Yes, there is an abbey in Conyers, Georgia. My friend Gary Davis, also Postmaster at Shorter College (and such a gem he is!) said to me today when I told him where I went this weekend, “Yes, I know of that abbey in Conyers. You know they came from Kentucky to found it. Who would think there would be an abbey in Conyers, Georgia?”
I was reluctant to go. Not initially, mind you, but eventually. My spirit started kicking and screaming, the way a child does who has been asked to do something he doesn’t think he wants to do—like come inside and go to bed, or get off the computer and go to bed, or stop playing and do your homework.
This recalcitrance began Friday morning. When I woke up, it was downpouring. I kept thinking of a book a friend gave me recently, titled Downpour. It’s all about how God brings nurturing rain to our parched and sterile souls, if we connect with him through prayer, Bible study, and community with others seeking Christ.
Still at home in Rome, I got ready—to the steady, even relentless drumming down of a rain storm so strong that it made me cringe. I kept thinking of I-75 and the 43.7 miles I had to travel on it through white-out kinds of conditions caused by a deluge combined with lots of eighteen-wheelers and cars of all kinds, each hurtling at 70 miles an hour to their destinations.
My reluctance continued. I dragged myself out the door. Two hours later, I spent like thirty minutes in a drugstore looking at cards and candy, a mere ten miles from the monastery I had so looked forward to visiting. Finally, I called a friend from a parking lot not far from the drugstore, since by then I had gone around a wrong corner and was totally turned around, which is easy enough for me because I am very direction-challenged.
My kind husband, Sean, bought me a GPS for my 48th birthday. That was a couple of months ago, but I hadn’t quite taken the time to learn how to use it yet. I’d been too stubborn, too, to ask him for help in the days before leaving. Before starting out that day, I had at least made the effort to summon forth the invisible, direction-brilliant lady hiding inside the GPS.
Yes, I had sat in my driveway and punched in numbers for the address and a street name for the abbey, with no luck. Nothing turned up on the screen. Finally, I did succeed in setting it quite crudely and non-specifically to “Conyers, GA.” Once in Conyers, I’d been unsuccessfully relying on my printed-out-from-Yahoo-Maps instructions, and somehow I’d missed Browns Mill Road, the last, should-have-been-obvious road before the abbey.
So I did what any rational, lost woman would do sitting in a nondescript parking lot ten miles from an abbey. I called a friend. I said, “I’m kinda lost and scared. I mean not badly lost, just a road or so off, but I’m very scared.”
A good friend would then ask, “Why?” and in this story, she did.
“Why?” my friend asked.
Only then, in dialogue with my listening friend, did I realize “why.” “Because,” I said, “I’m scared of surrendering.”
I meant to God. Even saying that made me feel somewhat better.
And now, to turn my long-url-of-a-story into a-tiny-url-of-a-tale, I hung up, drove and stopped and drove and stopped, and did finally make it to the monastery. Thank you to those in shops and on sidewalks who kept pointing me in the right direction. Community is always crucial, even with a GPS! (Especially for those of us whose GPS-skills are less than honed to perfection.)
When I finally turned our golden 2001 Honda Accord left into the abbey driveway, at once the silence greeted me, as surely as a Person. I rode down past huge green magnolia trees. They lined both sides of the black road, wet with the constant rain. Ahead of me was the monastery, framed by this double column of magnolias. The monastery is white, and this combined with the green of the trees was beautiful. I felt at home immediately.
There were several reasons for this. The first was that at the abbey the Trappist monks there practice, live in, create, and listen to Silence. The Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross said that Silence is God’s first language.
I already knew God speaks in silence. I spent my childhood mostly tromping through the woods, alone, save for the occasional red-tailed hawk soaring above, flowers, lots of good red dirt, ants, butterflies, long grass, and, yes, ticks. I also spent long hours each day with my friend, Studying, in high school and on through college and then, while living by myself in Heidelberg, West Germany, I attacked and absorbed German on a Rotary scholarship, and later in graduate school at UGA, where I started eating the Bible, as MaryKate Morse says, I spent as many hours in prayer as I did studying, or so it felt. I already believed—by which I mean, had experienced—the truth of the wise words of St. John of the Cross, but I lived in it at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
I kept thinking how I didn’t even have to try to pray there. I didn’t have to try to do the surrender of centering prayer or, in my own style, whatever it is I do when I pray. I kept thinking, This place prays me.
Some time ago, I realized that I needed more silence in my prayer life, less words. I am a words geek, so this was something of a revelation to me. I have spent much time in silence, by choice and not by choice, and I realized not long ago that I needed to lengthen this silence deliberately, even as a wife and mother (especially as a wife and mother) with many demands on my time.
I still pray for others here and around the world, in intercessory prayer, and I still praise God, yes, but I remember what my grandmother most regretted after my grandfather died because it shows me what is most often missing in my prayer life. My grandmother said: “Lorenzo used to ask me to come sit with him in the backyard, and I didn’t. I’d be cleaning the house. I wish I’d sat with him more often.”
