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Four Days with the Trappists: Part 1

Posted on November 22nd, 2009

Last Monday I arrived at the  St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer Massachusetts for my annual weekly retreat with the 70+ monks living there. It was probably my most significant retreat of the last seven years.

St. Joseph's Abbey

St. Joseph’s Abbey, home to the Cistercian (Trappist) Monks. Spencer, MA.

The following journal entries from my first day (that is until vigils at 3:30 am Tuesday morning) will give you a glimpse into my time:  “The goal of this retreat is to keep company with You Lord, to be with You detached from all else, to get rid of all baggage and be cleansed of the world, and, most importantly, to listen.  I am holding the following questions Lord”:

  1. How do I expand and strengthen the boundaries of my inner hermitage in order to live in deeper communion with You? What new direction and strategies do You have for me?
  2. How do I expand and strengthen my inner hermitage that Geri  and might live more fully in an exceptional marriage, i.e., exceptional fidelity, love, service and sexuality? How can I make Geri’s life easier, more fulfilling and more complete?
  3. How do I expand and strengthen my fathering and mentoring of each of our four girls?  What will it look like to enter into their young adult worlds?
  4. How can I faithfully lead our NLF community into a more rooted, grounded life in Christ in this next phase of our life together?”

The overall theme of my retreat emerged early out of my meditations on Athansius’ Life of Antony.  I had read summaries of Antony’s  life in the desert for many years, but never the actual history itself. The Prior, Father Dominic, suggested that I look at Antony’s rhythm’s of moving deeper into the desert during his life to be in solitude with God as His public ministry expanded.  He suggested I might find in this a model or some insights around God direction for me. He was right. Antony began as an anchorite outside his village living in solitude for years before retreating to the desert to live in the tombs for 20 years! After emerging transformed by God, the crowds sought him out and God used him mightily. Later on, however, he retreated deeper to an “inner mountain” in the wilderness where he lived alone for the rest of his life.  People met with him only on his “outer mountain.” Meditating on his journey and struggle greatly encouraged me over the week as I made some decisions around my own priorities.  I prayed that I, like St. Antony,  might have a “soul free from confusion, a purity of soul, a stability of character, outer senses that are undisturbed,a  joy from my soul that causes my face to be cheerful and untroubled, a calm spirit, a mind joyous, and be extremely wise.”    So much happened in my four days there that I couldn’t imagine staying there much longer! I’ll continue this blog around the experience later in a Part 2. Do you agree, or not, that there is much to be learned from people like Antony, the first monastic desert hermit, that applies to our serving of Christ and leadership in the West?

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