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Misconceptions and reality

I originally did not want to go to the 3-day silent retreat that my Lectio Divina prayer group signed up for with the Benedictine monks in their monastery, St. Andrews Abbey, in Valyermo, California, about 227 miles southwest of Las Vegas. The retreats during my college days at the premier Catholic university in the Philippines were daylong, drawn-out affairs that I thought at that time were unexciting.

I thought “monastery” would be a medieval castle where unobtrusive monks covered from head to toe in their habit keep to themselves, chanting unintelligible prayers. I thought that we would be served soup and bread for our meals, and that our rooms would be austere—and there might be ghosts! Also, the words “silence” and “quiet” for three days were especially daunting to me.

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So I suffered carrying my heavy luggage filled with a few clothes, plus canned goods, granola bars and cookies, just in case I get hungry in between the austere meals we would be served. Was I ever wrong on all counts!

Valyermo, California, is at the foot of a mountain range. The monastery is in the middle of a desert and it is not a medieval castle but a shaded, campus-like compound with modern one-story buildings, fruit trees and green grass, and a simple chapel at the center. It is literally an oasis.

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The monks pray twice in the morning and twice in the evening and celebrate a daily Mass—all open to any visitor, so we joined them in these activities. I was afraid I might doze off during their chanting and praying, but—surprise—I didn’t, and instead I actively participated and looked forward to the next. I found their praying and chanting heavenly.

And the meals! (The monks cook the meals and clean up afterwards.) We arrived Friday at lunchtime. After the noon Mass, lunch was served in the simple yet aesthetically pleasing dining hall. After a short prayer and scripture reading, the monks served us lentil soup, and then we helped ourselves to a buffet of about three vegetarian main courses and more side dishes, juices, and desserts. They were delicious. Dinner was again made up of vegetarian dishes. Saturday and Sunday, meals were sumptuous meat dishes. The breakfasts were especially memorable. We could feel that the meals were happily prepared with love. We all felt we gained weight. I never even touched any of the food that I brought.

Our lectures were held at the lounge in an informal setting, not in a rigid classroom-like style, once in the morning and once in the evening, for only an hour each time. Our monk-lecturer was more than outstanding: He held our attention with his excellent presentation of Lectio Divina and related subject matters; he was eloquent, instructive, challenging and inspiring. Boring he certainly was not. He answered any question, whether or not related to the subject matter, in a compelling and motivating manner. We came away with more knowledge of the early Catholic Church and the evolution of our Catholic faith.

Our accommodations were hotel-like and adequate: two single beds in a room with its own bathroom, swamp cooler, a small desk, two crosses, one with a rosary, linens and bedding. There was a sliding glass door leading to a terrace outside where one could sit and gaze at the desert surroundings. Thankfully, no TV. Of course, the ubiquitous silence had to be observed there, too, which I welcomed.

Another misconception of mine was that the monks would be unobtrusive, quietly walking, keeping to themselves and not mingling with visitors. Again I was wrong. When we pulled into the driveway we saw two monks walking, and they actually waved at us. Their heads were uncovered, and they were smiling. We saw another monk talking with visitors, another sitting under a tree with a visitor. Hmm, I thought, this would be interesting. I would love to sit and be counseled by them. Unfortunately, I never got a chance. Oh, well, God willing, I thought, when I come back, I will have that chance.

The dreaded grand silence that is observed from 8:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., including breakfast, turned out to be a nonissue. Chatter seemed unnecessary in such a placid environment. I found myself relaxed and introspective. I read my Bible and prayer book with more concentration and understanding. I took solitary walks along the meditating pond full of koi, waddling ducks and turtles. I strolled around the hillside garden, underneath the canopy of trees. We prayed the stations of the cross on the hillside with an awesome view of the surrounding areas. I thought to myself: No wonder 20 or so monks live and work here. This is like heaven!

If I had let my misconceptions rule me, I would have missed the opportunity to experience such a relaxing and introspective weekend. It was really hard to leave, but alas, we had to return to our Las Vegas reality. I cannot wait to return to that tranquil and blessed place.

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Olive Quimba O’Donnell retired over a year ago from the US federal government and lives with her family in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is a political science graduate of the University of Santo Tomas.

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TAGS: California, introspection, Prayer, retreat, Valyermo
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