I wanted my sabbatical to begin with a time of quiet and prayer, so here at the start I went to New Melleray Abbey in Eastern Iowa. New Melleray is a Trappist monastery, and they’re devoted to a contemplative life of prayer and silence. I arrived on Monday, and I’ll leave on Friday.
People are often curious, who’ve never experienced this, asking, “What exactly do you do at a monastery?” The monks gather for prayer in their church seven times during the day. Visitors are allowed into the guest section to join with their prayer. They pray and chant the Psalms, and they manage to pray all the Psalms every two weeks. The rest of the monks’ cloister is off limits to guests, but there is a spacious guesthouse. As long as they have room, the monks welcome any who want to come, living out the instructions from the Rule of St. Benedict that says, “Guests are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” I have a smaller room, with a bed, chair, desk, and private bathroom. Meals are served three times a day. While I’m here there is lots of time to read, pray, and rest. I try to go to all the scheduled prayer times, but other guests only come for some. I have lots of time to read. In my daily life I’m lucky to sneak in a chapter of reading now and then, but I can read here interrupted by only the tower bell, calling us to prayer.
It’s easier to pray here. There are no TVs and radios, and the atmosphere is quiet. Prayers come easier when you’re around those whose whole lives are dedicated to prayer. The distractions we have at home—things to do and fires to put out—they’re not here, and it’s easier to be with God.
The experience is quiet but not lonely. There are other guests here. I have wonderful conversations with others who are on retreat, too. These are people seeking God in a time or rest and prayer, and they have beautiful stories to tell. Years ago, at a different monastery, I took a walk in the woods with a few others on retreat, and when we were in a forest valley a priest in our group said, holding out his arms, “Stop. Can’t you see that God is here?”
God is here at the monastery, just as God is everywhere, but it’s easier to know God’s presence here.
There is a nice video about the monks’ life here at New Melleray that you can see here.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict