spirituality


Last year, I spent a week at a monastery and came back a calmer, happier and more peaceful woman.

I’ve begun to feel the itch to do so again and reboot my soul and mind, although in a less costly way.

I have found a place in Smithsburg, Maryland, where a retired Episcopalian priest has recently started a retreat hermitage where she welcomes guests for prayers, silent worship,  overnight stays, etc. It’s called the Hermitage at St. Anne’s,  a mission of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Smithsburg, MD.

I am signed up to stay there next weekend (December 3-5) from Friday evening through late Sunday.

After checking in, I will spend my two and half days there in silence. Moreover, I will turn off all my connections to the outside world, so don’t expect to reach me by phone, social media or email.

I desperately need more silence in my life. I know this because I have become addicted to noise, feeling anxious when without it.

It used to be that I would relish sitting on my couch crocheting in silence, or riding in my car without the radio/music. But now I need an audio book or music when crocheting.

Moreover, I no longer feel centered, balanced or the inner solitude that I felt after visiting the monastery Mepkin Abbey.

As far as I can tell, the hermitage is a house on a town street. Yet there are some advantages to its location.

I attended high school in the nearby area of Mount Aetna (near Hagerstown) and so I am somewhat familiar with Smithsburg. There is a really beautiful cemetery nearby the house where I can go and sit in relative solitude and think/pray, etc.

I’m also really grateful that the retired Priest, Elizabeth, has inquired into my food allergies and seems keen on accommodating my needs at the hermitage. It will be much easier to eat without talking (asking the ingredients to food) as a result.

Anyway, this weekend will be busy and filled with dinners with family and friends. This weekend I will be thankful for every moment I have here on this earth and for the wonderful people in my life who enrich it all the more.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Hugs and love to you all.

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Today I went to a church service (one of my denomination) for the first time in probably a year. (Before I go on, let me say I enjoyed the service. The people were friendly, sang loudly, participated in the sermon and generally left me wanting to return another week).

I’m not sure why I haven’t gone in a while. Perhaps it’s because I need to attend a church with an audience that is friendly and participates in a service. Not just to say “yes” and “praise Jesus” so that everyone around can know how holy they are but because they mean it and would say it even if they were in a room alone and no would would hear it. They would be so inspired and so into the sermon that they couldn’t help but burst out those words. note: I’m sure there are people in my former churches that are not hypocrites and who are in honest pursuit of an intimate relationship with God.

It’s also because, after joining/hearing the monks simple tunes of worship and occasional trio performances, I find it hard to get into the modern (take a breath every fourth word) songs. I was thankful beyond belief that this church had at least two hymns that I could read the music from.  Besides, I believe most hymns are much better musical compositions than modern ones.

Allow me to rant. Has anyone ever considered that having words up on a screen without any kind of sheet music to let a person know the notes (or, to the untrained eye, at least which direction the notes are going) makes a visitor or non-Seventh-day Adventist visitor feel awkward and even more exposed.

If you must do modern music, I beg you, PLEASE provide us with at least a one-staff bar of notes and words to follow!!!!!!!! (I cannot add enough exclamation marks here.)

As for other reasons for having not attend regularly, I do not claim to be enlightened by any means.  However, my views about religion, true Christianity and other things have changed since visiting the monetary last summer.

For example, today some well-intentioned woman gave a “childrens’ story” that essentially told kids to read the bible even if they don’t understand it, because it will wash out their sins and make them more Christian and closer to Jesus who will forgive them of their sins. I don’t think she realized the implications of what she was saying but it took every ounce of me to not roll my eyes and cross my arms.

Making a child read a book that is beyond their comprehension, I believe, is cruel and could turn them away from scripture. There is a reason there are books for children and books for adults. Perhaps instead, a parent could read some scripture with a child. Ask them what he or she thinks it means and then help them discover the story.

More importantly, I believe that no book, human or ritual action, such as reading scripture, will save a soul.  Instead, it is only through developing a pure intimate relationship with God (one that cannot be explained in words and only barely captured in music) that we can know, be changed and proceed in a way that brings Glory to God, whatever direction that may lead us.

Anyway, I had intended for this blog to be about something completely different but this poured right out of me.  Catcha ya again next week.

A lot has changed in me since I returned from the monastery.  Yet in some ways I’ve fallen back into old patterns only to realize this and struggle to figure out how to break free. The true test of my ability to find time for solitude will come in the next two months.

