My friends know that since 2001, I’ve made it a habit (sorry) to try to make a retreat to a monastery at least once each year. I’ve made multiple visits to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky (former home of Thomas Merton) and to Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’ve made one time only visits to Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colorado and Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan . In addition, I’ve made a one day visit to New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa and Pecos Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico.
With only one exception (which shall remain nameless), regardless of the religious order or affiliation: Benedictine, Franciscan, Cistercian, Episcopal, etc., the sense I each got at each monastery was that they were truly sincere in living up to the Rule of Saint Benedict that guests should be welcomed as if Christ. But that sense is not exuded through the venerable walls of these institutions, rather through their residents – the boys in the hoods.
When visiting a monastery, whether it is for a single day or for a retreat of several Days, it is most common to encounter the Guestmaster. This is a role identified by Saint Benedict in his Rule. He is the monastery’s face to the outside world. My experience has been that the Abbott (head of the monastery) usually selects the more affable or outgoing monk for this role. From Brother Aelred at Mepkin to Father Carlos at Gethsemani, these men are charged with bridging the vastly different worlds of the lay visitors and the monks.
But treasured moments on monastic retreats can spring up at the most unexpected times in unplanned interactions with the resident monks. They happen in liminal space and time when the sacred and the secular meet and wallow in each other’s goodness and grace. I hope, over the next few days, to jot down some of my favorite memories of these glimpses of heaven.