Last week I had the privilege of giving the annual retreat for the Benedictine monks of Saint Andrew Abbey in Cleveland. I use the term “privilege” deliberately, in part because I usually get far more out of a retreat that I am preaching than do the people who have to sit there and listen to me drone on and on. At least they get to nod off when things get tedious.
For my part, I’m stuck listening to myself. After all, it wouldn’t look good if I got lost in the middle of one of my own sentences. And lest one naively assume that all monastic conferences are electric, I have news for them. They’re not; and I’ll always recall the abbot (not mine) who once fell asleep during his own conference. We never did hear the end of his sentence, which I thought was a cheap stunt just to pique our curiosity and leave us panting for more. After all these years I still wonder how he intended to finish.
In my last post I wrote about the temptations that all monks face during retreats. Many monks will succomb and slip off to the office to do some chores; while those who don’t do that end up spending a lot of time wishing they had. The monks of Saint Andrew have addressed the first temptation in a rather novel way by packing everyone up and carting them off to a retreat house in Akron, some forty miles away from the abbey. Technically they are still home, I suppose, since they sponsor the retreat center, and one monk is in residence there. But whether it’s theirs to call their own or not matters little. It’s just too far away from home to allow monks easy access to the office. And for monks who don’t drive or have none of the keys to the vans that brought them there, getting home is an impossibility. So there they were in the country, stuck for all those days with no alternative but to listen to me speak to them twice a day.
Long ago I recognized the wisdom of setting modest goals for a retreat in a monastery. I realized it was too much to change individual lives, and it was completely unreasonable to expect me or anyone else to resurrect a house about to go over the cliff. So I settled on a far less ambitious aspiration: don’t leave the monks worse off than they were when I got there. That way I don’t raise any unrealistic hopes in anybody.
This goal I derived from the experience that a friend in another monastery once related to me. His community faced many difficulties, due largely to a failure to communicate on the part of several of the monks. And so an outside facilitator came in and spent the entire day trying to get them to open up to one another. By the end of the day he had succeeded brilliantly, and conversation had erupted like a volcano. Unfortunately, there was only enough time to open up the can of worms, and he left with the lid still off. In retrospect their retreat turned out rather badly, because the facilitator had only succeeded in unleashing a flood of words. On the other hand, he had unintentionally affirmed Saint Benedict’s admonition about the dangers of just that sort of flood. For me that was a lesson too good not to heed.
My second goal is not to get personal with my conferences. The fact is, a retreat director stumbles unwittingly into the lives of other people, and a focus on particular sins and faults runs the risk of riling people up. It’s easy enough for some monk who is guilty of a particular sin to conclude that the abbot has clued me in and asked me to address the question in front of the entire community. To avoid that mess, I always begin a retreat with the same disclaimer that TV crime shows being with: “Any similarities to actual people or events are purely coincidental.” Lately, just to be on the absolutely safe side, I tell people that I’m only going to talk about my own lurid sins, and not theirs. Naturally ears perk up, and I can usually engage audience interest for as much as six or seven minutes. It works until they finally begin to realize that my sins are scarcely more exciting than theirs.
So if my goals are few and modest, where’s the “privileged” part in all of this? Well, in my limited experience I’ve discovered one fundamental truth. Monasteries are not all alike, nor are they monocultures in which all the monks conform to a particular mold. The personalities one encounters are unique, and the gifts and talents are varied.
Further, the Holy Spirit animates communities in very different ways, and it’s a marvel to discover how creative and imaginative God can be in the lives of the monks. Ironically, the monks usually don’t see this in themselves, and they assume they are pretty ordinary people. They aren’t, and the monks of Saint Andrew did not disappoint. And so it was a gift to see the hand of God at work in their midst, if only for a few days.
+From June 8th through the 12th I gave the annual retreat to the monks of Saint Andrew Abbey in Cleveland, OH. On the 8th I presided at the community Mass, and you can access the sermon that I preached on that occasion: Blessed are the Risk-Takers.
+On June 13th I participated in the ordination to the permanent diaconate of Saint John’s University alumnus David Flynn, which took place in the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Fairfield, CT. On Sunday the 14th I presided and preached at the first Mass in which Deacon David ministered as deacon. That took place in the parish to which he has been assigned, Saint Jude, in Monroe, CT. For the text of my sermon see May the Lord Finish the Good Work He Has Begun in Us.
+The pictures in today’s post come from the monastic garden at Saint John’s, save for the photo of Deacon David Flynn, in the center. To the right is Msgr. Dariusz Zielonka, the pastor of Saint Jude in Monroe, CT. By coincidence Msgr. Zielonka lived in the same residence as our Fr. Matthew when they were in graduate school at Catholic University of America.
+This post is the 201st of this blog, and in August I will have written this for four years. I can scarcely believe it’s continued for this long without running out of things to say. I thank readers for their continued interest, as well as for their occasional ideas and questions. Thank you!