I'm back from spending four full days in solitude. Last Monday afternoon, I arrived at Holy Cross Abbey a few minutes after 4:00 in the afternoon. I consumed two chapters of one book before dinner at 6:15 and was in bed by 9:30. A pattern of days centered on rest, prayer, long walks, contemplation, and reading would continue until I left the monastery on Thursday evening. While the abbey is a mere 60 miles from my home, it might as well be a million miles from Washington. Each year, I savor my time there, and each year, I return home having learned many lessons from the monks and the lifestyle they live at Holy Cross.
In a nutshell, this is what I learned:
1) Mountains are one of God's greatest creative works. Time in the valley of the Shenandoah Mountains reminds me often why the Psalmist was led to write, "I lift my eyes to the Hills, from where comes my help. My help comes from the Lord."
2) There is something wonderful about being tucked in by your husband every night at home. At the abbey, there is something wonderful about offering the same prayers each night before being sprinkled with holy water. Each night, the monks offer the same prayer, "God, grant us a restful night and a peaceful death." They are then given a tangible sign of God's presence through the water, a gift of being able to remember their baptism each evening.
3) I read a total of seven books last week. I consumed some of them and pondered others. I read some of them at a snail's pace and devoured others like they were chocolate. After reading these books, I could not help but to start putting sermon ideas down on paper. I am convinced, once again, that reading a lot is one of the best gifts I can give my congregation. Pastors should always make time for reading. We cannot keep our preaching fresh and full and faithful without it.
4) There is something about the sound of monks chanting. I hope and pray that heaven is filled with the sound of Gregorian chant. In the meantime, this part of worship at the abbey is, by far, my favorite part. I'll return again and again just to hear them chant their prayers to God.
5) I can come up with a million excuses for why I do not exercise. But, at the abbey I walked at least an hour each day. The exercise gave me more energy than I have had in a long time. Why do I not spend at least an hour exercising at home?
6) The monks gather for prayer and worship at 3:30 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. We should all worship and pray this often.
7) The monks eat their larger meal at noon and then have a simple, often vegetarian meal at dinner. I like this pattern.
8) Solitude is nothing, and solitude is everything. All of us should take time to go away and rest for a while.
Thank you, God, for the gift of last week. I am so grateful and ready now to journey with you and these people through the waving of Palms on Palm Sunday, the remembrance of your last meal on Holy Thursday, the agony of the cross on Good Friday, and the celebration of the resurrection on Easter. Thank you, God, for rest, for renewal, and for a husband who not only allows but also encourages time away for these gifts. Amen.