Reflections on Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA
When Keli Cooper, Minister for Faith Formation, decided to embark on a silent retreat at an abbey in the Shenandoah mountains, she wasn’t sure what she would find. Even though she knew she needed time away that was “not a vacation” and “not a conference,” the questions loomed large — what was there about silence and space that she would be able to find in the tranquil mountain monastery that regular life didn’t, or couldn’t, offer? Read on to find out!
Why a week of silence?
When I graduated from college in 2014, I immediately moved in with eight other people to Tyson House Student Foundation, an Episcopal and Lutheran campus ministry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I continued to work at First Presbyterian Church, begin my Master of Arts in Youth Ministry Degree, and added on the extra position of live-in intern at Tyson House. In the middle of the academic year, the chaplain offered many of us an opportunity to travel to the Abbey of Gethsemani up in Kentucky for a silent retreat. I quickly signed up. I thought, “Yes. Some time away. Sounds great.” And then I quickly backed out… thinking that I was too busy to go away.
After going on yet another rant about not being able to spend a few days away because I was “too busy,” one of my housemates looked at me and said, “Keli, you are not that important.” He wasn’t being mean. He was being helpful. I think about this all the time when my anxiety spirals.
This spring, as I approached graduating from Union Presbyterian Seminary with my Master of Divinity, I knew I would need some time away. Not a vacation. Not a conference. But, time away to intentionally reflect and pray without the distractions of Richmond. Remembering how I turned down the opportunity to go to Gethesemani years ago, I began searching for monasteries in the Virginia area. I stumbled across this article from National Geographic and was hooked.
What did I do?
Eat: When I arrived, a monk showed me the dining room, which was a simple, U-shape setup designed for retreat participants only. Self-serve breakfasts were provided each morning, followed by communal meals for lunch and dinner. Two bells ringing next to one another signaled mealtime, and after a prayer, we proceeded to gather our food and eat with an assortment of Vivaldi or Bach playing quietly in the background. In silence, you become painfully aware of how loud you (and others) eat and also that you may not be as hungry as you think…
Worship: All are invited to pray with the monks at various times: 3:30 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. I chose to attend the 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. services each day in the beautiful and newly renovated chapel. The chanting was mesmerizing and the liturgy was beautiful; however, it was difficult for me to not participate more fully in worship.
Read: I underestimated how much I would read, so I ran out of books by the second full day. These are the books (all by female authors) that I spent many of my hours with. I would recommend all five.
What did I read?
An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor
Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
Journal: When I ran out of books, I spent a lot of time letting thoughts flow onto paper. If something came up about work (as it often did), I would make lists of things to focus on post-retreat, but would not dwell on the logistics that often fill my head.
Walk: I walked to the point that the arches of my feet wouldn’t allow me to anymore. I would walk at least five miles each day along the country roads and the Shenandoah River. I stumbled upon a green cemetery, unknowingly walking next to current and future grave sites. Looking forward rather than down at my feet or my phone, I passed through pastures filled with cows with each of their ears numbered.
Sit and sleep.
Was it “cheating” to text?
I’m not going to lie, I absolutely texted from time to time. On days when I was especially antsy, I would text more often. Since the retreat is self-directed, it truly is up to you to set boundaries on what “silence” means. Some whispered to one another; some went outside to talk on the phone; others of us would utilize texting, but avoid social media and e-mail. I will say, it was weird to not hear my partner Marcus’ voice for a solid four and a half days!
I spent thirty minutes on Thursday morning meeting with a monk for spiritual direction. Words flowed out of my mouth as if I had never spoken before. But, I knew to listen as much as I could. The wisdom was refreshing and grounded, a welcome objective voice from someone I had just met. He was patient and profound, occasionally letting sarcasm slip out in his Jersey accent. I felt heard, inspired, and tearful in unexpected ways. If I could meet with this monk each day, I would, but I imagine it would lose some of its unique otherworldliness.
Will there be a next time?
Maybe. I learned that it’s really difficult to prepare for a silent retreat without having been on one. Perhaps you can never fully prepare for a week of silence. Even though I spent time searching Google for advice and asking friends beforehand, it’s an individual experience. For some, they sleep a whole lot. Some pray. Some walk. Some do yoga. I read and walked a lot. I would have loved more space for guided meditation or yoga, more books, and colored markers for doodling.
This retreat was just as ambitious as my partner said it would be for me. I missed spontaneous conversations that could happen over meals. I missed verbally processing and extemporaneous prayer. But, there is a lot I did learn in silence. Sitting in silence, or “niksen” as this article mentions, takes time. As much as I shudder at the thought of five more days of silence right now, I know we each need more moments away from busyness. One day at a time, one moment at a time.
As days pass by since I went on the trip, I try to sneak more moments of silence into each day. And I continue to reflect on what my friend meant when he kindly reminded me I’m “not that important.” We are NOT too important for silence, spending intentional time listening and being present. We are NOT so important that we need to be busy at all times. May we each find spaces to sit, sleep, eat, read, and walk with no intention nor expectation other than being.