It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. This wasn’t my plan, but then, what in life goes according to plan? After returning in September from my trip to the Canadian maritimes that I’ve been telling you about, I had intended to move into my “home base” and have all kinds of time to blog—and read, and reflect, and generally to watch the seasons change.
Then life happened.
Not one, but BOTH, of my parents ended up in the hospital, and my sisters and I tag-teamed with the bedside vigils, medical consults, and the eventual homecoming of two elderly people who are only a few steps ahead of us on the journey we will all take sooner or later.
They’re both convalescing. One is robust and determined; the other is more frail. It’s long and bittersweet and sometimes frustrating and sometimes humorous to take care of aged parents. (Try changing your very modest father’s abdominal dressing while he jokes about keeping his bikini line covered.) They don’t want to be a burden; they don’t want to be infirm or limited or in pain. Heck, they don’t want to be old. (Either do I.) But we are. Or will be.
So today I’m picking up the dropped thread of last summer’s journey. I guess it’s apropos that I left off just before my visit to the Trappist monks in Rogersville, New Brunswick. I still recall that serendipitous visit as one of those moments of sweet spiritual refreshment that sometimes pops up unexpectedly in life.
When I was planning my trip to the Canadian Maritimes months ago, I had heard there was a Trappist monastery somewhere in New Brunswick.
Then I forgot about it.
At some point in the middle of the Atlantic coast, I had one of those niggling jogs of memory and decided to see if I was anywhere within striking distance of the monastery. I was kind of hoping I wasn’t.
Turns out, the monastery of Our Lady of Calvary was about an hour away from the entrance to Kouchibouguac National Park where I was sitting at that moment. Due west and a little north. In Rogersville.
So I had a little tussle with myself. Did I really want to make that step to the side? Did I really want to put myself out? (The website said the monastery welcomed strangers.) More to the point, did I really want to tell Miss Julia that we were going to spend a few days doing some serious churchgoing?
In the end, I ran out of excuses—Julia was unexpectedly accommodating and the place was just too close.
The road through the middle of New Brunswick was more twisty and rutted and…long than I had anticipated, so by the time I drove up the treelined drive to the monastery I had seen some of the less-traveled center of the province. It wasn’t memorable. I was also feeling that semi-desperate determination that I would be staying here at least for the night no matter what. It was too late and I was too tired to go anywhere else.
I needn’t have worried.
Brother Leo was the porter–the guy who welcomes visitors. He was cheerful and chatty.
“Certainly you may stay here. Just go back and park anywhere on the grass.”
“Do you need anything? Water? Food?”
“Will you be comfortable?”
He had a strong French accent even though he’d been born in the U.S. His parents had emigrated to Canada when he was still a child.
“Now I am 85,” he chuckled. “Someday I will be old.”
He told us the times for prayer—books in the back of the chapel would be opened to the right place. We were welcome to come in for meals if we wanted.
That was it. No rules; no expectations. Just find a spot to park and stay as long as we wanted. This, folks, is more genuine hospitality than I’ve experienced in most places where I’ve paid to stay.
I decided to make the next few days a “retreat”—a time of prayer and reflection. Sort of a spiritual oasis in the middle of the trip. I decided to join the monks for as many hours of prayer as possible. And they pray a lot.
The monastery of Our Lady of Calvary is called Cistercian-Trappist. This means that the monks follow the ancient rule for communal life that St. Benedict composed in the sixth century. But that old Benedictine tradition was modified a couple times over the millennia–thus the Cistercian and the Trappist additions.
The monks live simply; they speak only when necessary (except for our jolly porter). They work to support the monastery (manual labor is a centerpiece of monastic life).
This monastery runs a small farm with dairy cows and chickens and, as they have since its founding in 1902, the monks try to make the farm economically viable. I’m not sure how they do it with so few younger men.
And they pray, as I said, a lot. Besides time for personal prayer, they gather in the chapel seven times every day, beginning at 4am, to pray the lectio divina, a complicated rotation of prayers, psalms, and readings from the Bible. Plus, they attend mass every day.
Prayer. Simplicity. Work. Communal life. Oh, yeah, and hospitality. Welcoming strangers is part of the Rule, too, and that’s why Julia and I were so warmly greeted. Anyone who travels understands that hospitality–welcoming the stranger–is a quality much more vital than a warmfuzzy Martha-Stewart-ish notion. It’s a gift that few people do well. The monks, in their silence, do it well.
After a couple days of praying with the monks whenever I could figure out the schedule (not an easy task), I was struck by the ordinariness of the life–and its difficulty.
You visit a monastery expecting the hush of sanctity, of mystery, of revelation. What you find are people trying to live up to very demanding standards—and largely succeeding.
Sometimes a monk would hurry in to the chapel at the last minute, black-and-white habit askew. Sometimes one or another seemed tired or distracted. (The monk who yawned the loudest and the most, I later learned, was in charge of the farm.)
I have to say that being in the company of men chanting prayers in French was soothing to the utmost. Seven times a day these guys break off whatever they’re engaged in and stand in their prie-dieux to pray to the God who is their only reason to be there. The chanting is soft and resonant. It is antiphonal—one monk leads, and the chant goes back and forth. It is exalting in its quiet simplicity.
I wondered how it would be to enter those doors, renouncing family, sex, career, even control over your own life, and to replace all that with a regimen of prayer, silence, hard work, the company of others whom you have not chosen–and faith.
To know that when you looked at the tidy row of white crosses out the window of the chapel, that someday you will be there, too. Your life ends there, and that end is before you every day.
The monks say that you have to be called to the life—and that not many are. I think the fact that any are is a miracle. And in fact, somehow, the grounds, the buildings, the chapel—all the parts of the monastery that I could visit—were so steeped in peace that the way of life seemed possible–even attractive.
I don’t know how this happens. I don’t know how someone lives a life—decades-worth of life—in this place, holy as it may be. To a restless person who prefers to live on wheels, this is hard to understand.
I imagine that sometimes these men struggle with their call. In those decades before they reach the serene wisdom of a Brother Leo, when all the demons have finally been vanquished, I imagine that the prayer is often dry, the timeless routine grating, and that questions without answers lurk in the dark of night.
How could this not be the case? But somehow, a few of them stay until they, too, become old. And that’s a miracle.
When I left the place, the water flowed back as though I had never come. Life at the monastery goes on in its predictable, ordinary, miraculous way. Visitors come and go–the monastery is, oddly, a busy place. People visit the grotto where the old, broken statues have been removed. One of the monks is making new ones, and they are striking.
The monks probably didn’t really notice when I left, but a bit of their peace clung to me like a sweet scent for a while after.
Check out my wanderingnotlost.org FB page for more photos of the monastery.