For as much as I was determined to keep from adding logs to the fire and leave more space for solitude and spiritual reflection/worship, it seems I had a lot of commitments for the month of September and October lined up before I went to Mepkin Abbey and other duties seem to have piled on since then. Most of my obligations are ones I gladly take on, I should note, and are for humanitarian causes that I am especially dedicated to working toward.

Yet today, looking forward at my calendar and at my to-do list, I find myself with a growing urge to gasp for air. My body feels wound up inside, my neck hurts again and my thoughts are in a jumble.

From the weekend of September 12 until October 18 I have one free weekend. And by free I mean I haven’t yet decided among three possible options:  1. visit my Grandma, uncle and friend in Northern California. 2. spend it locked up in my house with my dog and out in nature with my phone turned off.  3. wait until that weekend to decide what I need to do, because there’s bound to be some urgent thing.

If I am not careful, I will become so frenzied by my busy schedule that I will again accidentally block out my worship/spiritual growth time and solitude time, which can be one and the same.  If any of you pray and feel the urge to do so tonight,  I would welcome a sentence thrown in for my minor concern and a request that God will strengthen me.

Tonight I think I’m going to go home, take the dog for a long walk and pull out my bible and some other books and read in silence (no music, no computer, no movies). Maybe I’ll take a long bath.

I can feel my body thirsting for solitude and quiet it as if I’ve run a marathon and I see the bottle of water held out by a volunteer just a few feet ahead. Only in my case the bottle of water is time at home, and the few feet ahead is a metro and bus ride.  I just pray that my apartment is not full of noise from people that live nearby tonight.

Things are changing for me, on the inside. I’m not really sure how to put it into words. But let me try.
In other words, blogging has not been a priority since I’ve returned from the monastery. Perhaps that will change as I continue to reshape my life and outlook.

I went to the monastery last month with many decisions to make and I ended up with one very strong answer — until my compass is set on God, I cannot possibly know how to proceed.

Now, for the first time in my life, I feel as if things are fitting in place. It’s as if my angst has been eased. I go about my day knowing my stated purpose and attempting to be present to the moment, even in performing the most mundane of acts.

My feelings are best summarized by Thomas Merton:

“A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops
thinking about how to live and begins to live.”

With my spiritual compass turning toward the right direction, it’s as if everything else is starting to fit in place and assigned its proper priority, time and personal value.

Dreaming of tomorrow grows less and less appealing. The materialistic urges I once harbored: to go shopping, to get more stuff, to have a better….anything, etc, is fading. I again see how important it is that I attend to my spirit, heart and inner peace, so that I can eventually reemerge in this world as a solid being.

My spiritual journey at the monastery

I didn’t realize until my third day on the retreat that I had allowed myself to become spiritually numb and had allowed the busy pace of my Washington, DC, life to squeeze God out.

I did not get on my knees to pray until my last day at Mepkin Abbey. But once I did, I found myself returning again and a again to the tiny chapel in the back of the church to plead my case before God for myself, the Abbey and those I love, and to give thanks and read the bible and pray about what I’d read.

Because for days I did not feel I could pray with a deep seeded sincerity, it took me until Wednesday to address God directly, although I wrote in my journal, participated in the religious services and read from the bible during my free time.

Yet from the evening of the first day at Mepkin Abbey I found myself crying several times a day.

It was the oddest sort of crying.

Sometimes tears would appear on my cheeks out of an immense feeling of gratitude to be in such a wonderful spiritual place. Other times it was out of sorrow that I had taken so long to awaken. Sometimes my tears were for the joy I felt being spiritually alive when chanting the Psalms with the monks. Prior to going to the monastery, I feared my musical spiritual life had ceased with the close of the Master Chorale of Washington.

On occasion I cried because I felt indefinably overwhelmed, humbled and the need to purge all the negative things that I’d allowed to be penned in my mind.

Since returning from the monastery, I’ve determined in my heart to continue on the spiritual path I started. But change is slow.

Here’s what’s different now as a result of my time at Mepkin Abbey and my spiritual revival.

To maintain some interior solitude and peace, I’ve slowly added to the time that I spend in silence at home, at the church nearby my office and throughout the day.

