Every year the monks of Mount Calvary Monastery set aside 10 days for a silent retreat. This is an ancient custom of the Order of the Holy Cross. In the “old days”, the Order held its annual Chapter in August, usually including the Feast of the Transfiguration, so that most of the Brethren, scattered as they were hither and yon, could be together for both our time of silence and our time of communal discernment.
We still practice this, but have separated the times of silence and the times of discernment. These days most of us come together for a week or so in June for our Chapter discussions but have our silent times when they are most convenient for each of our different monasteries. Ours is generally toward the end of August, this year beginning on Tuesday, Aug. 18 and ending on Thursday, Aug. 27.
A question that sometimes comes up as people talk with us is, Why would monks, who have a lot of time in silence in the ordinary course of things, need even more? And why such a long time? Good questions!
Most people do not become monks in order to do a specific kind of ministry or work. We become monks in order to open ourselves unconditionally to the entrance of God into our hearts, to listen to God, to be taken over by God, to let God move our lives wherever the currents of divine love may take us. The work follows, sometimes quite surprisingly! There are lots of ways to do this, of course, and they are all available to people in every walk of life: listening attentively to scripture in regular devotional reading, study and lectio divina, participating in worship, praying alone as well as with others, meditating. Many, perhaps most, sincerely religious people find time to do this in the midst of their busy lives, and many people find that it urges them on to the active work of building the Kingdom of God. Much of our ministry, our work, here at Mount Calvary Monastery, is to these wonderful people, hosting them in retreat and spiritual direction and in other ways as they find their ways to the monastery.
On the whole monks are people whose reaction to the classic spiritual disciplines isn’t so much being moved to go out and do something for others as to stay where we are and build up places of God-centered community, of Gospel-inspired contemplation and co-operation, where we ourselves can find the presence of God and embody it so that others can share it with us as well.
This requires that we ourselves have the experiences of silence and solitude. We try to make opportunity for it daily, in the silence which lasts from Compline until after breakfast and at other times in the day, in the weekly time when the guest house is closed, and in shorter three-day retreats quarterly. But once a year we practice it together for 10 days, which is a real time of spiritual refreshment for us all.
In order to maximize the psychic space for silence, we simplify our daily schedule, starting the day with Vigils at 6 am, then Lauds at 7:30 and the Eucharist at 9:00 and then Vespers at 5:00 pm, with only one served meal, supper at 6:00 pm. This leaves the day open for whatever may move each of us that day. We are sort of like hermits during this time of retreat.
There is something wonderful but also challenging about days of silence stretching out for more than a week. Challenging because monks are like everybody else when it comes to settling our minds down. shutting up so that God can get through: lots of resistance, lots of static, lots of things to put on our to do lists, some of them quite important, in fact. The challenge is to put these aside and quiet down and let God in. To struggle with it, to get spiritually honest before God knowing that we won’t have to put on our public face for a while. The wonderful part is that when we let this happen, as often as not there is an “Aha! moment”, one of those openings when we find we are becoming what we hoped we might be when we started out to be monks: being in God’s presence, being loved and knowing that we are loved, made whole in the great Shalom, the great peace of God’s creation of all in all, being filled with the love and person and presence of Christ.
So please pray for us in our time of silence this month! We know we can count on our friends holding us in prayer as we try to hold you before God as well.