A visit to the Monastery

Today I returned from three days at the Trappist monastery of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” located just outside of Lafayette, Oregon, and in literally feels like I have been crossing between two worlds.  Here, back home, I have shopped for the next few days’ meals, checked my Facebook app several times, spoken with a graphic designer about a cover for my soon-to-be-self-published novel (way to expensive!  Who does he think I am, Stephen King?), and washed a load of clothes.  You know, the usual routine.  There back at the monastery, well, it’s a whole different world indeed.

The setting is typical western Oregon.  Rolling hills, miles of vineyards and hazelnut orchards, new growth evergreen forests and leafless deciduous trees.  Our Lady is nestled at the base of a hill that climbs to 1,000 feet.  I know this because I climbed it.  The main buildings, from my visitors’ perspective, was the church, a place for group studies called the Bethany House, the office/book store/dining room, and the guest residences.  Hidden behind trees and fences is the world where the monks live, and what happens there I could only guess.

We rolled in, registered in the office, carried our gear into our residence, and then separated for the most part.  My wife is working on a curriculum for our church and I am writing my third book, and we had agreed beforehand that our time together would be minimal.  She had a small room in the upstairs of our cabin and I had one downstairs (the colder one!).  Bathroom and shower were on the middle floor, where the only outside door was located.

Once my gear was put away I did – nothing.  At 69 years of age and after a heart attack and bypass surgery three and a half years ago, I don’t have the horsepower that I once did.  I work thirty two hours per week and pulled a twelve hour shift the day before we left.  To state it plainly, I was exhausted.  In my room was a rocking chair.  I pulled it up in front of the window, rested the heels of my feet on the window sill, and allowed my mind and my body to be still.  Outside the window I could see another cabin, and behind that a forest of moss-covered deciduous trees and a variety of evergreens.  A wind blew through them, and the evergreens swayed softly while dead but stubborn leaves twittered on gnarled branches of the maples and other trees in my view.  I thought about the many decades that made up the lives of those trees and the mere season that summed up the life of the yellow and brown leaves, and thought about where my life would fit in such a picture.

After a few hours of resting body, soul and mind, I rose up to attend my first mass.  I won’t pretend to know much about Catholic practices, but I’m pretty certain that when they do something official in the church it’s called a mass.  The masses have names, too.  There’s Vigil and Lauds which are done in the early morning, and Vespers and Compline and something else that eludes my memory that are done in the afternoon and evening.  There appears to be some variation in the quantity of masses from one monastery to another, because when I spent a week at a Benedictine monastery in northern New Mexico several years ago there were more masses, especially in the dark hours.

There was no rule about attending those masses.  Not, at least, for us ‘retreatants.’  We could go or not, as we chose.  I chose to go, but I quickly learned that there was an entirely different thing going on than I was accustomed to at my Protestant church.  A group of mostly older men shuffled into their area in the western end of the church building and sat on opposite sides, facing each other.  The handful of people observing this mass sat on some very hard wooden benches on the east side of the building.

I quickly noticed that many of the men were badly bent over.  One old fellow literally shuffled along at a 90 degree angle!  I’ve seen some rather severe cases of scoliosis at the hospital where I work, but I would say that between 15 and 20 percent of the monks that I saw showed some degree of the deformity, and that is a far higher percentage than one would expect to see in the population at large.

As I recall, the monks at the Benedictine monastery did not show any such large percentage of that deformity.  Frankly, I don’t recall seeing it at all.  This observation jogged my memory as to some medieval art which portrayed monks and other religious figures as having their heads at odd, unnatural angles.  I originally chalked that up to a primitive, two dimensional art style of the time, or perhaps the result of monks being hunched over a candle, copying and saving ancient manuscripts for hours on end in cold and dark stone monasteries.  But here I was seeing this in the first half of the twenty first century.  Is this a cultural thing with this group?  Something that announces the attainment of some maturity?  Or sanctity?  I don’t know and I didn’t ask.  It is whatever it is.

The Catholic masses which I witnessed at Our Lady were very different from anything I know.  In northern New Mexico we were given ‘songbooks’ (if what those monks chanted could be called a song), and we retreatants could join in if we were so disposed.  At “Our Lady” we occupied the role of witnesses rather than participants.  At least, that’s how I perceived it.  I wondered about that observation.  We were clearly not viewing a performance.  The monks chanted out of tune, mostly, and the organ player was clearly third string.  No, it wasn’t about observing an event.  Was it about joining the monks as a partner if we so chose, but at some level other than the physical?  I can probably carry a tune better than what I heard there, and in a day or two could put in a better performance on the organ.  But this wasn’t about voice or instrument.  There was something here that connected ages and cultures.  Did I want a part in that?  I wasn’t sure.  It was quite foreign to me.  It was relaxing however, and felt like I was entering into a very ancient river with a soft current that ran strong nonetheless.  I am still thinking about it, trying to get a handle on the whole thing.

I had lots of space and lots of solitude and lots of bad food and coffee.  The Trappists are not big on creature comforts, and when I went into the dining room and saw a jar of instant coffee crystals, I know that things could get dicey.  Here in the Northwest, when I go to a restaurant and order something made with beef, I want to know the name of the cow it came from and whether or not that cow had a good life.

Well, no sweat there at the monastery.  I only saw one serving of meat my entire three days there, and that was fish.  Not even a Portland hipster expects people to name their fish.  There was lots of bread, none of which was baked at the monastery I believe, vegetables, soups, beans and so on, but it was as plain as you can get.  Plenty of it, but really plain.  And if you don’t eat it all at supper, you’ll get it heated up again for dinner (or is it the other way around?).  We brought a bag full of snacks and grazed out of it liberally.

It was too cold and wet to do much walking around for most of our visit, but I did take a morning hike on the second morning there, to a ridge on the hills to the east of us.  The weather looked promising so I took an umbrella, just in case, and struck out on a trail which led eventually to a shrine at the top of the ridge.  Almost from the beginning the trail was an uphill climb.  Only at a few scattered places on that one mile long and one thousand foot climb was it flat.  And that only meant that it was muddy.

I climbed up through low-hanging clouds, through deciduous and then evergreen forest, and finally to the crest of the hill.  I came at last to a clearing where a brick and wood shrine rested.  It was covered with moss and a tiny roof protected a picture of a woman who I assumed to be “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  I stood in front of her, trying to control my breathing and sensing a headache that was trying to blossom behind my watering eyes and running nose.  “I’d be happier to see Our Lady of CPR” I thought.

Even so, although I couldn’t connect with the spiritual aspect of the shrine and those who left necklaces and candles and seashells and such there, I was aware of an intersection between the seen and known, and that which was felt and believed, and I was glad that I had made the muddy, sloppy, exhausting trip up there.

In the end, I succeeded in what I set out to accomplish.  I finished reading a book that I had been working on for some time, and wrote two chapters in the book that I hope to complete.  Alone in the Bethany House, or in the common room near our cabin, or in my rocking chair with my feet in the window sill, I read and wrote and meditated, and generally refreshed myself.  It was obvious that I missed a lot of what was going on because I have no background knowledge of Catholic practices or spirituality.  That was never a problem however.  I was received there as a respected outsider and was welcomed without reservation.  I could not hope for better than I experienced.