And when I go for a walk at my lunch break, or go to the nearby church to pray and meditate, I allow myself to be alone in true solitude among the masses. Accomplished once, interior solitude is nearly as easy as walking with a purpose.
With my eyes at a fixed point on the ground ahead of me, I observe everything around me, but without hearing or assigning value or judgment on what is there. When I do this, I pay attention to the feeling of my clothing against me in the wind, of the ground shaking underneath me as a truck drives by, the squeak and bell of a door opening from a restaurant, etc., the feeling of my foot hitting the ground, the smell of the city and heat of the sun on my skin, it’s as if my sensor knob is turned up.

Also, I no longer listen to the radio in the morning but instead go about preparing myself for the day in silence or by singing a happy song, often of praise. At home in the mornings, my silence is occasionally broken by my bird squawking for attention or for a fresh handful of birdseed, or by my dog whining to go for a walk.

If I go to church, it is to pray or meditate and be nearly anonymous as I try to listen for the voice of God. I grew up with church attendance meaning the unsaid barometer of one’s spirituality. But now I’m not so sure that’s what I need to aid my walk.
I celebrate in the belief that I’ve finally figured out the spiritual formula that has been missing from my life. It is a joy that fills every cell.

My relationship with God works best when it is intimate, private and personal setting, preferably in nature.

Instead of craving the company of churchgoers, I find myself longing to read the bible and religious literature, primarily those of Esther de Waal and Thomas Merton.

I’ve decided to read the bible from start to finish and I’m slowly making my way through the first books.

Each day on the 20 minutes metro ride in to work, I pray, read some of the chapter of the Bible that I’ve reached. I then flip over to the Psalms, and in my head chant one or two of the chapters. Usually I pray again and then turn to whatever other spiritual book I have brought along.

There is one other big decision I’ve made in my life.

I’m no longer sure that my calling in life includes marriage.

Moreover, I have decided that I cannot possibly enter into a relationship with a man, or even consider one, until I have myself figured out, until my spiritual walk is on a surer path and my soul is adequately tended to.
You cannot imagine how freeing this is for me. I’ve been boy crazy since I hit puberty at 12 and it’s caused me heartache after heartache because I’ve never been grounded in myself or God.

It is my full belief that if God intends for me to date or marry, then it will be clear when and if the time comes. Until then, until I can meet a man and have a friendship with him without having other questions in my mind, I must be careful not to fall back into old patterns and allow myself to ignore the present by dreaming about what may be.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at right now.

I’m going to be breaking my story about my stay at Mepkin Abbey up into at least three more parts.
In this one I will discuss my arrival, the meals provided, some observations and a description of my lodging accommodations. I will get more into the emotional stuff in the next few entries. I would like to set the scene first.

Day 1:

I arrived at Mepkin Abbey directly from my friends’ wedding in Las Vegas. I was hung over. Wearing one eye contact and sporting flashy jewelry. (I had an unopened fresh set of contacts in my suitcase.)

I also was late. The cab driver didn’t know how to get to the monastery and so we got lost. It turns out the monastery is in the middle of 3,000 acres of land that it owns.

I left the airport 3 p.m.-ish, and it was 4:30 p.m. by the time I pulled my luggage out of the cab. I was 30 minutes late to check in and had 30 minutes before dinner started.

At that time, I didn’t realize how important punctuality is to the monks. If I had, I would have been even more mortified at being late.

Brother Paul, dressed in the catholic Benedictine/trappist monk traditional white robe with black cover and wide brown leather belt, patiently gave me a map of where I was allowed to go in the Abbey and pointed me in the direction of my cabin. My cabin, St. Benedict’s, was the furthest away from the monastic grounds and the dining room, called a refectory. Luckily, my path was a concrete road and sidewalk so it wasn’t a big struggle to get there.

Entrance to monastic grounds, Mepkin Abbey

Note: my suitcase was HUGE and one pound shy of the airplane carrier’s 50 pound limit because I had to pack two distinctly different types of clothes: one set for my weekend in Las Vegas and the other for my time at the monastery. One set had bright green, pink, blue and other sparkly colors, with very low necklines that required special bras, and four-inch heels and flip flops. The other set of clothes consisted of black, white and subdued colored, high neckline T-shirts and dress shirts. Jean pants, a pair of linen pants, Tennis shoes, brown leather flats and sandals.
I’ll let you guess which set was for the monastery.

