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April 20th, 2012 at 4:48 pm

The days I ran away to a monastery

Added by Stephanie Cowell

I suppose we all need to escape our present lives at times; the needs of them press so close around us that we forget how to stride, how to see the world and our place in it anew ― how to realize we are not just the sum of our obligations and the identify we have forged, but that at any age we are still moving and changing. And so I took the train up the Hudson River with eight other members from my church to stay for two days in a monastery.

I knew exactly what I wanted from the weekend: peace.

I did not take my laptop or any other means of communicating on line by e-mail and social media, nor did I intend to work on my new novel. Oddly in a way these things had come to represent the real me. (And oddly the great spiritual writer Henry Nouwen had the same problems letting go of his identity in the world many years ago when he fled to a monastery for rather a longer time.)

I was tired. I felt that the center of my soul where my novels were born was shriveling, until it would soon contain no more than a few words huddled into a corner.

Holy Cross Monastery, an Anglican historical landmark as well as a living monastery, sits high on a hill overlooking the Hudson River which I could see from my window through a curtain of trees. I was drawn out to walk the hills and down to the rocky part of the river. As the retreat was largely planned as a silent one, I walked alone, hearing often the call of a single bird and nothing else.

Photo Credit: Marie Postlewate

The monastery is a place of comfort. A huge central room is filled with soft chairs and sofas and reading lamps. The chapel also comforts; the monks gather in their white robes several times a day to sing the ancient prayer offices of the Benedictine order. Other times you can see them in more casual clothes tending the gardens. They can’t grow vegetables; the deer would eat them. We had five small startling classes on the psalms studying how they fit into the Jewish and Christian faiths as we sank into soft sofas in yet another sitting room. One scholar from our church group consulted the original Greek translations from the 2nd century BC translation, the Septuagint. The meals were opulent.

When we ended the silence, the nine of who were taking this small pilgrimage got to know each other more. As in the best of my spiritual times, they all seemed to glow for me. They became radiant, spiritual beings, as shining as the barge on the river seen through the trees in the darkness, casting streaks of gold light on the moving water. The Hudson isn’t even really all a fresh water river there, one monk told us. It is an estuary where the salt and fresh water meet and flows both north and south with the tides.

“It looks like the ghost of the Titanic,” a friend whispered when we walked outside to watch the barge one night. He added, “It’s a hundred years tonight that the Titanic sank.” And we prayed for those who had died and I thought of the preciousness of life. The drowned were gone under other waters forever while we stood well-fed and safe, thinking of them.

At the end of the two days, I came back to my home exhausted. I crawled into bed with the newspaper, unable to concentrate on the words. I felt something huge was shifting in me. I had wanted peace from my monastery retreat, not turbulence. The day after I was achy all over and still exhausted. I know myself well enough to realize that something deep was churning within me, and that the sickness and profound uneasiness I felt had to do less with illness than so much changing inside me, so much arising and struggling to find some order in the life I called mine. I went online and struggled through endless messages from very dear people. I crashed back into my world of family birthdays and book publicity and the need to buy salad and unpack bags and the bad news of a friend’s husband dying. And yet as I struggled to return to the familiar adrenalin-driven me, it wasn’t working.

Two days later I put aside the new novel I had been wrestling with until I could see it more clearly. I realized I was asking myself over the weekend not only who I was as a spiritual person, wife, mother, and friend, but who I was as a writer and what I wanted to say. I walked into a bucolic place and unearthed a lot of turbulence within me. Was that supposed to happen? Wasn’t I supposed to return calmer and more uplifted? Full of answers and not questions?

I live in New York City and have seldom been able to see more than a few stars in this sky which contains we are told billions of universes. Standing outside the monastery one night I saw the many stars above me and wondered at my place in this universe. Watching the barge with its gold light cast on the water, I felt so much I have not yet begun to figure out.

I ran away to a monastery for two days, the place of utter calm, and found myself emotionally upended. But perhaps, as Shakespeare said, “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”  

Perhaps this was the gift of the monastery after all.