Monday, August 03, 2009
As I drove through the bluff country of Southwestern Wisconsin en route to the Cistercian monastery, I almost wanted to stop...anywhere...to delay my arrival. I didn't really know what to expect. It seemed I had to go through so much more just to visit than I'd had to do for the other two communities, yet somehow it seemed fitting. Still, it was daunting and I couldn't believe God hadn't slammed this door, preventing this trip.
My route took me in and out of rain clouds as I drove the long hours of Wisconsin until I finally turned off the freeway to head straight south, into the valley and into sunshine.
The monastery is a humble place, marked by a sign at the corner of their lot, and as I pulled up, the bell was ringing for None. I hesitated to ring the bell, at the front entrance, but realized that I didn't even know how long prayer would last, or whether the chapel bell signalled the beginning of prayer or a call to prayer within a certain time.
Sister came to greet me immediately and showed me to my quarters, outside the enclosure but tucked away in a safe place within the confines of the monastery. She handed me a schedule, gave me a tour of the areas I'd be frequenting, and gave an explanation of where to meet Sr. A. the next morning. As it seemed, I was basically on my own. As Sister left to finish prayer, she told me that I could take a walk down the road if I wished for it was a safe area and the weather was nice.
It was a bit unsettling to suddenly be left "alone" just outside the enclosure to the monastery, knowing only the hours of prayer, supper, and when to rise the next day. Sr. A. had left a note that I should not plan to attend Matins until after we'd met once. The Guest Mistress had explained to me that because it was so early (4:00 am) and still dark, if I did attend someone would have to come get me at the enclosure door and lead me through the monastery rather than allow me to walk outside and enter through the public entrance of the chapel.
God Wastes No Time
That first evening, after Vespers as I sat eating my small supper in solitude, I asked God why I was there. Would my questions be answered? Was all of this for nothing? What was I doing on a monastic retreat? What had drawn me here?
I considered the chapel, which in true Cistercian spirit was quite spare and devoid of decoration. There are no stained glass windows. The statues of Joseph and Mary were in the back of the chapel, although a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe graced the wall behind the altar and to the side of the large crucifix, which of course hung front and center.
The altar itself was raised on three steps, and composed of simple stained wood. The Presider's chair was set directly behind the altar against the wall, and the tabernacle rested on a shelf of the same wood in the corner, veiled, and marked in the traditional manner with a red candle. In a chapel so sparse, one's eye is naturally drawn to the shocking red glow of the light signifying the presence of Christ.
I asked myself if I could ever get used to such a spartan chapel? The Cistercian spirituality, even having read about it, seemed somewhat vague to me, although I could sense intuitively that in that simplicity there was great depth.
Yet, I wondered about all my devotions, and the presence of those devotions in other religious orders and communities. I asked God about it, praying as I ate.
"Don't worry about all that."
I felt chastized. I knew that, for some reason, God had drawn me to visit this monastery, and I had to let go of my own attachments in order to allow Him to speak to me. I knew that the Angels and Saints were present with me, whether they were represented by statues, paintings, or icons or not. I came here to be with God, and THAT was what was important.
And on the heels of the gentle chastizement and my brief musings came that still small voice, even more tenderly yet more powerfully: "When have you ever let God just be with you?"
There it was. I was shocked nearly to tears on the spot. I earnestly pondered the question...and the reality.
God...wants to be with....me.
When have I ever let Him...be with ME?
I quickly finished my meal so that I could retire to my cell and spend time considering this gem that had come out of nowhere. I'd never considered God in these terms, exactly. I'd never really looked at the question and so I hadn't understood the implications.
For so long, I've been seeking God. Looking everywhere. Seeking Him out, His will for me, going to the chapel, to Mass, going to Him in prayer.
Of course I know that it is the Holy Spirit that inspires all prayer, for it is fully an action of God, and we do receive Jesus in the Sacraments. That seeking...that's a requirement. That's all part of it. It's action that we need to take.
But, it's possible to be too active. Suddenly I saw it. I'd been TOO active. Trying to take on too great a role in my relationship with Our Lord.
I had gone on the retreat in another act of trying to find God. But He spoke to me and explained as to a child that He didn't bring me there so I could seek Him; He brought me there so that He could be with me.
I realized then that my role was to be passive. Just as receiving the Sacrament of His Body and Blood on the tongue at Holy Communion was a perfectly passive action, so must I imitate that fully for three days. I could not reach out and take God into my hands, but rather, I had to surrender and allow Him to take me into His.
I had to put everything aside. I was away from all my distractions: no work, no dog, no phone, no computer, no music, no devotions. Only the Liturgy of the Hours, personal prayer, lectio divina, and silence, interrupted only by meals and meetings with those with whom my discernment would be discussed.
I had to learn to be still and know that He is God, and had something to offer if only I could, for once, passively receive Him.
It was humbling to realize that for so long I've been doing everything wrong, and yet, God used all of my errors to lead me into the desert where he could speak to me and open my eyes to realize the One Necessary Thing: He, and He alone.
And I was His willing captive.