This weekend we have taken the train out of Grand Central and come upstate to Poughkeepsie, to Holy Cross monastery, the home of a group of Episcopalian Benedictine monks. My view from the bedroom ranges out over a snow-carpeted meadow, sloping downwards to a line of silhouetted bare-black-branched trees in the midst of which one remarkable, conspicuous tree graces the scene with its glorious golden stems, as if it had inbibed last summer’s sun in order to shine on in its stead through the long winter season. And then the undomesticated, broad, cold Hudson river, flat and calm and peaceful in its width and length ahead of me, which we followed all the way up from New York City yesterday morning as we rode the two hours to get here. On the other side, more sparse and striking trees with their frozen toes underneath the white blanket that was laid dramatically earlier in the week.
The occasional locomotive whistle blows (“there she goes!”) in another romantic moment for me, the outsider to this country, whose stereotypes about the land, created in childhood stories, songs, films and fantasies are charmingly reinforced in these occasional sense-stimulating moments. The sky is tranquil gentle silverbluegreysoftwhite chill; now dulling towards the dusk.
This place was a recommendation of friends, and is more than I had imagined. I have been hosted in many monastic communities, groups of many different flavours and leanings; this one is a warming mixture of some of the aspects of monastic life that move me the most.
The external environment is deeply still, apart from that occasional train’s hoot, which feels to me like a friendly greeting rather than a harrassing shriek; the internal feeling pleasantly tranquil, with the many communal spaces comfortably occupied by guests reading, resting, crocheting, jigsaw puzzling and who-knows-what?ing. For deeper, saturating silence, the church and cellar chapels are at the end of the house, simply furnished, gently lit, with just the right number of images and icons to welcome your gaze or accompany your stillness.
We pray together 5 times a day, the monks in white gowns and with Gregorian chanting to create the bare enough in which the bible is read and Jesus is worshipped. That I love. I love that there is a liturgical structure that is old old old, repeated across the worshipping world non-stop for hundreds of years, sung and read, joy-ed and wept, immersing, transporting; I love that the scriptures are read indiscriminately and persistently, especially the psalms, with the ‘nice’ ones that are soooo familiar, hand in real-as-life-itself hand with the sad-bad-mad ones that we would often want to do without. I love that it is not perfect – the voices are practised and the sound mellow, but it is somewhat quavery at times; nevertheless it is loved and honoured and shared so freely with us all. I love that the Eucharist is simple and deliberate and ours, together, as we gather to welcome and cherish the presence of God among us.
At the mealtimes – great food, imaginative and tasty – we sit around large round tables, Brothers and guests together, the 12 or so of ‘them’ and the any-number-between-10-and-40 of ‘us’ (not that Luca and I are here as part of a group); breakfast is eaten in silence, at lunchtime there is a reading by one of the Brothers for about half of the mealtime, currently The Geometry of Love by Margaret Visser; at supper free conversation. (Choose your table well, I say: among the group of women I sat with yesterday, who were here on a led retreat, we had open, personal, warming conversations. Today I was among 6 men (they all flocked to my table – yes, it’s true: I sat down to one other guest who I thought might chat, and the others, among them 4 monks, joined us in a flash) and I was practically ignored; the conversation was in a male sort of way (sorry lads) about Order hierarchy and monastery buildings. Not a problem. Just a chance to watch and wonder! Perhaps Luca chose well today when he decided to eat his meals in the small ’silent’ side room).
A bookshop opens in the afternoons, and for those using the communal spaces off the adjacent corridors the quietest strains of ethereal music invite a visit: I think I could live among the shelves of that place, for about a year, if you would bring me meals and clean socks occasionally. My list of ‘want to read’ has grown considerably; let me give you a couple of examples: I hear a seed growing, Edwina Gateley; Tears of an Innocent God, Elias Marechal; Meister Eckhardt’s Book of the Heart, Jon N Sweeney and Mark S Burrows.
Luca and I have given each other the space to do what each wants, privately, and for me that is the luxurious pleasure of reading, thinking, writing; drawing together threads of thought or of feeling that have been untended, unattended to, over the last few months, relegating some tired issues into the ‘dealt with’ compartment, and revisiting some painful ones with a gentle probe. A brief personal talk with one of the Brothers. A walk through the wet white underfoot to the grey slate shingle shore of the river. This is the perfect place for all of that.
They call this the ‘Apple Valley’ – isn’t that pleasing for my blog?
Hope your weekend is as lovely, whatever it is that you need.