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Get Thee To a Monastery

9 minute read
Tamala M. Edwards/Genesee Abbey

For most of her life, Pam Nolan, 45, found herself in a cold war with God. Her parents, disaffected Roman Catholics, left the church when she was 18, taking her with them. But more than a decade later, after the birth of her daughter, she made a slow creep back to religion, first as a Unitarian and then as a Methodist. But still her soul kept its distance. Then last year her church went on a retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee, a monastery in upstate New York. During a discussion, when a monk (and a recovering alcoholic), repeatedly said, “God loves you,” Nolan started sobbing. In a message she later posted on the Internet, she explained that “the God I met as a child was judgmental, condemning, did horrible things to his own son.” But somehow here, in the most Catholic of places, she says, the wall fell.

Nolan still doesn’t attend church regularly, and she considers herself spiritual, not religious. The only ritual she has decided to keep is coming back to the abbey every June for her birthday. A three-day weekend, it is her only vacation away from her job as a computer specialist in Edinboro, Pa., and this is what she gets: a hard single bed with threadbare sheets in a sweltering, non-air-conditioned room; a warped desk and chair that would be rejected by Motel 6; and simple meals like baked beans or tuna casserole. And for the whole weekend she is supposed to be silent. But as she walks across the abbey’s 2,200 acres, past the wheat fields and down by the river, or sits near a statue of the Madonna, watching white-tailed deer dance by and listening to bullfrogs, Nolan says she finds peace. “It’s mine, just my time,” she says. “I can sit, think and pray.”

Nolan is on a path increasingly well traveled. Across the country, Catholic monasteries and convents, usually regarded as strange or the stuff of medieval myth, are besieged with would-be retreatants and booked months in advance. “Please don’t mention our name,” begs an abbot at a Vermont monastery where the wait for one of its 29 spaces stretches a year. “We’re overwhelmed.” There is even a popular guidebook, Sanctuaries, that helps readers choose a great monastery or convent. While organized church retreats are not new, what is startling is that much of the increase is in individual retreatants, including many Protestants and even non-Christians, who say the Catholic monasteries, with their ancient chants, beautiful grounds and prices at a pittance, offer the most refreshing vacation going. Now, say the monks, if only they could keep the growing horde down to the true spiritual seekers, not just vacationers at Club God.

Why the interest in these sanctuaries, amid a pop culture in which nuns and monks are usually depicted as demanding and dry or who, in their softest incarnations, wonder, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”? Theories vary, but one reason is poet and novelist Kathleen Norris. She first hit the best-seller list in 1993 with Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, a meditation on the farm crisis, religion and the wind-whipped Plains state of North Dakota. That was followed in 1996 by The Cloister Walk, a log of the nine months that Norris, a married Protestant, spent living among the monks at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. Readers went wild, keeping it on the best-seller list for 27 weeks.

Bespectacled and speaking in a Fargo-esque accent, Norris is an unlikely docent. Raised in the United Church of Christ in Hawaii, she became alienated from the church, turning to poetry instead of what she felt was politicized, overintellectualized sermons. She married David, also a writer, and in the early 1980s they moved from New York City to Lemmon, N.D., to take over a family farm. She then began dabbling in Presbyterian churchgoing before gradually returning to active belief. A Lutheran retreat in 1983 led her to nearby Assumption Abbey. “I had no idea what an abbey was,” says Norris. “I thought it was some medieval thing.” Yet the simplicity of the monks’ services, which consist only of chanted Psalms and Scripture readings, captivated her poet’s heart. It took her a year to work up the courage to go back, but by 1986 Norris was an oblate, an associate of a monastery who lives out in the world but follows the services and some of the ways of monastic life.

She remained firmly Presbyterian even as she took on her Catholic oblate duties, a juxtaposition she likens to “interplanetary travel.” More difficult was explaining her new passion to her friends, most of whom were writers with tense relationships with their Christian pasts. “Oh, my God, did you have a lobotomy?” asked a friend astonished at Norris’ new piety. Her husband David, a lapsed Catholic, was alarmed that his wife was hanging around monasteries. “I think it frightened him at first,” says Norris. “It reminded him of his childhood and when he would have to make up excuses why he did not go to Mass. But when he realized I was not becoming a Catholic and specifically was not trying to draw him into anything, then he relaxed quite a bit.” David rarely attends worship but now counts a number of Benedictine monks as friends.

