I’ve been reflecting on my annual visits to the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, a Trappist monastery located on the Shenandoah River. Beginning in 1969, I made several week-long retreats there, almost always the single Protestant among the six or seven other retreatants welcomed to the guest house.

I’ve run across the letter from the guest master who first welcomed me there. The letter included the following summary of what one might expect during a retreat at Holy Cross:

Holy Cross Abbey Guest House offers an opportunity to share in the monastic life of prayer and reading in an atmosphere of silence and solitude. There are no formal retreats or conferences, although tapes are available. The individual schedule is left to the mature discretion of the serious guest seeking opportunity, in a recollected milieu, to discern more clearly God’s will in the decisions of life; more specifically, for the deepening  of the life of faith through prayer and meditation. Guests are invited to join the monks at the Divine Office and the Community High Mass at which retreatants may receive under both species and at which priests [that is, priests there on retreat] may concelebrate. You are, then, asked to keep in mind the purpose of retreat and respect the atmosphere of prayer and silence.

Ordinarily, one could stay over a weekend, or, as was my custom, for a Monday through Friday period. Because the demand was great, there were few exceptions made,  though I know a few men were allowed special exemptions from that policy. It seems strange to use the term “men,” since we live (thankfully) in a more inclusive age. But back then, the old tenet farmhouse that served as the guest house was a mile beyond the fence that held a sign announcing that women were not allowed into the cloistered area of the property.

The cost of the retreat? A donation to the monastery, as one was able to give. [Here seems a good place to note that because of the importance of Trappist hospitality and because the guest house was no longer an adequate space for the numbers of retreatants who desired visits, and because the Abbey wanted to open its resources occasionally to women as well as men, the Abbey constructed a new, much larger guest facility, outside the cloistered area. I was leading conferences and youth retreats during those years and contributed my small honoraria to the project. Once the building was finished, I never returned to spend the night there! I just feared that losing the ambiance of that original old guest house would deter my having a successful retreat. I would miss the single dining room table, the dish-washing rituals, and the intimacy of the living room, the tiny bedrooms, and the front porch.]

My first retreats there took place in mid-springtime…until I found that I had a serious allergy to some spring pollen that blew through the surrounding pasture lands. When I discovered that allergy symptoms were getting in the way of my prayer and meditation, I began making my retreats in mid-summer and had a more pleasant stay. Making time for the retreats always presented some difficulty. I was in radio ministry and had to “work ahead” to have enough programming to cover my week away. So I was usually exhausted by the time I arrived at Holy Cross. I would sleep a lot during my first couple of days there. Once caught up on sleep, I began to catch up on rebuilding my spiritual life. I spent many hours reading, praying, walking, and attending prayer services in the chapel.

I have three “souvenirs” of those retreats: photos, tape recordings of services, and a video interview with Father Stephen, the Guestmaster. The tapes of the monks chanting bring back very special memories. The monks sang psalms and hymns with one unison voice. Because they sang several times a day, and the same music was repeated day by day, their voices were indeed one voice, and I especially love the song of Mary they sang at Compline, just before retiring to their beds at sunset. For a long time, the music leaders, singing a capella, were Father Stephen and Father Andrew (who was as short and slight as Stephen was tall and sturdy!).

As the lone Protestant on retreat, I faced a theological dilemma when it came to daily Mass. While Catholics and Protestants both use the term “Holy Communion,” we differ greatly on the theological meaning of the sacrament. In my Presbyterian church, the Communion table is open to all baptized Christians. That is not the case at the Catholic altar. When our seminary class made its first visit to the Abbey, my memory is that the guest master advised us to come to the mass, but that asking to receive the bread and cup were to be according to our own consciences. When I made my personal retreats there, the new (and then long-time) guest master Father Stephen had comforting counsel: as a priest, he said, he would turn no one away if their hands were outstretched to receive the bread. “If you ask, you shall receive,” he told me with an assuring smile.

High Mass was on the schedule for 4:30 a.m. I was in bed. Low Mass was at 7:45 a.m. I usually didn’t make that one either. But by Friday, after we retreatants had built a little community of our own in that guest house, after our many meals together, deep conversations through the week, and shared experiences of worship and prayer — I wanted to be part of the family that gathered one last time that week for Mass. So I would go, wonder at the singing, be stirred by the readings, and finally stand in the line of retreatants and neighbors of the monastery who would ask for the sacrament. Hands open, I would receive the wafer, and would feel truly a part of the family of faith. (Truth be told, unless the presiding priest was Father Stephen, no one but my fellow guest house residents would know that I wasn’t Catholic. So, I asked, and I received.)

And then came the memo. On a subsequent retreat, I checked the chapel bulletin board to be sure the daily schedule was the same as I had remembered it from the previous year. There was a letter posted near the monastic schedule, on stationary that bore the mark of the Archdiocese of Washington (D.C.). The bishop was issuing a cautionary note, a prohibition really, barring non-Catholics from the sacrament of Communion. When I spoke to Father Stephen about it, we both knew that nothing had changed ecclesiastically or theologically; it was just that the Abbey had found itself within the bounds of a different diocese, and under a very conservative bishop. Father Stephen said he still wouldn’t turn away anyone who reached out for the bread, the body of Christ broken for everyone. His attitude wasn’t defiant, but deeply pastoral, and loving, and Christ-like.

So, when that week came to a close, I went again to the Friday morning Mass. But I sat in the back pew. And when the invitation came to come forward to receive the Body of Christ, I remained in my seat. One of the other guests nodded to me, as if to say, “Are you coming?” I shook my head. No. I had decided to see what it was like to feel excluded. And not merely to feel excluded, but to be excluded.  It hurt. I watched as the others received the sacrament and returned to their pews to pray. I watched as the presiding priest pronounced the blessing, and as the visitors left the chapel. Eventually, one by one, the monks and priests of the monastery left their private prayers in the chapel and went on to their chores, their reading, their silence.

And finally, I left the chapel, and walked the dirt road back to the guest house. I have rarely felt so alone. I did have tears; I remember that. I call them righteous tears. I had been wronged, separated out from the flock, kept from the table, by church law and personal conscience. I had wanted to know what it felt like. And now I knew what it was like when communion was broken.

And I would commit myself from that day forward to keep anyone from feeling, or being left out, excluded, forgotten, or judged to be outside the wideness of God’s mercy, the depth of God’s grace, the reach of Jesus’ love.

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