In late June, while it seemed as if all of New York City was girding itself to celebrate
the approaching Fourth of July weekend, I made my nearly two-hour way via
Metro-North up to Poughkeepsie, then a twenty-minute taxi ride to Holy Cross Monastery to participate in its Summer Contemplative Days. I was one of only fifteen guests who would spend the next four days at the Monastery in almost complete silence.
While I have participated in retreats at Holy Cross since 1986, for the last five years I have done the "Contemplative Days" during one of the four seasons they are offered at the renowned monastery.
Sitting solidly on 26 acres on the west bank of the Hudson River, Holy Cross Monastery is one of four monastic communities within the Order of the Holy Cross, a Benedictine order in the Episcopal Church, USA. The monks - or brothers - follow two rules: those of the order's founder James Huntington, and the Rule of St. Benedict. It is within shouting distance of FDR's home and opposite the lofty grandeur of one of the Vanderbilt summer "cottages" that peeks over the Palisades, but is only in part a monastery for the nearly twenty brothers who call it their home. Hospitality is one of the cornerstones of Benedictine monasticism, and with nearly 5,000 souls per year like myself who seek the peace and reverent stillness that envelop the beautiful setting, the commodious Guesthouse is the other important side of Holy Cross, one that offers a welcoming and comfortable stay.
Upon entering through the Guesthouse door, all visitors pass beneath the dark-green granite plaque inscribed in gold with the words "Crux Est Mundi Medicina" - "The Cross Is the World's Medicine." I am both comforted and chastened whenever I look up at those words, a reminder of what is the best cure against the world's innumerable maladies.
Guestrooms are immaculately clean and, well, monastically simple: bed; armchair; desk; nightstand; two lamps; a small chest of drawers; closet. A plain wooden crucifix is on a wall; neither too large to overwhelm, nor too small to be ignored. Each room (secured only by a slender bolt) is named for a Christian saint. Maybe I am living the right way, as every time I have stayed at the Monastery, my room has looked out on the stunning Hudson River and the Palisades. I welcome the absence of a telephone, radio, and television, but there are so many books, newspapers and magazines throughout the guesthouse, that it is impossible to be completely disconnected from the world.
When I arrived a little after two o'clock in the afternoon, the Monastery and Guesthouse were already swathed in deep silence. Stepping over the threshold is always a move from one kind of existence into another, not unlike the scene in Jean Cocteau's film "La belle et la bête" ("Beauty and the Beast"), where Danielle Darrieux as Belle leaves her workaday life and enters the Beast's enchanted and soundless realm.
As the organization of the day is different at the Monastery, I have to adjust myself to its sacred timetable (slightly shortened during Contemplative Days), where the day begins with Matins at 7:00 a.m. and concludes with Vespers at 5:00 p.m. I don't need to wear my watch, as a bell tolls summoning monks and guests to prayer in the Monastery's church. The bell represents God's voice, and we are to heed its call whenever we hear it.
The offices (daily prayers) at Holy Cross are formal, timeless, and deeply intentional,
and I love that. Otherwise clad in jeans and comfortable shirts, the monks, now vested in white robes and seated solemnly in their stalls, resemble a page from an illuminated manuscript. I sometimes lose my way in the breviary (prayer book), and am usually a note too high or too low during the plainsong chanting, yet I am thoroughly engaged in what is taking place around and within me during those services. In the prayers of the people we petition aloud for the world, as well as for ourselves, and the exchange of the peace, rather than a polite handshake, is a hug-fest that can last several minutes. When we gather at the heavy wood altar to receive the consecrated bread and wine, time seems suspended, and all distinctions and differences that separate us are erased in this central and sacred moment.
The silence also extends to mealtimes, which, even for the experienced, can be one of the more challenging parts of a retreat. I have learned to be attentive, therefore, to the myriad sounds that emerge from the silence in the refectory: the clink of cutlery on plates, the drag of chairs on the floor; the clearing of throats. I eat more mindfully and thankfully, and discover that having a meal can also be another form of prayer.
On retreat, I do not escape to an enchanted realm but instead I go to what is called a "thin place," one where holiness is present and shares space with humanity, in spite of its (and my) brokenness. In retreat, I am able to simply be, rest, and to reflect on what God is showing forth in my life. Within that silence, I find not only peace, but also truth.