Norris wrote Cloister Walk to explain her conversion to herself and her friends. The book is a thing of simple, stunning beauty. Without preaching and in prose like poetry, she manages to demystify the rituals, wrapping them around the reader like an old chenille blanket, restoring an alluring sense of magic to issues such as (gulp!) celibacy. Says Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly: “She writes with a poet’s sensibility, but there’s also a groundedness and practicality to her approach.” Norris continues to explain herself onto best-seller lists, this year with Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, a book of essays on such thorny concepts as faith and the Antichrist.

The influx at the monasteries includes a small contingent of Gen Xers, but the majority are their baby-boomer parents, taking stock of the past as they swing around to look into the fog of the future. “You peel off life’s accessories and come in nakedness before the Lord, asking ‘What do I do with my life?'” says Father Tom Gedeon of Notre Dame’s Retreat International association, explaining the appeal of retreats. But isn’t this just the latest fad of the Me generation? Twig Branch, 42, a Presbyterian insurance agent based in Charlotte, N.C., who first attended the Abbey of the Genesee last November, disagrees. “First of all,” he says, “unlike est, they let you go to the bathroom. This has an authenticity to it. It was not manufactured 15 weeks ago for your consumption today. Three weeks later, it was still profound.” In fact, say the sanctuaries, participants want less of the progressive offerings like Jungian theory, preferring guidance in basics such as prayer.

The monasteries have demolished the stereotypical image of stern abbots and mothers superior. As has always been the case with visitors to monasteries and abbeys, there are no schedules, no expectations. No one is asked his or her religion. There are no sermons or bulletins choked with announcements and committee assignments, just the gentle rocking of the chants. Participating at services is not required, and if those on retreat spend their entire time sequestered behind closed doors or meditatively walking the often expansive acreage, the monks bless that too. “People come here and think they’re supposed to sit in chapel all the time,” says Brother John Thomas, a monk at Holy Cross Monastery in New York’s Hudson River valley. “You’re trying too hard; that’s spiritual constipation. God is bigger than that.” For people who remember religion as based on threats or guilt, the freedom can lead to a detente with organized religion. “They see this as a halfway house,” explains Sister Madeleine Mary of New York City’s Community of the Holy Spirit.

Retreats have a particular rhythm. Visitors who choose to follow the bells chiming out the call to offices, or services, start with Lauds at 2:25 in the morning and end with Compline at 7 in the evening. Many say night and day lose their meaning as they enter monkish time. “I come screaming in off the runway,” says Joyce Bock, a Santa Barbara, Calif., marriage counselor. “This cools my jets.” Most monasteries either ask for complete quiet or at least have silent hours. The idea is that in silence one can’t hide from one’s problems, or from God. “There’s always someone who leaves,” says Jack Pannell, a press aide to Georgia Congressman John Lewis and a five-year retreatant. Barbara Carr is a school administrator who first went to a monastery two years ago, after her husband of 20 years left her and she developed breast cancer. Retreat for her was a crucial time for praying, crying and writing. Others find piety sometimes takes a backseat to curiosity (“I look at the monks and think, ‘I can’t believe you’re not having sex,'” says Nolan) or humor (“We started calling it the show–‘You going to the 6 o’clock show?'” says Branch of the offices. “It was a little ooky-spooky”).

Branch went to all the offices, saying they gave him “ballast and steerage.” It’s a routine he says he would follow if he went back. But not everyone begging for reservations at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky (wait: one year), or New Camaldoli Hermitage, California (wait: six months, only because they refuse to book any further), is so sincere. The problem is not an entirely new one. The earliest monasteries were founded in the 4th century in the Egyptian desert. As Christianity became legalized and then haute, the Desert Fathers and Mothers found themselves overrun by hipsters from Alexandria and Rome. Father Robert of New Camaldoli, where the spare rooms offer a heart-stopping view of the Pacific–for $30 a night–can relate. A hard call? “Sometimes,” he sighs, “the first question is about the pool or the tennis courts.”

–With reporting by Richard N. Ostling/New York

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