“Let us not neglect that great Means of obtaining God’s Grace,
our frequent Prayers for it.”
~ Richard Eyre, The Necessity of Grace (1714), p.15 .
As last winter cycled into spring, I foraged in pursuit, seeking respite. It came to mind that once the tribulating seas calmed enough, a retreat could be possible. Ironic as it sounds, preparing the way for rest and reflection requires a lot of work. From negotiating the time from my job, to planning, and then right up to the usual week-before workplace feverish pitch, my nonchalant backpack toss into the car trunk followed extraordinary effort. But my ensuing merge onto the highway became no ordinary passage: that expressway across town transformed into my pilgrimage road. The destination is not to chores, or an employment demand, but rather to a place of healthful community and rarified solitude. As I drive closer to the Weston Priory, the roads become narrower and less paved.
My first sojourn here was in 1994, and I’ve been back yearly since then- sometimes several times in a year. When I think of taking time out from my demanding life, Weston Priory always comes to mind. The monastic community’s ethos is never far from my thoughts, from my sense of purpose to the ways I perceive life in its many aspects. But these ideals and disciplines are too easily drowned out, in the stream of crises, deadlines, and frustrations. At least I know to come back here, as one knows to reach for nutrients. The Spirit is the wellspring of life.
Retreats, as I’ve learned, must last more than a couple of days. Upon arrival, my racing and cluttered thoughts are so abundant and invasive, that I need time to shed the detritus that followed me here. Rather than to try suppressing thoughts, I ride them out, and let them go. Absorbing the immediate environment, and walks in the forest, are helpful. It’s an exercise of preferring the present, instead of tired old replays. This week, as usual, I find myself surprised at things I’ve long known, yet simply not thought of in a long time. A retreat is a chance to re-calibrate and prefer things that inspire.
Just two days ago, during vespers with the Brothers, I found myself simultaneously astonished and reassured, noticing anew the heart-rending beauty of their understated sung prayers. Recognition can be discovery as well as reminder. My continuing experiences here blend the two, as I notice aspects of the Vermont landscape I hadn’t seen before, and also recognize the familiar aromatic mountain air (which is unlike the briny Atlantic of my hometown). This week, I’ve also been reminded of the colors of late-summer forests and sunlight that shifts by the minute. The Priory is the one place in which I drink fruit tea and eat tempeh and raisin bread. Taste is among my reminders. Sound is, too. The Brothers’ soft harmonies carry across their large semi-outdoor spaces. Listening to their voices, while also noticing their backdrop of green meadows, amounts to a subtle beauty that is entirely humbling. The other day, I had the opportunity and leisure to enjoy a mountain rainstorm. From my room in the monastery house, I watched the clouds intensify and the downpour. In this silent place, I could really hear the rain striking the thick trees at my window.
Being away from my usual tightly-scheduled days, my perception of time becomes one of contrasts.
I took to the road seven days ago; it seems like a long time ago, but also the week has been passing quickly. Indeed, there is the rhythm of the monastic day, with the Divine Hours, services, community meals, and great conversations. The spaces in between are both slow-moving and rapid. Waking at 5am makes it easy to retire just after compline at 8pm. This is something of a time zone that requires adjustment at entry, as well as upon my return home.
Though time is portioned out differently in a place like this, the days and years do advance. The forest reminds us that time does not stand still. Even in its patience and consistency, the landscape evolves. Part of the experience of spending time here is noticing how the community manages the forested areas within their stewardship. The community itself suffers losses of lives, and also adds new members as many families do. Time is not static, yet continuity provides the stage for renewal. Amidst these contrasts is memory.
We have amazing capacity for remembrance. Speaking for myself, I remember countless details, events, and specific words, dating far back to early childhood. I recall things that nobody else can remember, as well as many things that very likely have not mattered in a long time. Atop the mix of recollections, with the event of a retreat, I began enumerating all the annoyances from which I was getting away. Later, after a day at the Priory, being struck with appreciation for the hospitality I received, my thoughts of what I regretted, changed to recognition of the goodness I find here and now. And moving still further away from the negative, I decided not to ponder how I can be re-grounded into the principles cultivated through these experiences. The rootedness I seek has already been happening. Renewal cannot be coaxed. Being here is all that is necessary.