New Melleray

The following are excerpts from my journal reflecting on a recent retreat at New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Peosta, IA:

New Melleray Morning

Monday, March 31st, 2008

12:37 pm

It’s a bit of a lie to title this “New Melleray” when technically I’m still in Chicago, about 100 miles (perhaps less, perhaps more) away from the Abbey; and yet, as they say, the journey has begun. The Midwest is in the midst of experiencing an early spring bath, and the faucet’s running fast cold water. According to American Airlines, this means a slew of cancelled flights, including Chicago to Dubuque, my puddle jumper to the monastery. Somehow, I managed to secure a flight at 4:30, which unfortunately is not even remotely registering on the computerized screens detailing all the flights. This should give me pause, but a chance for a normal cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie holds sway over an excess of concern or worry. God will provide, right? Or am I simply too tired to care? I’ll chalk it up to faith. Anyway, as the mystics say, you are where you are, and since I thankfully have no papers to grade! I’m just going to relax.

5:45 pm

So it turns out Flight 9333 is really Bus 9333, and it is only now that I am pulling out of Chicago O’Hare for a three hour bus ride to Dubuque. Bonus: I have all my luggage. I absolutely should be listening to Sufjan Stevens. Extra bonus: rush hour traffic.

Tuesday, April 1st

New Melleray Abbey

I’m in my cell, at last. Last night our bus driver hurtled us through the dark and fog to Dubuque (through the Clouds of Unknowing, perhaps? Because I sure as heck didn’t know where we were), depositing us all in one piece at Dubuque Regional Airport around 8:45 pm. The sign for the airport was as impressive as a sign for an overnight parking lot- blunt and too the point.

The Guestmaster, a small monk with white hair has greeted me in what I’m finding to be a characteristically monkish soft-spoken voice. After thanking the bus driver and stowing my suitcase in the backseat of a sedan, the monk and I- Father Tom, I believe, drove through more fog to New Melleray.

Iowa doesn’t seem to mind darkness. On the bus ride from Chicago, as we drove through endless miles of farmland, and then, emerging through the night, tiny little villages- the word “hamlet” came to mind as we drove through Elizabeth- I could sense the state asleep. Beautiful pseudo-Victorian houses had only one lamp burning in a windowsill. Some houses and farms remained in shadows until only the light from the bus headlights illuminated a broke down silo, torn screen door, or shingled roof. By the same token, New Melleray itself remained shrouded, Father Tom even commenting “Hmm. Usually there’s beacon lit.”

My view of New Melleray, therefore, remained shadowy until this morning, when I was able to view its grey stone arches and wooden doors against a slate-grey cloudy sky.

Due to such an exhaustive travel day, I did not make it to Vigils this morning. My first prayer service was Lauds at 6:30 am, followed by Mass at 7. The chapel has a high ceiling, buttressed by oak beams, and Gothic windows let in a sunless dawn. The monks pray a fair distance away from us lay folk. I remembered to cross my arms to receive a blessing in lieu of the Eucharist , in deference to canon law. As I sat back down, a lady bug crawled past my seat on the railing in front of me.

I felt the blessing “begin” my retreat here. I prayed for an open heart, to allow myself to be with God, not to plan the entire retreat out, but let it happen.

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