It’s a surprising path that leads a man from a 4th-century saint to a 21st-century monk and home again, but that’s a summary of my week—on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, beginning Monday evening; home in Beverly on Thursday afternoon, a day ahead of schedule. Of such minor miracles this Catholic life is made.
Like many Catholic guys, I suppose, I have wondered about the monastic life: would I? could I? (though never) should I? The answer to that third question is, of course, I shouldn’t. I am married. Not gonna happen. Retreats, though, allow a man to dally with monasticism, like reading a good novel over a four-day period, then putting it down and going out to rake the leaves.
I’m sure I will write again before the weekend is up about my experience of Trappist life, viewed from the outside as a visitor to Spencer. But what is burning to be written right now is why I came home 24 hours ahead of schedule.
If I had been blogging Wednesday, instead of under enforced lockdown (no internet service in guest quarters at the abbey), I might have written about St. Martin of Tours. That’s him on the horse in an El Greco painting of his—legendary?—meeting with a beggar. He gave the beggar half of his cloak. Wednesday, November 11, is Martin’s feast day.
There’s enough written about St. Martin elsewhere that I can focus on the things Martin and I have in common. He was the son of a Roman military officer (check, Dad was a WWII veteran) who moved west into Gaul, or present-day France, to follow his father’s career (check, we moved from Minnesota to Connecticut when I was 10 and Dad took a new position). Martin was a convert (check) who favored the life of a hermit (check, or at least Katie thinks sometimes that I want to be a hermit, and perhaps I give her reason). But here’s the thing: Continually through his career as a hermit, then as a bishop, then as what amounted to an international statesman, Martin found himself pulled into the public arena, into engagement with his fellow men, while all the time feeling drawn to a quiet life of contemplation. It is in this tension between retirement and engagement, between the hermit and the man of action, that I recognize Martin of Tours as my brother.
Already by Wednesday, St. Martin’s feast day and only my second full day in Spencer, I was thinking much and fondly of my engaged life in Beverly, my vowed life as husband, father, bread-winner, and lay Catholic.
Then came Father Matthew. Our retreat director has been living on the grounds at Spencer for 58 years, or since the year I was born. I use the phrase “on the grounds” advisedly because St. Joseph’s Abbey has a long history that began in Nova Scotia in 1819. In 1950, the abbey, long since moved to Cumberland, Rhode Island, burnt to a Gothic cinder. By the following summer, just as I was being born 3,000 miles away in Oakland, California, Matthew (then a novice) and others were building new abbey buildings in Spencer, from fieldstone they quarried themselves. The abbey church (above right) and chapter house (triangle, left-center) are the public face of a huge property that today includes four going businesses: Trappist® Preserves, The Holy Rood Guild (manufacturers of high-end vestments), a bookstore, and year-round retreats.
Father Matthew (right) led three conferences, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning—after serving us breakfast in a true gesture of Trappist hospitality. He proposed to teach us a few things about Pope Benedict’s theology, and each morning offered both nuggets of general interest and (for me) personal insights. This is not the place to get overly personal, and some of the insights were deeply so. The upshot of Thursday morning’s conference was that I went afterward to Father Matthew for confession. Again, let’s not get personal; it’s enough to say that for my penance, Father Matthew asked me to sit before the Blessed Sacrament in the small Adoration chapel in the Spencer guest quarters and meditate on a particular matter.
I spent about half an hour in the Adoration chapel. About fifteen minutes in, I shifted my attention from the Blessed Sacrament, beautifully placed inside a silver dove that hovers over the altar, to an icon of Jesus on the right wall of the chapel. I had never really looked at an icon before, I mean looked at one, but as I did so now and continued to meditate on the matter Father Matthew and I had discussed, a clear thought came to me: Go home. Go home now. Swirling lights and ethereal music were conspicuously absent from this experience of looking and thinking. I only knew that it was time to go home. I arranged for my two friends from Beverly to drive home together and made like the Lone Ranger, disappearing before lunch.
After I finish this post (and she completes a Costco run), Katie and I are going out for a movie-and-dinner date. My experience in Spencer was, for me, a minor miracle, without the lights or heavenly choirs. My life in Beverly is the major miracle, and after three-plus days of “monastic” living, I’m engaged again, and married more than ever.