortable for me to do this than if I read each book straight through. So that’s what I did with the Merton books. He was a cool guy. Now I want to know more about him. Thank you, Amazing God, for inventing the internet.
The desk in my room was straight from the 50’s, made out of the same wood and metal as the desks I remember from elementary school . Except they were in new condition. They had been so well maintained they hadn’t aged a bit.
Even the microwave oven in one of the kitchens looked like it had just been taken out of the box it came in thirty-five years ago.
The next morning I went into the kitchen and found coffee brewing. I took my time picking out the perfect coffee cup, and used it exclusively the whole weekend.
I found the universal cereal of retreats, Raisin Bran, and milk in the tiny kichen. I should eat so simply every day.
By 9 a.m. we gathered in one of the conference rooms. There were 22 of us sitting in a circle. After introductions of people who mostly lived nearby I realized I was the only Protestant in the room and the only one to drive six hours to get there. It was a “Protestant Friendly” group and much easier than I thought it would be. Macrina didn’t even open with a prayer so there was no crossing, no kneeling or genuflecting. Later on, I bought a CD of music she used and saw that ITunes labeled it “new age.” I always find it hilarious when these ancient spiritual practices, some even dating back to before Christ, are considered “new” age. At one end was a low table with a cross, a bible, a candle and some bells.
Sister Macrina introduced herself as ADHD with the “H” accented. She apologized in advance for any mental field trips she might take in her talks. Sometimes she brought us back to the topic but more often we didn’t really care because the distant field she led us into was a better one. One time she started to launch into a corollary subject but stopped herself and said she needed to pray about it first. She has a new book called "Abide" and it was due to the publishers on Monday so she was distracted a bit more than usual.
The retreat was billed as “A Day of Recollection.” She gathered us together for about three sessions that lasted an hour each. She had two bells, as she called them, but they looked more like cymbals to me except they were small and of thick metal. She could hit one against the other and produce a singularly pure sound that reverberated through the room. As she led us into prayer she would ring these three times and we could hear the vibrations of the sound bouncing off our bodies. She ended each session with the bells and then sent us off to be silent and reflect. Once I went into my room because it was still cold outside. Once I visited the labyrinth outside. The last time I visited the gift shop to buy copies of her books. And there was one time she kept us in the room there with her and led us into about ten minutes of silence there in the room. I could hear my head turn on my neck, my breath inhaling and exhaling. She showed us how to place our hand over our heart and feel our heart beat.
When Sister Macrina drew the last session to an end she suggested we sit there in our circle but cross our hands over our chests, bow to our fellow retreatants and bid each other, "May the Spirit of God Who dwells in me greet the Spirit Who dwells in you." The woman next to me murmered, "Namaste."
When Macrina was explaining her ADHD she talked a little about Temple Grandin’s talent for understanding animals and how being closed in the cattle chute calmed her. The restrictive atmosphere of the monastery was helpful to me in keeping me on track of what I was there for. For a person who loves to explore every distraction the simplicity of the monastery was helpful.
While I enjoyed the option to read several books at once, to spend my free time any way I wanted, I also enjoyed the restrictions the retreat gave me. There was no TV or laptop, no revolving refrigerator door or array of food. I had what I needed and no more. I had enough.
The majority of the modern world is suffering from a famine caused by excess. We have too much food, too many clothes, electronics, cars and way too many choices. It was only when I had no more choices of food that I noticed I my stomach was full. I had taken one change of clothes and it was delightfully easy to dress in the morning. When I had only an apple for a bedtime snack I was healthier than at home with a refrigerator full of junk. It was only when I limited myself that I felt free.
Next week: Chilling with the Sisters on a Saturday night.