I am “giving up” some time each day in Lent to write some words that express my gratitude for forty people whose lives have touched mine with peace, grace, and, yes, jazz. And love. As mentioned on Ash Wednesday, I have made no list in advance, and have not made any attempt at ranking these folks. All have contributed greatly to my faith journey.

Today I write about someone whose last name is beyond my spelling! I’ve spelled it phonetically. We who knew Father Stephen didn’t use his last name. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that many folk who valued his friendship and spiritual guidance never even knew that surname. What was important, all  important to Stephen, was that he was a Trappist monk, a member of the Benedictine Order, a Cistercian of the Strict Observance.

He was the Guestmaster for many years at the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. He was the prototype for what we call in the theological trade, a “gentle giant.” He was a tall, husky guy with a quiet countenance. Quite quiet. He was, after all, a Trappist who had sworn a vow of silence. Yet, as the host at the old monastery guest house, the better part of a mile down the road from the Abbey’s antebellum main house, part of his vocation allowed him to engage in conversation with those who were making retreats.

I was one of those in retreat for a week each year for many years while I lived and worked in Richmond. I first went to Holy Cross Abbey as a seminary student in my senior year, part of our course work in ecumenism. Father Stephen’s predecessor (a Father Pascal, I think) extended an invitation to any of us to make an individual retreat at any time, and shortly after graduation I took a week to live with the monks. It was a very special time for me, a kind of transition between graduation and ordination, and my first call.

By the time those retreats became a summer routine for me (maybe habit is a better word), Father Stephen had been appointed Guestmaster and we struck up a warm friendship. I would write him each year to request a week’s stay, he would write a personal note back, full of good humor, and we would then enjoy the annual reunion as the house’s only Presbyterian showed up for “R & R,” retreat and re-creation.

For the most part, guests had only two rules to abide by. One was to be on time for meals; the other was to honor the silence of the monastery. Some conversation was allowed, of course, when necessary, among all the monks. When absolutely necessary. In the guest house, conversation was actually encouraged during meals, and while washing and drying dishes. Part of the value of the retreat was to build and explore community among the retreatants, while also respecting the need for solitude and silence.

Thus, Fr. Stephen would bring the prepared meals down from the main monastery kitchen and the six or eight of us visitors would set the table. Stephen would eat with us, engage us in conversation (something about our own vocations, the world news, some theology or doctrine), and inevitably tell us some jokes. Example: Stephen reported that the bike he sometimes rode between the guest house and the church was as Polish as he was — he called it a Schwinnski. You are allowed to groan. We all did.

Stephen’s expressive face would beam with delight over a good story, but after the meal that same face could express deep compassion, sympathy, or concern over something serious going on in a retreatant’s life.

Father Stephen loved to hear about my family, and I remember being quite impressed that he remembered Joan’s name, and maybe even our children’s names when I would return each year. He was always willing to talk about his own life, too, especially his monastic vocation. He loved it. On two occasions he sat down with me for interviews, one for my radio show, and one on videotape. The latter was never shown publicly; it was just for my own use. I still have it, of course, and my only disappointment with it is that I ran camera while another retreatant asked the questions.

Father Stephen loved his guesthouse gardens, though I remember his being allergic to bee stings. The only time I ever saw him quite angry was with the cows that managed to escape the fenced fields and trample his flowers.

More than a good host, Stephen’s influence on my spiritual life encompassed that ecumenical welcome, of a person of one faith expression embracing a person of another. But also, out of a deep understanding of the broader, even cosmic, Eucharistic table, Stephen confessed that even though the local bishop would most surely frown on the practice, he, as a priest, would never turn away someone who came to Communion with open hands. That is, if I had gone to Mass in the monastery chapel, and held out my hands for the wafer and cup, he would not withhold the Meal from this Presbyterian.

I had too much respect for the man to test him.

He loved that I often came to the guesthouse retreat with audio cassettes of Thomas Merton’s lectures. “Tell me what the most famous Trappist taught you today,” Stephen would kid. And I would say, “Tell me again about the bikini-clad Girl Scouts you entertained here one dark stormy night!” (It was true; some Girl Scouts had left their canoes on the banks of the nearby Shenandoah in a storm one evening, and sought shelter in what they thought was an old farmhouse. Imagine everyone’s surprise when they found a cloistered monk answering their knock! How Stephen’s eyes sparkled as he recounted the tale!)

I mentioned earlier that we visitors only had those two rules. There were some common sense restrictions that guided our behavior at the Abbey. No radio (there was no TV anywhere on the grounds), and no uninvited visits inside the monastery proper, such as sleeping quarters or library.

We were free to join the monks in any of the “hours,” or “offices.” I always skipped the first one (was it 4 a.m.?) as well as Mass at 7 or so. But I went to the others and was glad to see Stephen and Father Andrew leading the music, Gregorian chant, unaccompanied. Andrew was as diminutive as Stephen was large, so they were quite a pair. (I also have an audio recording of the monks’ singing the last office before retiring for the night. It’s a treasure.)

I have some additional stories about my stays at Holy Cross, including one about how a group of us Presbyterian seminary students hosted two monks and two newly ordained priests for supper on our graduation weekend. No one told us they were vegetarians! Forgive us, Father, for we have bologna. I’ll wait for after Lent, though, except to say that one of those new priests is now the Abbot at Holy Cross!

For now, it is enough to remember Father Stephen Usinowitz as my Trappist mentor, a loving, welcoming, Christian guide along my spiritual path. Thanks be to God!

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