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Experience Ancient Spirituality
By Maria Hoshaw
I wanted to experience the ancient. I desired to sit in a holy place, and feel God's awesome presence. I did what any normal person would do. I went on a personal retreat at a convent.

I've noticed over the past ten years I have not been alone in this quest for ancient Christian spiritualities, as I've seen more and more young people interested in Celtic spirituality, Chant, and going to religious services with incense, candles, and quiet music. There's something going on globally with the attraction to the spiritual. Here, I've captured my own experience with the monastic cycle of prayer. As a personal spiritual discipline, I make it a point to go off on a personal retreat for a few days, about four times a year. My place of choice is All Saints Sisters of the Poor in Catonsville, Maryland. Below are some of my reflections on one of my visits.

After calling the convent and scheduling the weekend I would visit, I awaited my multi-day visit. My husband Joel and I got up at 5am so we could leave the house at 5:45 and get to the convent grounds in time for the 7am worship. We quickly dressed and gulped down cofee to make the 50 mile trek to the convent.

woods near the convent

All Saints Convent is situated on over one hundred acres, and is surrounded by the Patapsco Valley State Park on all sides. You literally drive into the park to get to the Sisters' driveway. The convent property sits atop one of the highest points in a three county area, and has fields, a lake, and woods as well as the convent buildings. The convent serves as an unofficial sanctuary to people, fowl, and deer.

Joel and I arrived at the convent by the bell announcing worship. In the valley surrounding the property, the clouds hung heavily with morning fog. All was so beautiful, so calm. The trees were barren from late fall. The crisp wind whirled dried leaves around the convent doors.

Morning Eucharistic Worship

The worship service felt like a step back into the catacombs of an ancient religion. The Psalms from the Old Testament were chanted acappella, each side of the chapel going in turn line by line. The priest sang the readings. Incense was brought in slowly, and plumes of holy smoke billowed up skyward against the dark wooded furniture and stark high walls. The color and varnish are missing from well-worn oak floors which have experienced almost a hundred years of footsteps trod by the Sisters and guests, on countless visits to the chapel.

The worship service stresses the awesome majesty of God, and of the love of Jesus Christ. There is sadness and beauty, power, and presence in the worship. The altar is chiseled with grape vines and angels. It is awesome, holy space. Eucharist is slowly given to each Sister and to every baptized Christian as they kneel up near the altar.

At the conclusion of the service, first the priest, then the sisters, then the visitors file out silently to begin their day. Joel drove back home, and I continued on my retreat.

Breakfast is simple. All eat in silence, in accordance to the Sisters' rule of keeping silence from 8:00pm the previous day until 9:30am each morning. The only spoken words during that time are in prayer. The silence helps me unwind and to take in the beauty of the early morning at is streams through the convent windows.

Guests at the convent are required to attend the morning worship and the 5pm service called Vespers. Meals are at approximately 8:00am, 12:20pm, and 5:30pm. Guests are free to sleep, read, chat, or go for long walks. I usually find myself engaging in all of the above.

The Sisters come together for worship in the chapel several times a day. Guests of course are invited, as each worship service is an opportunity to break from life and focus on that which is most important - worshipping God.


The first little worship service, Lauds, is a celebration of the very early morning at 6:30am. This is a service to praise God for the coming day. We praise God for sun and moon, wind and hail. We praise God for all creation, and for giving us life. We praise God for all He has given us, in our voices as we welcome the new day.


At 9:30am, the sisters meet in prayer for about fifteen minutes. Terce means three, as in the Hebraic understanding of time, was three hours past dawn. Terce is the time to get on with the work of the day. "Let's gear up, warm up, and get ready to take on the challenges of the day!" the psalms seem to say. So Terce is like a warm-up exercise for the day.

The work of the Convent

Immediately following Terce, the Sisters gather in a group session called "obediences" to receive the work assignments for the day. Some go shopping, gardening, or are assigned one of hundreds of little tasks required to maintain the convent. The Sisters are a community, sharing their food, music, prayers, and home with each other. They pool their talents and resources to support this celibate kibbutz.


Sext follows the Hebraic time of six, or six hours past dawn. Sext is a fifteen minute prayer at noon in the chapel. The day is half over, but the psalms and prayers are to focus that one shouldn't get lazy and relax all afternoon. It's tempting at high noon, with the sun beating down, to slow down and take a nap after the noon meal. But the day is far from over. "Beware the noonday Devil," the sisters say.


None (rhymes with bone), meaning nine and follows at three pm. Here, the mood is beginning to change, to reflect on the day and on life. The prayers and psalms focus on what happened, and how God interacted through great people rather than focusing on all which may come. This parallels how a person who may be getting older in life pauses in their forty's or fifty's and begins to reflect on what has happened and what the future may still hold. So, on a daily basis, None helps the Sisters reflect through scripture on what is to come.


Vespers is akin to the start of Sabbath in the Jewish tradition. The sun is setting. It is time to welcome the end of the day and to look forward to the next. If the next day is a holiday or a Saint's day or other special observance, the Vespers the night before is the time to first meditate on the day to come.


Compline is the last service of the day. It is somewhat of a bedtime prayer - something to protect the Sisters and all the guests before they snuggle down for the evening and go to bed.

I love Compline most of all the little services, especially the quote from 2 Peter "Be vigilant, for the Devil roams the earth like a lion, looking for whom he may devour." AH, the stuff nightmares are made of!

The cycle continues

I went through this cycle of events -- prayers, meals, more prayers, silence, for my three day visit. After about a full day, the cycle of the day prayerfully unfolded, and I found my breathing slow down. I found my thoughts slow down. I found myself taking naps and long walks, and felt more and more rested and at peace with each day.

Going on retreat to a convent helps me experience the Sacred and Holy. It lets me experience a way of life which is no - time. I could have been in this same style of prayer a thousand years ago and it wouldn't have been much different. The day is regulated by the church bells and call to prayer, and not by alarm clocks or a daily planner.

hallway on the way to Chapel

Visiting a convent sates the deep natural hunger we all have to connect with the awesome energy, power, and strength of God. Take the time and treat yourself to a convent or monastery. Be open to God. Respect the rules of silence. And be prepared to experience the presence of God in ways unlike those you have ever experienced.

Directories & resources

The following are just a few resources to help you locate a convent, monastery, or retreat center. There probably are many others out there.

Experience the Ancient!

maria-sm.jpg (4209 bytes)Maria Hoshaw and her husband Joel live and work in Alexandria, Virginia., and attend an Episcopalian church. Maria's avocation is young adult ministry and postmodern evangelism. She has degrees in Pastoral theology and Religious education, but presently works for USAID.

Mar 2000

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