(If you missed Part One, and you don’t know why I’m spending my 40th birthday in a monastery, you can read about it here.)
I don’t sleep well that night, of course. I rarely do; and here, the floors are creaky and the bed is small. I futz around, moving furniture, rearranging pillows, nearly knocking the crucifix from the wall once, when I flail around with extra blankets.
The monks gather in the chapel for Vigils at 4:15 a.m. I do not join them.
At 7:00 I put my contacts in and smooth my hair into a ponytail (I’ve forgotten my hairbrush), then walk through a light rain, in the dark, to the dining room. Evidently I have misjudged the length of the Lauds service – the only person around is the monk who has laid out our breakfast. He stands in his medieval robe in front of the microwave, re-heating his coffee. Since the placard on the wall has been flipped to “Silent Meal,” I don’t greet him, and he doesn’t look at me.
I sit in the dim room and eat granola and drink coffee. It is so quiet I can hear little electrical sounds: the hum of lights, the refrigerator. I am understanding the benefit of Silent Meals, where you do nothing but focus on the act of eating. I am acutely aware of every bite going into my mouth, and can taste every flavor better.
This is all that happens in this place, I realize. You simply accept nourishment: simple food for the body, simple worship and meditation for the soul. Every part of you just breathes.
It is profoundly soothing, this just-breathing.
I still want to communicate with the monks, though. My best shot seems to be the reception area/bookstore; it’s the only place where they rotate in and out. I resolve to be vigilant, to seize the opportunity if I see a monk alone.
To stalk, if it comes down to that.
After breakfast I return to my room and read for a long, lovely time. After years of hopping up every minute or two to attend to one need or another, it is a great luxury to lie down and read whole chapters at a time. The silence is delicious. I have already decided to return here, for periodic day trips, to practice writing.
I am quite sure that it would be impossible to write craven nonsense, in this place.
By the time late morning rolls around, the rain has stopped and although the ground is wet, I want to go for a walk in the woods. I have forgotten to bring boots, so my one pair of running shoes will have to do. I fill my pockets with a protein bar, water bottle, cell phone, and gloves, and head back to the reception desk.
I make a pit stop in the adjacent bookstore, which turns out to be delightfully well-stocked. All of the titles are tied to spirituality, of course, but what a selection! The irreverent Anne Lamott sits next to the stately Thomas Merton. Henri Nouwen is heavily represented, but there are also companion guides to Harry Potter; gospels according to The Beatles and U2; books on sexuality; children’s books; and travel memoirs. The titles are cleverly arranged, and many of them have notecards sticking out of the top, with hand-written endorsements: “Sister Joan loves this one” or “A wonderful devotional.”
I find at least five books that I really want to buy, but I resist. I have at least thirty un-read books at home.
A pair of non-monk volunteers are manning the reception desk now. They hand me a map, which depicts a wild web of trails branching off from the cottage area. Most of the trails lead (eventually) to a shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I ask if there is any way I can get lost out there. Both volunteers shake their heads. “Oh, no. The trails are really well marked.”
When I reach the first crossroads, I consult the map, looking back and forth from it to the trail signs. The names don’t seem to match up. The trails are color-coded, but I don’t see the one that the woman suggested I take (which should be red) listed anywhere. I stand and talk to myself, out loud, for several minutes, turning the map this way and that. Finally I set off, to the right.
Within minutes I am enveloped in the woods; wet leaves underfoot, mist hanging in the trees. It feels like I am in Middle Earth. This is fantastic. Although I still can’t tell which trail I’m on.
After a while, I come upon a large clearing. On the far side is some sort of contraption, a bunch of things hanging from a wire grid, including two man-shaped cutouts. I can’t tell what it is, and am curious. My shoes will just have to get wet.
After I pick my way across the field, I understand what I’m looking at. This structure was built to honor the memory of a passion most of these men left behind a lifetime ago. It is a shrine to baseball.
The human cutouts are wearing t-shirts printed with baseball slogans. Baseball hats are hung from the metal frame, bearing a variety of team initials. A wooden cross is stuck into the ground, with a NY Yankees batting helmet hanging from the top of it, like a tribute to a fallen soldier. A sheaf of ancient baseball cards, encased in plexiglass, is nailed to a tree trunk. A handwritten sign above the whole thing says “Field of Dreams.”
I stand for a moment, paying my respects. I am glad the monks have been allowed this display; glad they were not told they must simply forget about everything they’ve given up.
On the other side of the clearing, there is a picnic area, under a grove of trees. Three brightly-colored but limp balloons hang from one corner of a covered shelter. Do the monks celebrate birthdays? I imagine them out here on lovely Spring and Summer afternoons, eating together. I wonder if they throw a ball around.
A trail veers from this area, up a hill and out of sight. I consult my map with growing pessimism. Sure enough, I locate a “field of dreams” and a “Monks picnic area” on the map – but they are supposed to be near the parking lots, far south of where I think I am.
I trudge along until the path intersects with another trail. There are colored arrows pointing vaguely in several directions. I have no earthly idea which way to go. I could retrace my steps, but that seems like such a waste. No matter which way I turn the paper in my hands, nothing seems to line up. The colors on the arrows belong to paths that should be on the other side of the forest from me.
This is the crappiest map I’ve ever seen in my life.
I talk about this at length, out loud. Eventually, I think, someone is bound to hear the sound of my voice. I feel remarkably cheerful for being lost in a considerable-sized forest. The serenity of the Abbey seems to have knocked my usual cautiousness right out of me.
Maybe this is a planned test for retreatants, some sort of spiritual concept I’m not grasping, about being lost and found, or about being serene in the midst of trouble.
Or maybe I’m being punk’d by the monks.
I head left, because that seems to be the general direction from whence I came. I reach a couple more forks in the road, run across a couple more path colors that don’t make sense. I eat my protein bar.
Finally, after another 20 or 30 minutes of hiking, I intersect with the large trail I started out on. Before long, I see the guest cottages, and the duck pond. Despite the best efforts of the map-maker, I’ve made it back.
At 12:30 I join everyone in the chapel for Day Hour, then a group of us descends upon the dining room. Lunch is a thick egg casserole and Spanish rice, with more greens and fresh bread. It is a bit strange to eat at a table crowded with silent people, only because I am not sure where to look. We mostly watch our plates, listening to the silverware scrape on the china.
After lunch I fill a paper cup with hot tea, then poke my head into the reception area; and lo and behold, a monk now sits at the front desk. He is in street clothes, but I recognize him from this morning – he’s the one who prepared our breakfast. I rush back to my room to grab a notebook and pen. I want to stop in at the bookstore to jot down a few of the book titles that interested me.
And by God, I am going to talk to that monk.
Tomorrow, the conclusion: What the Monk Said