Holy Cross Abbey is a Trappist Monastery in Berryville, Virginia, along the banks of the Shenandoah River. It was there, over many years, that I found retreat, spiritual renewal, and respect for monastic disciplines of prayer, hospitality, and grace.

My first visit there was a “class trip,” arranged for our seminary class in Church Mission by Professor Ken Goodpasture. We were studying the ecumenical movement, and our field trip took us literally to the fields of a 1200 acre farm run by the Holy Cross monks. We were to stay only for a weekend. Father Paschal was the guestmaster, the official welcomer at the old tenet farmhouse that served as the guest residence for visitors. The main monastery buildings, housing the chapel, library, offices, and dormitory for the cloistered abbey monks and priests, were part of the Cool Spring Farm where a battle of the Civil War took place.

[While I write in the past tense about my visits there, the monastery is still there, and the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.]

I remember going to that first Holy Cross Abbey retreat burdened with some suspicion. It wasn’t that I thought these “Cistercians of the Strict Observance” were theologically suspect. But the year was 1969. The Sixties. The age of social activism. And I, and at least some of my classmates, considered cloistered monks to be unfaithful to the call to be “in the world, but not of the world.” They weren’t in the world at all, but escaping from it, and hiding under their cloaks from the issues of peace and justice that inspired us Protestants to change the world! But I changed my mind that weekend. I repented. And I made annual visits to Holy Cross Abbey’s guest house for some fifteen years after that.

For one thing, I was wrong about the Trappists. They weren’t escaping anything. They were engaging the world through their prayers. Of all the “content” that came to us that weekend — the centuries-old monastic schedule, the conversations with the abbot, and the discussions that centered on ecumenical relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants — one comment made by the guestmaster has remained with me for 4o years. He spoke of the life of prayer that is the vocation of the monks. And he reminded us that if prayer has any efficacy at all, isn’t it a good thing that some people, Trappist monks, for example, are praying always…to make up for those of us who pray so little.

Yes, I thought; that is a good thing. Not that one’s prayer life is segregated from the rest of one’s Christian journey. It can be argued that a guitar player prays through her strumming, and that a wood worker can pray with every scrub of the sandpaper, and that a baker might pray by kneading dough. Indeed, that’s part of the prayer life of the Trappists at Holy Cross. When I first visited there, thirty or so monks and priests worked the farm  and raised beef cattle, while also running a bakery that produced Monastery Bread and fruitcakes, sold throughout the Washington, D.C. area. While many of their prayers were sung and spoken during the “offices” in the modest chapel, most of their prayer occurred even as they worked. Interior prayer, they called it. Prayers of the heart, not the vocal cords.

When we took the tour of the monastery bakery, we were surprised to see how automated the process was (even back then). A baker-monk explained, “We don’t want the chemistry and machinery of baking bread to take our thoughts from God. The more the process takes care of itself (via automation), the more we can continue to pray through the day.”  The same was true of the farmer-monk on his tractor: as he plowed or mowed he prayed. As the later guestmaster Father Stephen worked his flower garden, he prayed.

As Lent begins, I wonder if I can recover the sense of awe I found at the monastery that first weekend, a wonder at the ease of silent, meditative prayer that is not limited to pews and prayer books and the preacher’s prompts. I nurtured that inner prayer life a few weeks after that initial visit by spending a whole week in retreat at Holy Cross just after my ordination to ministry. And I kept that annual discipline for many years to come.

In my next entry, I’ll write more about the peace I experienced in that holy setting, and one episode of “unpeace” that taught me a lesson for life.