At Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, my host for most of the week-long retreats I enjoyed there was Father Stephen.

He held forth at the guesthouse, a genial, gentle giant of a man. (I probably remember him as taller than he was, but he did have a sturdy build.) His jokes were corny, his zest for monastic life shone in his smiling eyes, and he loved his flower garden. The only time I saw him angry was the umpteenth time cows strayed from the pasture and trampled his flower beds. He sputtered with frustration. But most of the time, he was the grand interpreter of Trappist ways, father confessor of the house, server of the meals, and teller of tales.

I know he enjoyed having a Presbyterian in the house. Most of the others making their retreats were Roman Catholics, of course. Some clergy, some laity. On my first retreats at the Abbey, there was an elderly man named Andy whose job back in Philadelphia was delivering bundles of newspapers from the back of a truck. His retreats extended for several weeks at a time, and in return he helped Father Stephen with chores, something ordinarily not required of guests. Andy once asked me if I prayed the rosary. When I said that Presbyterians didn’t have rosaries, he sat down with me, beads in hand, and explained the prayers.

I also recall a priest on retreat asking me about my views on birth control. He had no qualms about telling me in a friendly way how wrong I was. There were often Catholic seminarians on retreat, and on separate occasions two of them, on discovering the Presbyterian minister in their midst, felt it necessary to justify to me (more probably to themselves) why celibacy was not a problem for them.  I also remember a young Hispanic college student named Marcos who told me of his call to priesthood, who loved discussing theology with me, and with whom I corresponded for a few months after the retreat. His stationery was hand-drawn artwork, his pencil portraying scenes of life in the American Southwest. (I think that Marcos was the one who always wanted to break the silence of retreat by retreating to my car radio to listen to music. I allowed him to do that one time, but the gesture seemed to violate my own monastic discipline — that of turning off the car radio as I exited the interstate onto the country roads of Clarke County toward the monastery farm.)

Father Stephen’s role was to create a sense of community among us, no matter our ages, our theologies, our varied backgrounds. While we were expected to maintain silence on our retreats, we were encouraged to speak during meals, and Father Stephen used that time to let his extroversion shine. He told us of Cistercian history, views of Vatican pronouncements, and humorous stories laced with painful puns. (He also loved telling of the summer Sunday evening when there was an unexpected knock at the guesthouse door. Standing there before the cloistered priest was a bikini-clad group of rain-drenched Girl Scouts whose canoe trip on the Shenandoah had been swamped by a dangerous storm. Seeking shelter, they had hiked up the river bank, through a farm field, and to the only house they could see through the rain. Father Stephen said he had no choice but to welcome the girls in, find them towels, and let them enjoy the warmth of the fire place. “After all,” he said with a broad grin, “hospitality is the Trappist’s middle name!”)

The table was the center of our guesthouse community. While the house did have a kitchen, the meals were prepared at the main monastery kitchen and transported down the mile long drive by Father Stephen. The Trappist diet was vegetarian, except for special feast days. But we guests had no such restrictions. In the first years I was there, we benefited greatly from the vocation of some of the monks: raising beef cattle. When that part of the farm business eventually turned unprofitable, the monks rented out the fields instead, and our guesthouse table included more chicken. While Father Stephen stabbed at his salad, he encouraged us guests to tell our stories and to comment on church and world. After the meals, everyone around the table would clear the dishes and choose the community task of washing dishes or drying them. (There was a dishwasher among the kitchen appliances, but Father Stephen knew there wasn’t much fellowship engendered by simply loading the thing up and pushing a button.)

We guests were not required to follow any particular schedule, except for dinner and supper times. Breakfast was on our own, and all the “offices” (services of prayer, chant, and readings) were optional. In all the years I retreated there, I was moved to attend “Vigils” only once. It was at 3:30 a.m. Once was enough. Lauds was at 7:15 a.m., and low Mass at 7:45. I usually was up by then. For the most part, I did attend all the other daily offices, and spent a lot of time sitting quietly in the chapel practicing what the Trappists call intuitive prayer. I also sat on a stone wall along the chapel walk and read. And, using headphones, I sat in the guesthouse yard and listened to tapes of Thomas Merton. And I walked. I walked miles, through meadows and down country roads. If Thursday came and I couldn’t think what day it was, I knew I was having a successful retreat.

My soul was restored. Visit after visit.

But then came the memo. It was on the chapel bulletin board. And it brought hurtful news.

[That account is next.]

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