|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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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!