I pulled my luggage for nearly 10 minutes along the road to the cabin, found my room, which was an adventure of its own, as it took me about 10 minutes to realize the front door was unlocked and that my key was for my cabin room inside.

Then I took off my bright and dangly jewelry, changed into something more subdued and quickly washed my face and went to dinner.

Meals at the monastery are simple and last precisely 30 minutes. Breakfast starts at 6 a.m. Lunch is from about 12:20 until a monk rings a bell about 30 minutes later. And supper begins at 5 p.m.

For breakfast, there was usually a covered tray of hard-boiled eggs, a basket of a variety of fresh fruit, several types of cereal, which were always in the cupboards, and bread with different jams and peanut butter fixings. There were also instant packets of oatmeal and cream of wheat and Lipton tea bags.

Dinner was similar in that there was fresh fruit plus bread and fixings for making a sandwich, including cheeses, pickles and condiments for sandwiches.

I learned an important lesson at the monastery. Although I was allergic to bread, really anything with wheat or wheat flower in it, I was able to survive. For breakfasts and dinner I mostly ate fruit-a banana with peanut butter. On a side note, I didn’t feel right eating a banana in its original form at the monastery. Not that they would have noticed but I didn’t want anything I did at the monastery to hint in the least at something lewd. So I cut the bananas into slices and dipped them in peanut butter.

Often I also ate instant oatmeal for dinner and the cheese slices with mustard on them and pickle spears. Funny, now that I think about it, I didn’t feel it important to cut up the pickle spears to eat them.

I found that if I had a BIG breakfast I could last through most of the day. Confession: sometimes I had to eat an energy bar during the day or after dinner to feel satisfied. That became less and less the situation as the days progressed.

The refrigerator in the guest refectory (dining hall) was always stocked with milk, orange juice, apple juice or water. And we were allowed to get drinks from the refectory at any time of the day.

For lunch, retreatants, the name for overnight guests such as myself, who attended the none (noon) worship would recess from the church to the dining area. This was the only time we were allowed to go through food serving line with the monks to get our food and it was the only officially hot meal of the day.

Later, I learned from one of the “Brothers” of the monastery that all the leftover food goes into a soup the monks eat on Friday, or some meal during the weekend when the guests have gone home – I just can’t remember which night the monk said.

Guests can be weekend visitors but most overnight guests arrive on Monday and leave Friday morning at 9 a.m.
The retreatants eat in a room attached to one in which the monks eat. The doors to the monks’ refectory are glass so you can see them eating coming and going. I tried my best not to be nosy and stare. I knew I was a guest in their very private and spiritually-intimate lives.

The retreatants eating area has wooden tables, but wider than the ones the monks eat at. The guests’ tables allow for people to sit facing each other, while the monks’ tables are just wide enough for their food trays. At least that was the way it looked to me based on only a few casual glances.

Our dining room chairs have four legs and backs. The monks sit on wooden stools.

Guests are supposed to eat in silence. And this brings me to another point.

I learned during my stay that I wrongly assumed that everyone would be coming to the monastery for silence and privacy. Some people were there just to get away but didn’t participate in the monastic religious services, which was optional. Some would chat with each other outside, and all too often, inside the eating area. And some came to work on projects in their room. It seemed that only a few came to be silent and solitary.

I was lucky that my cabin mate — I had only one for the first two days of my stay — also wanted to be silent.

The night she arrived I talked with her briefly and we agreed not to talk but that we would like to walk together each morning to the 3:20 a.m. service. Yes, you heard me right,  3:20 a.m.

And I went to every 3 a.m. service while I was there, except on Friday, when I mistook some Spanish moss and sticks on the ground as an alligator. On Friday at 2 a.m., I decided I was safer having a private worship in my room.

The cabin I stayed in had three rooms, a living room, a kitchen and one bathroom that I could find, although there were signs for a second bathroom in the back porch area. But the bathroom was right next to my room so there was no need to seek the other out.

The kitchen. p.s. I loved the old fashioned sink in the cabin. It was fashioned before dishwashers were invented so it assumes you need a place to dry dishes. I want one for my apartment, which is dishwasher-less.
Kitchen in St. Benedict's guest house

The cabin had a wood floor; in fact, most of the furniture was wooden.

