You crown the year with your goodness.
Abundance flows in your steps, in the pastures of the wilderness it flows.
The hills are girded with joy,
the meadows covered with flocks,
The valleys are decked with wheat.
They shout for joy; yes, they sing
Psalm 64, The Grail Psalter
For months, until the fuel pump gave out and I had to replace it, the gas gauge in my car did not work. No matter how far I drove, the gauge would not register anything below half a tank. While the gauge still showed that my tank was half full, if I did not refill the tank quickly, my car soon ran out of gas.
I put off repairing it because it meant that the whole gas tank had to be removed to fix the problem. So, I learned to keep the tank as close to full as I could at all times. Every time I refilled the tank I reset the trip odometer so that I could keep track of how many miles I had driven since the last fill-up and would know how soon I needed to refill the tank.
There is no gauge like that for the soul, or for the spiritual life, by which we can measure the strength of our own inner resources. We usually realize that the tank is empty only when it has bottomed out.
In the late Spring, right after Easter, I knew that my tank, so to speak, was empty and I knew that I needed to make a retreat at a Benedictine monastery.
I arrived at mid-afternoon at Mount Saviour Monastery, on the outskirts of Elmira, NY, tired and worn out. In the days prior to my arrival at the monastery, I had had a low backache and a persistent tightness in my neck that made it difficult for me to turn my head. The pain was not from lifting but from the tension and stress I carried in my body. Here I had to learn once again to be silent and to sit still and listen.
I greeted the guest brother and, after a brief prayer with him at the monastery door, I was shown to my small room—what monks call a “cell.” It was a simple room equipped with a bed, chair, desk, closet, and a bible.
When I sat down after unloading my suitcase from the car, I heard the lovely sound of birds chirping in the trees and sheep bleating as they grazed on one of the hills high above the monastery. Most of all I heard the inner voices of turmoil, doubt, anger, despair, desire, hope, and love.
In solitude and silence all these inner voices compete to be heard, so much so that we want to run away from our silence and find the comforts of television, radio, the telephone, or even a novel. Sitting in my cell between the regularly scheduled hours of monastic prayer, I tried to resist the urge to run away from my self-imposed silence and solitude. While I in my cell had no intention of becoming a monk, I was reminded there of the story of an Egyptian man in the early centuries of the church, who was endeavoring to become a monk and failing miserably at it. He went to an elder in the community and asked for advice.
What shall I do, Father, for I work none of the works of a monk: but here I am in torpor, eating and drinking and sleeping and in bad thoughts and in plenty of trouble, going from one struggle to another and from thoughts to thoughts?” Then the old man said: “Just you stay in your cell and cope with all this as best you can without being disturbed by it.
I, like the man who asked for advice, knew that I needed to take the elder’s advice: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
As I remained quiet and still amidst the overwhelming silence that pervaded the monastery and its communal life, I slowly began to relax and find relief to the inner rush of thoughts and feelings that makes real inner calm so difficult to attain in my everyday life.
Benedictine monastic life is structured by a balance between work and prayer. Every few hours I was called by the ringing of the chapel bells, to prayer. I ate my meals in silence with the monks, while a monk read from to us from various texts. I then helped to clear the tables and wash and dry the dishes in the refectory. In my free-time I wandered alongside the verdant fields and meadows covered with flocks of sheep. I watched the hummingbirds fly back and forth to taste honey in a birch tree outside the chapel. I watched the sunset from the chapel steps and from the hillsides around the monastery. At night I tried to go to bed before it was fully dark outside, so that I could arise for Vigils at 4:45AM.
When I left the monastery, I was a different person from the one who had arrived only four days earlier. Where I had arrived tense and tired, I now left in a calm frame of mind and at peace with myself.
My experience at the monastery powerfully reminded me that silence and solitude are necessary for spiritual growth and development. I know now that I must try to find time each day to be quiet and still. When our soul rests in silence, we make ourselves open to hear the voice of God.