The air was hot and thick at the top of the hill where the monastery resided. It was early August, a particularly warm August, and recent forest fires had showered Oregon with clouds of ash and smoke. Even the verdant hills of wine country had grown hazy.
I parked in a small lot and carried my backpack and a portable fan to the monastery office, hearing every footstep in the dusty, but quiet, evening.
I had packed carefully for my four days of silence, a retreat I had long wanted to make. I would bring only as much clothing as I would need, one journal, no computer, and minimal extraneous items. Even the collection of inkless pens was gone from the corner of my backpack. Replaced with two fresh ones. The simplicity of silence beckoned with surprising force.
I had a few minutes to find my room before prayer began in the Chapel; the monks invited all visitors to join them for their chanted hours of prayer at five times throughout the day—beginning with 4 am Vigils and concluding with 7:30 pm Compline—as well as for daily Mass.
The Chapel, I quickly realized, was the only space on the grounds with A/C. Or perhaps it was the sleek wood and high windows, filtering the evening light, that created the illusion of cool. I sat in a back pew, thinking that the verses from Psalm 91, chanted slowly, echoed refuge from the heat: Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty… Under his wings you will find refuge.
The monks concluded by inviting all guests to step forward for a blessing with holy water. Then it was quiet again.
I slept poorly my first night in the monastery. The chirping and murmuring of resident creatures followed an uneven rhythm and my little fan proved futile against the heat of late summer. I woke minutes after the start of Mass and stumbled into my shoes, wondering whether I should hurry to the Chapel or return to my bed. Indecision created a third destination: a meditation room next to the Chapel, where small mats faced a wall entirely of glass, a window into the surrounding woods.
I sat on a mat close to the glass and opened the collection of Scripture verses that I had flagged for meditation. Mostly from John or the Psalms. I read them slowly, and I read them again. I wondered how I came to be sitting within a monastery in Oregon. After twenty minutes, I went in search of a coffee pot.
As the weekend unfolded, however, I wandered back into this space periodically to sit on a mat and stare into the trees. The days took shape around the monks’ hours of prayer, but, in between prayer, there was time to walk the grounds, to meditate or read or journal, to sit by the pond. To return to the chapel for its cool and silent pews, even when prayer felt fleeting.
There were things I had wanted to unpack on this retreat: experiences and questions and relationships and fears. I carried them into the weekend, feeling their want for reflection, at the same time that I cautioned myself against expectations.
Inexplicably, most of them remained untouched.
I thought instead about the people I knew who embodied some of the mysterious something found in the depths of quiet. Who embodied it even in their shouts of laughter and their stories and their bodies, too. I thought about a moment long ago, on a snow-ridden trail, when silence seemed to collect in my running shoes and in the frozen mud and in clouds of breath that appeared and then were gone. I thought about forgiveness.
I did not experience the great sweeps of peace I imagined. But I read from John until the words became a light refrain: That my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. Sometimes, the words pulled me away from their own meanings and toward old memories; toward new questions; toward blank pages that I filled with names, each one a prayer.
Twenty minutes of meditation stretched slowly into forty and then sixty.
It was in the final hours of my stay that I felt closest to quiet. The moments of greatest stillness lasted perhaps only seconds. But they seemed to contain and shed grace over the weekend’s more numerous experiences of sticky heat and internal noise and the longing for clarity. I could not erase the moments of distraction or skew my recollection of them, but I could let them be.
G.K. Chesterton spoke of “the imagination that can see what is there,” calling it “the most wild and soaring sort of imagination.” It is a sentiment that, when recalled, has sharpened my attention to the grandeur of daily minutiae—to kind words and warm kitchens and quiet, sunny mornings.
Less often has Chesterton’s observation prompted my willingness to sit with things that include a grittiness, too—messy questions or the way a body (or a soul, mind, heart) can ache too much. To hold things in a gaze that desires to love them without obscuring their aching.
In the seconds of deeper quiet, there was a willingness to see the reality of things without fear. A looking from within a refuge, one that had been present, quietly, all along.
Before departing the monastery, I stopped in the office to deposit my visitor’s form. An elderly monk asked me about the work to which I would return. I had expected a jarring exit from silence, but the small talk felt light and pleasant. I worked in ministry, I told him, with young adults.
“Tell them to come out and visit us,” he said, “to explore the monastic life.” I promised I would. “We’re not looking for angels,” he said, laughing. “It’s the ordinary ones that make it.”
Anne Boyle studied theology at the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. She received second place in the 2017 Vandermey Nonfiction Prize and has also written for The Forge Literary Magazine and The Curator. She marvels at the beauty of the Pacific Northwest each day.
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.