My room was more than adequate. It contained a single-size bed with soft texture white sheets and a lightweight blue blanket. I had a desk, desk chair, green leather rocking chair, big dresser, a lamp table and a closet. The room had two large windows. One faced the monks’ farm, an area that was off limits to guests. The other window faced a field.

cottage bedroom

The monks recently switched from being chicken egg farmers to growing mushrooms.

At the end of my first day there I was exhausted by 6:30, partly because I’d had less than 3 hours sleep in the last 24 hours.

After writing in my journal for a bit, took a contemplative walk through a labyrinth that is outlined by tall wildflowers, and read some of a book I was dead tired. I fell asleep by 7:30. Clearly I had plenty of sleep and had little problem waking up in time to make it to the 3 a.m. service the next morning.

One more thing. SILENCE.

Before I went to the monastery, I thought it would take a couple of days for me to reach my panic point in which the solitary lifestyle would make me face myself so deeply that I would either panic and ask to leave or move past the breakthrough.

There were several occasions where I clearly reached a new milestone. But in retrospect, my first night there was the hardest.

The silence, while at first was a salve to my soul, became my enemy in the night.

I woke in an attack of anxiety, my whole body shaking and damp with sweat – the room was not hot that night. I couldn’t define the feeling other than as an overwhelming sense of fear, sorrow, joy, loss, gain, nakedness and solitude.
It had been a long time since I’d prayed. It had been a long time since I’d really prayed in an intimate way. I didn’t pray that night, my heart was still hardened and clouded by years of hurry, scrambling and rushing to and fro in a busy city life.
Instead I cried. I cried for nothing in particular. I just needed to cry. I can’t recall any other time that I’ve cried without knowing, or at least thinking I know, the cause. Having blown my nose a couple of times and fully soaked one side of the pillow cover; I flipped over the pillow and went back into a restless sleep.

It was so quiet in there that the sound of wind crossing the pilot light on the little gas heater in the corner of my room kept waking me up.

Well that’s enough for now.

Check back in a few days and  I’ll tell you more about my adventure and life changing experience at Mepkin Abbey.

So there is a lot of things to tell about my time at Mepkin Abbey and I might have opportunity to write a good amount tomorrow, so please check back in. But in the meantime I wanted to share with you a photo of the path from one of the gardens.

mepkin green path and road

I also can summarize my stay by saying that I returned feeling rebooted, relaxed and an inner peace that I haven’t had in a very long time. I also returned with a longing for a more intimate spiritual relationship with my creator and as it says in Psalms I now long for him like a desert for water.

I know I will survive the close of my choir.

I know I will survive living without a musical outlet for the first time in 24 years.

I know my heart will continue to beat, I’ll continue to laugh and somehow find a connection to God outside of praising him with my voice.

But I also know that last Sunday marked a change for me, for my life, my spiritual journey and for where I head from here.

The question in my heart is whether I can again find my tangible link to God without music.

I don’t find church appealing any more and honestly I’ve never found God in church unless the building was empty.

I get distracted in church by my insecurities, by the noises of others, by my lusts and by my longing to belong there and among the people there.

Instead of feeling intimate and loved by God in church, I feel exposed and watched by humans. That’s why for a week in June I’m going to a place where I’ll be allowed to mind my own business and seek God. I’m going to Mepkin Abbey, of the order of Trappist Monks.

I don’t belong among most of the church people I know, that is with all but a few, because I don’t fit in any of their molds. I’m not proper, chaste, pure, closed minded, a slut or searching for a husband or boyfriend from among them.  I just want to find people who I connect with on a spiritual level and who have the same spiritual sincerity.

More importantly I want my spiritual balance to be renewed when I take time to search God out, not to be lost among the insecure and egotistical masses.

Other than in music I’ve only felt an intimate connection to God in one way: silence.

I feel him particularly strongly if that silence is free of human noise pollutants.

I’ve felt God …

*on the ledge of the Grand Canyon with only the wind in my ears

*on a mountain cliff among the sound of leaves

*on a deserted ocean beach early in the morning

*while swimming under water

*while praying in a Quaker church surrounded in silence by people in prayer

*in lunch break prayer sessions in the church around the corner — silence broken only by the sound of homeless people in corner pews snoring

*and in the meadow or woods near my house when I was a child.

I’m not sure what else to say now perhaps I’ll just let the silence speak for itself.

God are you there? I’m ready to slow down and listen now.

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