Welcome to Part 1 of a blog series ‘DC Abbey’, reflections on my 3 days at a Benedictine monastery in DC NE, St. Anselm’s Abbey. I share to hopefully inspire others to a monastic retreat. I value critical feedback, so please comment below.
Quizzical, even amused, looks often greeted me when I had joyfully shared about my then upcoming monastic retreat in December 2013. A good friend gushed how counter-cultural it was, and surprisingly, other Christian friends didn’t understand why I would want to go. So, to begin, I think a brief, armchair-historian overview may help.
St. Benedict started Christian monasticism as we know it in the early 500s. Prior to that, Christian monks had mostly been desert hermits living in the wilderness, mimicking Jesus and John the Baptist as they sought to gain holiness and to battle the devil head-on. Most lived in solitude, but some would band together, usually for only a short time. Under St. Benedict’s guidance, Christian monks began to live together, often for life, and it was he who wrote a specific way of life to guide Christian monks, called the Rule of Benedict, and it has served as paradigm for all other Christian monastic orders: Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, the list goes on. St. Benedict’s legacy was, essentially, to set down a straight and narrow path for Christian monks. And their monastic witness has often served as a source of inspiration for the laity, and a source of reform for the clergy.
So what would make me want to spend 3 days with Christian monks? In a word, simplicity.
Monks have one true goal: communion with God. Each monastic order emphasizes different methods to gain that communion: Jesuits have their spiritual exercises, the Benedictines their lectio divina, the Franciscans their poverty. But union with their Creator is the only goal. Outside the monastery walls, we have to be here for this, there for that. Our spirituality can get distracted or even derailed by career, marriage, kids, worries, pleasures, joys, sorrows, etc. Before anyone objects, let’s be reminded Jesus said we’re not worthy of him if we love all those things I mentioned more than him.
Now, I experienced only the contours of the monastic life, but essentially monks live a simple life of work and prayer. For example, here was my retreat schedule:
- 6:20 am – A bell called us to pray the morning prayer, Lauds, followed by breakfast (cereal usually)
- 9:00 am – Mass (only on Sunday)
- 12 pm – Midday Prayer, Lunch (in silence)
- 6 pm – Vespers (Evening Prayer), Dinner (also in silence)
- 7:30 pm – Compline (Nighttime prayer on your own)
How refreshingly simple is that? How many of us have gone to programmed retreats that are a) like going to church all weekend, or b) have more options than we have wrap our heads around? There were no keynote speakers, plenary sessions, or hand-wringing choices between three different breakout groups. And it was affordable: a free will donation of $80 for my small room, not $480 for a double at the Sheraton. All I had was a room, a bare schedule, Jesus and other people seeking Jesus around me.
I harp on this because we, especially us Evangelicals, can tend to complicate our spirituality, strangling it to the point of near suffocation. We think adding more sermons in our life, maybe a new Bible, more Christian friends, another this, another that will help our anemic faith. When we aren’t satisfied with our spirituality we ask Christian culture to supersize me, when what we need is less, not more. We need to strip away what hinders so we can run our race unfettered, yes, even those things that seem good but merely clutter our spirituality.
We don’t need to do or have much to encounter the risen Christ. We are told that in the beginning, and often forget it 10, 20, 30 years later. Lord knows I do. Monasticism has been unchanged by the world for 1,500 years, testifying to our weary souls that there is a better, simpler way to gaining more of Christ. It’s by having and doing less.
So there I was in a sparse, uncluttered room with nothing to do until the bell rang for prayers. Undistracted I set about desiring to progress in my spirituality. In Part 2, I’ll tell you how I faced an enemy who is now a dear friend: silence.