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Thoughts on my Retreat at Mount Angel Abbey


During my Renewal Leave I spent a number of days on retreat at the Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.  The Abbey sits on the top of a hill that overlooks the Willamette Valley.  It is a Benedictine monastery; they follow the Rule of St, Benedict which includes following and living the Hours.  That is, worshiping eight times a day, but some monasteries fudge on it a little.  My wife, Paula.
has told me that at the Monastery in the Desert in New Mexico they do them all, including Matins, in the middle of the night.  At Mount Angel Abbey, they practice Lauds at 5:20 am., Prime at 6:30, Mass at 8:00, Sext at noon, Vespers at 5:20 and Compline at 7:30.  The majority of their worship is chanting the Psalms – to the point where after a number of years they have them memorized.  They also stand for nearly the whole service.  Please understand this; they follow this “Rule” everyday for the rest of their lives.  And usually they live the whole of their lives at one monastery, living in the same community.  Apparently they do take vacations; I wonder what they do on their vacations?  Do they go to Disneyland?  But aside from vacations, whatever that means for them, they do the same thing day after day.  I was there for less than a week and in that short time I could feel a change in my heart.

There is little noise on the hilltop:  the bells are the loudest sound heard.  The chanting starts to stay in one’s head after a while.  There are many birds on the hilltop and there is no background music like we have in the grocery store.  Also, the monks and visitors move more slowly – a monk in a hurry is an oxymoron.  Following the Rule, as restricting as it feels, lends a steady gate and gentle pace.  These days it hurts when I walk, but when I’m in my normal life, I still find myself trying to hurry.  How stupid is that?  Up on the hilltop, I naturally slowed down.  Paralleling the slower walking pace my thinking waned as well.  Our hurried pace walking, even more driving, is mirrored in our minds.  We think constantly and relentlessly.  We ruminate, analyzing our days, projecting out into the future:  I need to get the car lubed; who does she think she is talking to me like that; he left his clothes on the floor again – and apparently if one works at Amazon its worse!  When I came down off the hilltop it wasn’t long before Paula called me to fill me in on our lives and it all came back.  Suddenly I was driving over the speed limit again.

It reminds me of the story of Elijah going to Mt. Horeb fleeing Jezebel and fearing for his life, he meets God on the mountain.  He waits for God, but God wasn’t in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the sheer silence (used to be a still small voice).  It is as if Elijah is slowly letting go of the pressure, the steam, the loud cacophony of life and rests in the calm, and God is there.  Is this a paradigm of an experience we all need?

I believe in our world less noise and a slower pace will allow us to hear God as a still small voice.  Coming down off the hilltop driving to my mother’s, I reflexively turned on the radio (that’s all I have in my car, aren’t you surprised?), but it sounded tinny and I felt annoyed, especially by the incessant commercials on NPR!  I turned it off.  What do we need to turn off?  How can we go to the hilltop/mountain in our lives?  I have a hard time imagining living the life of a monk, but a little of it once in a while is a blessing.

This is a while in the future, I know we are all thinking of the fall, but in January I will be offering a class about Slow Church.  We will read a book by that name by C Christopher Smith and John Pattison.  They talk about the “McDonaldization” of the church:  “The process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.”  The values of this McDonaldization are:  efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control.  Does that sound like the workings of the church today?  Does that sound like the values that run other institutions in our lives?  Did we all read the New York Times article about the working environment at Amazon?  I believe it is these values that starve us spiritually, and I want to do something about it.  The class will last from Epiphany through Lent (it will be our Lenten study too).  Easter is early next year so the class will be from January through March.  I’m really looking forward to it.  P.Jim



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