It sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke: “A lady novelist walks into a monastery . . .” but I am very serious about spending the weekend sleeping, meditating, singing, and praying with forty near-silent, white-robed, celibate men.
Set in Conyers, Georgia, The Monastery of the Holy Spirit was founded in 1944 by twenty-one monks who had departed from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to establish a new community in the wilderness just east of Atlanta. Today, the Trappist brothers offer year-round retreats with topics as diverse as coping with depression, discovering God through yoga or photography, and learning the art of forgiveness. Sessions aside, I want to experience the daily rituals of monastic living, practicing silence and praying the hours.
I am not really the contemplative sort. Type A all the way, I run on stress, and I’m so competitive I had to give up Words with Friends while I still had a few. I once tried to learn to meditate at home, but I kept getting up to call my husband and report how poorly it was going. I am, however, deeply Southern, with our innate horror at bad manners. The presence of monks will keep me quiet, I’ve decided. If I can’t learn to be focused, I will at least learn to be still.
The monastery air is cool and feels genuinely tinged with peacefulness; it’s hard to be anxious here. The cells (small white cubes with a single bed and shared bath) and the main dining hall are all silent space. I find it oddly comforting to sit in quiet camaraderie with strangers, drinking coffee with no pressure to make small talk.
There is a talking dining room and—my favorite—a talking patio, where I can eat my meal while admiring the gorgeous pocket garden dotted with statuary and some spectacular examples of the bonsai trees the monks here grow and tend.
The monks pray seven times a day, and five of these daily sessions are open to visitors: Vigils, Lauds, Midday Prayer, Vespers, and Compline. Most retreat-goers skip a few. They want time to walk the stations of the cross and feed the ducks at the lake, visit the museum or the large gift shop, hike the beautiful paved trails, or go to the cafe to sample the delicious biscotti and peach brandy–infused fudge the monks make in their bakery on campus.
I tell my friend Abby that my goal is to be at every single service. “Are you going to win prayer?” she asks, laughing. Abby is a therapist.
“Shut up,” I say.
I keep to the schedule, though at one point I find myself galloping harum-scarum across the lawn like Maria in The Sound of Music, skidding into my seat just as the bells ring out for Lauds.
I even stagger out of my cell at 3:45 in the morning and make my foggy way to the unheated chapel. Vigils, I decide, has been aptly named. I bypass the comfy pews to perch in one of the booths the monks use, rows of wooden boxes with hinged bench seats. They face each other across the center aisle. The booth is truly medieval, fully embodying the old idea of “mortification of the flesh.” I want the experience, though. Even more fervently, I don’t want to break into snores at Vigils.
The monks begin their antiphonal singing of Psalms, chanting back and forth. The songs are interspersed with solemn readings from Scripture. Their hushed voices reverberate in the lofted space, and the stained glass glows with cool colors, rendering the air blue and clean.
My Psalter is open to “The Second Saturday in Ordinary Time,” but this service, especially, feels anything but ordinary. It’s like slipping backward to an era before social media, multitasking, and my ever-present iPhone. In the pre-dawn, there is only the moment and the music.
And now, the part I’ve been most afraid to try: thirty minutes of dead-silent meditation with all light extinguished. The booth pushes me upright, spine aligned, centered and present. My frantic squirrel-brain quiets, and I feel an inner ease that belies my outer posture. It is wonderful. For about five minutes.
Then my back begins to hurt, and I realize I’m sleepy and hungry. Just as I admit to myself that I can’t last another twenty-five, the bells chime. The half hour has already passed.
My weekend revolves wholly around these services. I try to imagine praying the hours while living my real life—family, work, friends, traffic, errands—impossible! But maybe I have it backward. In the world of this monastery, one does not fit real life around the prayerful quiet. It is real life.
Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 770-483-8705