Sunday, December 29, 2019

Three Days in a Monastery Thirty Years Ago

As long as everyone is being retrospective about "decades," here's an old thing that takes me back three decades, to the last three days of 1989. These are some notes from a retreat I made at Holy Cross Abbey — the Cistercian monastery in Berryville, Virginia — on December 29, 30, and 31, 1989.

It was quite simple: the weekend was spent at the retreat house on the property of the monastery. Guests were fed, and an old monk was available for spiritual guidance insofar as anyone wished to receive it (and I recall having a good, down-to-earth meeting with him). The rest of the retreat was unscheduled, other than an open invitation to participate in all the liturgical offices of the monks, throughout the days and nights, in the abbey church.

I remember these three days of prayer and silence as being reflective, serious, and helpful regarding some important decisions I had to make at the time. Unfortunately, these notes don't shed much light on the decisions or the circumstances which, after thirty years, could use a little brightening up in my own mind. It's not until you're older that you realize how valuable a written journal can be for stirring up your own memories. I wish these pages were more useful to me in that regard.

I was a few days shy of turning 27 years old, which — even in these days of "extended adolescence" — usually signifies that a person is, finally, an adult. Yet I was still very much a dreamer, an abstracted academic, and (especially since that Summer) a person much taken up in my own imagination. I had written a small collection of poetry which I felt good about (only one of those poems I might still consider "passable" today). At the time, I had "literary sensibility on-the-brain."

I was far from finding my own voice, however. That is probably why these pages seem so affected to me now. It reads like I was trying to imitate Thomas Merton's journals (or even unconsciously plagiarizing from them, since I was strolling through the woods and fields of a Trappist monastery).

I don't know what to make of all this. But anyway, here it is:

This does show the manner in which I used to write in the old days, in long hand, direct from my mind onto the page, with much more legible handwriting than I have now. As far as I know, these are the original, unrevised pages. The ideas and images are alright, but they are strangely "polished" for notes. I had skill at drafting my thoughts quickly, but this lacks a sense of spontaneity, and gives little insight into what I was learning through the retreat or actually dealing with in my life at the time.

"What I want, what I thirst for, is to be alone"? Really? It seems like I was writing what I thought I was supposed to feel like — being an earnest and grave young man — after a weekend with the Trappists. If there was something real about this thirst for solitude, I don't remember it. I had no desire to enter the monastery. I don't know what I was getting at, and I can't help thinking that I was just trying to reassure myself that I had had a "deep" experience.

Perhaps I wanted to "want-to-be-alone" because, at the time, I felt very much alone. Maybe I was even a bit depressed (though I did not yet know anything about mental health in those days). I was in any case given to overusing metaphors in what were supposed to be my own retreat notes.

I might have been just pitching out themes and images for a poem that never got written.

I certainly was not settled in the direction of my life. Many of us in the academic world were adrift or lonely (or both) in those days. We were unevenly formed (at best). We lived very much in our heads. I suppose to some extent I still do.

Unlike the notes, the retreat was substantial. Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh about writing that doesn't sound that much different from what I churn out now. One never really does very well at understanding oneself (which is why writers need editors and people need... other people).

What is interesting is that 1990 proved to be a crucial year for me. In the first few weeks of the new decade, I met some new friends and the beginnings of a much more secure, much less lonely path on which to travel.

One of those friends, who I met for the first time shortly after this retreat, was a girl named Eileen.😊