Before my years in monastic life I went on retreats as often as possible. I grew up near a Cistercian monastery where the choir chanted everything in Latin. Sunday Mass was still the abbatial High Mass with smells, bells and mellifluous yells. In the 1970’s and 1980’s some modern monasteries began to use guitars and even sang some of the truly awful music written in the 1970’s. The monastery I eventually joined in the 1990’s had a cross section.
Sometimes, especially when a visiting monk came from the motherhouse in Italy, we had the privilege of singing portions of the liturgies in Latin. Some of our older monks would concelebrate in Latin with the visitor. When the Abbot General came with an assistant, they rattled through the Mass with an efficiency that would make a factory line supervisor proud.
As a monk I was pulled from behind my desk in the finance office to give talks, counsel and pray with people. There is no English language equivalent for my monastic job title. In the Rule of St. Benedict it is called the cellarer. The cellarer is responsible for all of the land, buildings, clothing, and utensils (from tractors and cars to needles) down to the last blade of grass. He’s the chief financial officer, chief operations officer and office clerk all rolled into one. He also takes his turn at kitchen duty and whatever other jobs come up.
Working in the office all day was exhausting. I’d start work at five in the morning, break for prayers and go back to work. By the time noon came, I was ready to retreat from the world. It was my habit to retreat back to my office to eat while I worked, unless my master or the abbot told me that it might be nice if I showed up for dinner. It was a jolt not to stay in the office until eight in the evening, which was my norm.
Meeting with people who’d come on retreat or for counseling was an adventure into a new reality. My life was the world of numbers and dealing with banks and businesses and juggling. The idea that people would actually ask to sit with me to discuss spiritual matters was really a massive mind blowing experience.
It is so exciting to step out of my daily reality now as it was then. I still work in finance. I still give spiritual direction. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in a monastery. I also know too much about retreats and how stressful it is to work them. I stopped going on formal retreats. The only time I have been on retreat since 1998 was for a weeklong Buddhist meditation retreat at which Thich Nhat Hanh spoke.
Nhat Hanh is a great living saint. There is no question of that. Being in his presence was a blessing. Seeing all of the work of his nuns and monks behind the scenes was exhausting. It reminded me too much of working seven days a week in the office and on retreats at my old monastery.
When I left that retreat, I knew I needed a break.
Nowadays when I need a retreat I have my dogs take me for a run. I call it a walk, but they are young and tremendously vigorous. There are too many squirrels and birds and cats to chase, too many other dogs to greet, to be held back by my tugging at their leash. I retreat by pulling out one of my favorite magazines to read a bit. Cistercian Studies Quarterly is always good for relaxing. For me, it is. I realize that most people don’t get off on medieval mysticism the way I do, and that is great. Better to be happy with my CSQ and you with your Sports Illustrated or Cosmo than get mired in the weight of the world.
It’s great to be able to say I used to work for a wholly owned subsidiary of the oldest and largest multinational corporation in the world. It brings a smile to my face. Talking to an abbess friend the other day I heard how little things have changed in monastic life since I left. The challenge is always to find enough money to keep houses running who have fewer and older members alive. I told Mother that she sounded the way I had when I was paying the bills a couple thousand miles away.
We never completely leave all of our experiences behind us. There will forever be part of me that is the boy and man I was before my years in monastery. I will always remember the weight of the habit on my shoulders and the strength of chanting in choir. On days when my dogs run me I see my life at all of those times and now.
I am moving forward into retreat.