It's 3:15 a.m. and we are using flashlights to find our way to the monastery for Vigil prayers. The night sky is a vast canopy overhead, as though God gave us an entire galaxy of constellations to light our way to his house – "that awake, we might keep watch with Christ." The monks are night-watchmen for Christ, for his coming. They are praying for the world, in a place so far from the world.
In the darkened church, the hooded monks intone slowly, gravely, "my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn away as in a furnace." They are few, these holy men, keeping watch with Christ, praying for the world. There are a handful of able-bodied, two with walkers, several stooped with age. They file slowly, silently, out of the chapel. "I am like a desert owl, an owl among the ruins," says the psalmist (Psalm 102).
The cowl or hood is a symbol of becoming little for the sake of God, wrote Abbot Dorotheos of Gaza in his "Discourses and Sayings," a book of profound – and profoundly relevant – wisdom. But it is also a grace. A monk “devotes his entire life to seeking God." It’s a great adventure, but an adventure that goes deep within, rather than one spent traveling the world.
How much of our daily life is spent running around busily, chasing after distractions, complaining about our circumstances? Dorotheos says that we sometimes act like dogs running after a bone the master throws. Instead of staying with the Divine Master, we run after our neighbor crying, “Why did you do this to me?” We would do better to rest our soul, quiet our passions, dwell in that peace only the Lord can give. The monks pray around the clock: Vigil, Lauds, Mid-Day, Vespers, and Compline. Every hour, every moment of every day is consecrated to God. I suddenly realize how the psalms fit seamlessly into the fabric of sacred time, drawing us ever more intimately into God’s indwelling in every moment.
In the morning I am greeted by cows mooing in the serene meadow, the mountains rising gently above. Not the dominating, jutting, snow-covered mountains of the Rockies, but the soft, rolling, feathery with trees Blue Ridge Mountains. The foothills meet green pastures dotted with black cows. Here the glory of God's creation surrounds us, surrounds the monastery and even God’s own presence in the chapel. You feel God’s loving presence more profoundly here, almost tangibly. You can pray in the retreat house chapel, where the tabernacle floats in the middle of a white tower, like the cloud that led the Israelites through the desert, or you can sit on the grass facing the mountains, the sound of the peaceful cows almost like their own kind of angel praising God. It gives new meaning to praying without ceasing.
Time slows and we return to the world, rested.
If you are interested in the retreat opportunities at the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, see their website for more information.