I love talking with my husband, but I also love reading with him in the same room, not talking. We have many varied, long intimate spaces of silence in our love, and I realized that I need to sit with God more often in silence. I need more silence with God, the love of my life. The more you trust someone, the less you need to talk. Yes, you still talk, and enjoy to, but it all rests on this lovely silence.
Sitting in the old wooden choir stalls of the church itself, I listened to (and sometimes sang with when the person next to me had found the right place in the right book) as the monks sang the plainsong. I don’t think a person has lived until he or she has listened to monks chanting something like this: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”
They were singing the Psalms, of course, and Scripture never sounded more all about having a relationship with the God of love.
So when the monk got up to the lectern and said, “Let us pray,” it has never sounded more redundant. Do you ever stop praying when you are at the abbey? I doubt it.
I also felt at home because the other “retreatants” (what an odd word) were very terrific people to be around.
I also felt at home because the monks reminded me of Sequoyahs. Every time one passed me, I felt that I’d encountered a tall Yoda. You know another friend told me lately that Yoda comes from the Greek word for “to know”; George Lucas picked it precisely for that sense of an intimate “knowing,” as one lover to another.
The monks have that Benedictine/Cistercian/monastic way of never hurrying anywhere. They keep everything—voice, movements, tone—all in that range of “balanced.” Very unCuban—I can assure you! And when you see a monk in his long white robes and hood sitting in a simple metal chair in the sanctuary, staring at the altar, you believe in that moment in world peace and the eradication of world hunger.
Also, the monks move up and down the church with the grace of manatees or sea turtles in the ocean. They have that same stately and unselfconscious grace.
I also felt at home because the retreat leader was Cynthia Bourgeault, whose warmth sets all at ease. I was thrilled to meet this kind person who blurbed my Cloud book.
So I rather boldly, even innocently sat down facing her at supper on Friday night. I looked at her the way you do when you sit down across from someone with whom you are about to start a conversation, and she looked back at me, no doubt arrested by my rather stupid gesture. I wondered why she didn’t say anything, the rhythm was all awkward there for a long second, and then I realized that no one was saying anything. And that’s when I saw the sign that read, “This is a silence room.”
So I just sat there, mere inches from someone I thought a second before I had been dying to talk to. That was when I totally gave in to the silence and the different rhythms of the abbey. The not-talking at supper became relaxing at once, when I realized what was up.
(Once again, this proves that old truth that you can study something and yet not “know” it. I mean—I had read and studied Cistercians! But, give a child psychologist her first child and see what she “knows” on day one. Come back when her child turns thirty, and her “knowledge” will have/should have grown with the child, into maturity. But, I must add, the converse can be true. Before I ever visited a monastery or two, I knew in my bones how my dead Anglo-Saxon monk friend AElfric had lived. I just knew it.)
I don’t mean I’d want to do that silence-at-supper forever. I do so love hearing about my family’s day over spaghetti. But, yes, it was a great realigner of what’s important and how much static is contributed to our lives by pointless palaver. At least that’s true for me.
I took walks, and that made me feel at home, too.
Two great images stick with me from these walks. The first was that I noticed that where I’d assumed the magnolia trees were single trees, just really one huge tree after another down the road, each “tree” was actually several trees planted close together, two, three, four, five, even six trees all together. I thought that was like the monks. You think you are seeing a single monk, but they are such community-focused individuals that each monk comes with several others. Kind of a “buy one, get three free” special. Each monk is really two, three, four, five, six, and more monks all together. Like those magnolia trees, no monk stands alone. Each belongs in a choir, both literally and figuratively, as Milton wrote about in his poem, “Lycidas,” and as Stanley Fish so exquisitely teased out in his brilliant criticism, “Lycidas: A Poem Finally Anonymous”: “O may we soon renew that song!”
The second image was I spotted Cynthia Bourgeault one day in her signature red cap turning off onto a muddy road. She is not, at least physically, a tall person. All I saw was her back, clad in her equally signature warm, black vest; her gray plaid, blousy, long-sleeved flannel shirt with red and blue stripes; her menthol blue mock turtleneck; her black leggings inside black socks (with one menthol-blue snowflake apiece); and her brown hiking sandals, and the sign at the head of that road read, “No Trespassing—Private Road.” I thought that kind of summed up her entire life and quest.
Where Sadduccees-type religion and the illusions of worldly culture say, “You can’t come here—it’s not allowed,” Cynthia Bourgeault in her signature red cap walks right on through. And where her own soul clings to things that are not lasting, saying to her, “You can’t let go there—it’s not allowed,” Cynthia Bourgeault walks right on in. I don’t mean without wrestling, but she does keep on walking.
I haven’t talked about the teaching and what I learned. I haven’t talked about the delicious food. (The muesli was to die for.) I haven’t talked about the endless coffee. I haven’t talked about the experience of getting up at 3:45 a.m. ON PURPOSE, to participate in Vigils in the church. I haven’t talked about then “sleeping in” the next 4:00 a.m. service and hearing the bell toll once to begin it and once to end it. God bless those monks for praying for us all while we sleep warm in our beds.
