I spent some time walking around the grounds. The monks were always happy to show me what they were doing, whether it be Brother Basil letting me taste his latest ale or Father Richard’s spicy habanero Monk Sauce, but they were also happy to leave me alone and so I wandered uninterrupted. The delicious smell of peanut brittle drifted through the air as many of them were busy in the bakery filling Christmas orders. As I walked around the hill, I noticed one of them sitting alone in a golf cart looking out over the horizon on the crisp December afternoon. He didn’t look over, he didn’t say hi. He was in his own place and within his own mind. Because for all the busyness of the season, there was still time to be made for quietly looking out over creation.
For this monastic community of men, that space in between becomes the key to unlocking an understanding of not only their focus, but why so many of us are lacking it.
Much of the chatter and noise that fill our lives and minds is absent from the Benedictine way of life. While they haven’t taken a vow of silence, much of their lives are spent quietly going about their work and prayer. Everything is slowed down and subdued. They don’t say much to each other as they pass within the halls of the monastery and some of their meals are eaten in silence. Other parts of the day are simply spent in quiet reflection, meditation and prayer.
The quiet becomes something they crave.
To return to my question of what has changed about these men who have let go of the pursuit of career and family, it is simply this; they have learned to be still. They have learned to listen. They have learned to quiet much of the chaos of their minds as they explore the space in between, to pursue the grace of God.
Their job, at its core, is to pray for the church and the world. To think about the relationship between their lives and grace from their point of view is to think about bandwidth. It’s tuning the dial so the station comes in clearer. It’s walking into a quiet space to have a conversation. It’s making sure nothing is interfering with the signal. For them, grace is the signal itself. Grace is the link to God. Grace is the residue from the Big Bang. A life of less, a life of minimalism helps keep that channel open. Their job as Benedictines is to pray in order to receive grace and channel it to others.
Father Reginald put it this way, “Our prayer is what we have in common. We pray so that if we see someone acting like an animal, we still see them as a child of God. Without the grace from the prayers, which comes from some…I don’t know? Big cosmic vibe or whatever. You know it’s just how we do it. That’s the reason. What we do has value. It can’t always be seen and can’t always be quantified. If I pray for someone with cancer, is going to cure their cancer? I don’t know. But, I know that it’s important.”
Outside, the church bells break the stillness of the evening. I’m sitting in the stone cathedral as the monks shuffle in for vespers. It’s the fifth and final time of the day they have come together as a community. Slowly and quietly they make their way to their places behind the altar. Black habits, with leather belts around their waists, some still wearing blue jeans and work boots underneath. There is no music playing and no one is speaking. There is only the creaking of seats and kneelers where they pray. Soon, they are singing and praying in unison. When it’s over, they leave as silently as they came.
After they are gone, I sit alone and try to collect my thoughts.
Here you want to speak quietly. This place was meant to carry sound and the environment forces you to consider your words. The sanctuary seems enormous in the darkness. The vaulted ceilings and stained glass disappear into the night. There is only the sound of my breath and soft sound of running water from the fountain.
Since I’ve been here, I left my phone in my room. Cell service is terrible here, plus I didn’t want the distraction. It took time, but eventually the anxiety of reaching for it every few minutes was replaced by a relief from the stresses it brings to my mind.
I sit and I listen.
I try to be still. I fidget in my seat. I try to calm the chaos. My mind gets distracted. I try again. And then again. I start asking myself questions. Who am I beneath the surface? What is this chaos keeping me from becoming? Why do I cling to it? What am I afraid of losing? What if I don’t get…?
And then, I stop. Something tells me the questions are the chaos.
I stop trying to fight the quiet of this place.
I settle back into my seat. I acknowledge my anxieties. I acknowledge my distractions. I list them in my mind and reflect.
I think about their evolution. I think about my own.
It’s less about who I am now, and more who I am no longer.
In that moment. I listen to my breath. I listen to the water.
Alone in this place, there’s something I feel. Call it residue from the Big Bang. Call it a cosmic vibe. Call it grace.
All I can say is that for a moment my mind was still. I wasn’t thinking about my job. I wasn’t thinking about obligations. I wasn’t thinking about anything at all.
For a moment, I was looking through the darkness at the space in between.