I am writing each day during Lent (2016), focusing on a photo I took somewhere along my life’s journey. Today, a Virginia highway leads to a narrow riverside road that takes us to a long dusty driveway, and at its end, Holy Cross Abbey. The photo shows some foothills of the Blue Ridge, a meadow that leads down to the banks of the Shenandoah, and there in the grass in front of the main house is Father Stephen.

He’s in conversation with two visitors, and I have no doubt the three of them will leave that spot smiling. Father Stephen was the Guestmaster at that Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia for most of the years I enjoyed week-long retreats there.

(I wrote a meditation about Father Stephen Usinowicz  in a previous Leimg442nten blog series called “Forty I Have Followed.” The link is at the end of this reflection.)

My visits to the Abbey were, pardon the expression, Lent-like. I would retreat not for forty days, but for a mere six. And far from being Jesus’ wilderness, as you can see here, I was surrounded by serene hills and pasture land. The Abbey once operated a 1200 acre farm, lodged its retreatants in an old tenant farmhouse, and provided peace and quiet for this young minister taking a break from his three “half-time” ministries. (I know; it didn’t add up, did it?)

My disciplines during those retreats were like those of Lent. Prayer, worship, reading, and silence. Technically, we didn’t fast, however. While the 35 (or so) monks did follow a dietary discipline, we at the retreat house enjoyed three square meals a day. The only fasting was from our back-home routine of snacks, drink machines, and before bedtime treats.

There was another “fast” of sorts for me, and it was difficult the first few retreats there. No radio. No TV. For six days. But I held to the restriction. As soon as I turned onto the monastery driveway, I turned off the car radio and left it off for the week. One caveat: the guesthouse did allow personal media devices with ear phones, and in those days that meant cassette tape players. Father Stephen was especially pleased that I limited my use of that tape player to listening to the voice of Thomas Merton as he delivered addresses to novices at the “mother house” in Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Now I didn’t conduct these yearly retreats during the Lenten season. I usually carved out a week in my summers, counting the time away as “continuing education.” However, looking back, I do realize that these days away from family and work, while not exactly a vision quest, did include intentional practices that enriched my personal spirituality and ministries. As mentioned above, I prayed, learning from Father Stephen the benefits of contemplative prayer. When it came to worship services, I admit to skipping the first “office” of each day, 3:30 a.m. vigils. (I tried it once. Enough said.) But I did join the monks for all the other offices each day, beginning with Mass at 7:30 a.m. and ending with compline at 7:30 p.m.

In addition, I spent hours each day reading, especially the theology I neglected in my normal day-to-day routine back home. I took long walks, sat by the Shenandoah, shared the monks’ vow of silence, and joined in the breaking of that silence along with the breaking of bread at mealtimes with the other retreatants. Father Stephen’s vow of silence was relaxed since he was our host at house and table, sharing good humor, explaining the way of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and making this Presbyterian feel at home in a Trappist setting.

No, it wasn’t Lent. But I took the practices of Lent to Berryville, and after my sojourn there, I came home renewed, refreshed, and even, resurrected. Those retreats were many years ago, but I remain deeply grateful.

[I have used the corrected name of Fr. Stephen in this entry. The link below was created before the misspelling was pointed out by a reader.]

https://jeffkellam.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/forty-i-followed-father-stephen-usinowitz/

 

 

 

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