I haven’t talked about the goose that squawked so at me that I never made it down to the pond. I haven’t talked about the kind words Cynthia Bourgeault had for my Cloud and how much these meant coming from her, since she is not merely wise but also a medievalist. (Of course I say that partly in jest, but one does so rarely run into medievalists.) I have also not talked about my conversation with a monk who sold me homemade fudge or how I selected a bonsai for my husband from their Bonsai Store. You’d never believe I was “only” there for one full day and two half-days.
So much happened. Remember those menthol blue snowflakes on Cynthia Bourgeault’s black socks? Well, after our last teaching session Sunday morning (we’d already gone to church once at 7:00 a.m.), it began to snow a very sloppy, very popcorn-clusters snow. I packed my bag and dashed out to my car, forgetting church at noon and the lunch I’d promised someone I would eat when I signed a list. I hope they understood. I did leave a few gifts behind in thanks.
I drove through that blizzard on Sunday. By then, I’d figured out to press “GO HOME” on the GPS. So it got me to 20 west easily. Thank you, GPS! Thank you, Sean!
And the whole way as I drove through complete and utter whiteness, I prayed. I turned (“surrendered”) my fear over to the Lord. I kept smiling because this is one of the things Cynthia discussed. When you surrender inside, you get more brain cells freed up to handle any situation with more love. Well, that seems obvious when I type it, but how often do we do that? How often do I do that?
I smiled to myself as I prayed, thinking that this was a great first “assignment” after the retreat. If I hadn’t prayed, I would’ve panicked. I prayed and didn’t panic. I prayed and felt a peace that allowed me to “go with the flow” and get on down that sometimes slushy road, eighteen-wheelers on each side, behind and before also.
I just kept listening to that calm, unperturbable voice of the invisible and direction-brilliant lady hiding inside the GPS: “In half a mile, turn right on Browns Mill Road.” Then, “In 11 miles, turn left on Highway 20.”
I thought of Cynthia’s lectures as I drove. She’d admitted that sometimes her praying became more about thoughts than about “letting go” and returning to God, and she described what she does then to help get it back on track. She said that her contemplative prayer practice at such times was “as sloppy as snow in April.” I know just what she means, I thought as I drove, that kind of blinding, treacherous snow we sometimes have . . . apparently THE FIRST DAY OF MARCH IN ATLANTA!
I kept thinking how each snow clump was like a thought. I got mesmerized by them. I’d look up, taking my eyes off of that very important road and think, Oh, this is beautiful! just like my thoughts that I love thinking. They may be distracting and treacherous for being so all-consuming, but I do love looking at them.
Are you one of those women whose husband often says to you, “Don’t overanalyze everything!” I am.
Then, as Cynthia taught us, I’d catch myself thinking (in this case, looking up at the snow), and I’d let the thought go (in this case the looking at the snow). I’d catch myself thinking and let the thought go. Easy enough. Cynthia spent a long time talking about how this prayer helps us gain the “mind of Christ” that Paul describes in Philippians 2.
It is kenotic prayer. It is prayer that achieves kenosis in us, that “emptying” mimicking how Christ emptied himself in the incarnation (Philippians 2:7). It involves surrendering our will to God, over and over in micro-steps of soul progress.
But then I’d go under bridges, and the snow would “stop,” and I’d think how that’s also so like contemplative prayer. It lets you “hide out” under the bridges. When you emerge, the snow—does it ever fall! It caked my windshield. I became more thankful than ever before for windshield wipers that work work work. Keep working, I told them, and in my heart, Thank you for working. Swish, swish, swish, swish. They kept me going, kept the road clear before me.
So did other cars, other drivers. I kept thanking them, too, for being on that road, for keeping it clear. They were pioneering a way before me. I thought how much we depend on each other. I slide, they slide, we can all damage each other. We have to look out for each other. We have to check the conditions of the road, and of our lives.
I kept praying so that I could think well and be relaxed. I kept listening for the reassuring slishy sound of water on the road (rather than that eerie no-sound of black ice). I kept looking for the spray thrown up by cars in front of me. I prayed and picked and changed lanes based on the slush level or whether I could get clear of other cars or where the rain mostly was and to stay away from potential hydroplaning.
Mostly I remembered what Cynthia Bourgeault said. She said she’d gotten this particular GPS image from a friend of hers (how typical, from a friend, and also how typical that she footnoted that friend in her talk).
The image is the GPS. Cynthia said it was like Christian contemplative prayer. First, you intend to make yourself deeply available to God. Then you sit down, as Father Thomas Keating said, for twenty minutes a day; “it’s not hard,” he says in a YouTube video. And when you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go. It’s that simple. If you have a blizzard of thoughts, you have a million chances, Father Keating said, “to return to God.” By “God” here, he means God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
And I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now. The GPS is the “God Positioning System” of prayer, keeping us on the road of love, no matter the weather.
May God bless all those for whom images are not separated from their realities in flesh and blood. May God help us all lead more integrated lives, less filled with the binary opposition of dualism, more filled with lovely bridges between lovely human beings of all sorts.
May God bless the monks and all those who serve in the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, where their prayers spread all over the world and penetrate us with his grace. May God also bless those who were there in retreat this past weekend, and may God bless Cynthia Bourgeault as she boldly goes out in the service of the School of Love.
And may God bless you!