August 6, 2023

Retreat Report

Last week I was at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts for my annual retreat. I've been there for retreat many times, but had not been for twelve years (living in Italy, Covid, and so on). It was a very good week with lots of time for prayer, reading, and reflection.

The monks made some improvements to the retreat house over its Covid closure, including an expansion of the retreatants' dining room, which used to be a little cramped when there was a full house. They also cleaned up the inner courtyard, which, if I remember correctly, was rather overgrown before. It's lovely now and you can sit out there on a nice day.

I had one of the rooms on the west side of the retreat house that have a little tiny enclosed backyard, I guess so you can pretend you're a Carthusian. The weather was good all week so I was able to leave my back door open at night (there's a screen door) and enjoy the cool air and the sounds of nature.

The back door to my room from my little backyard

It was good to see the monks again, and I recognized a few of them from past visits, though I don't know their names for the most part. They had aged, as I suppose I have as well. One monk introduced himself to me when we were cleaning up after lunch one day, and explained how he had followed his brother, a TOR Franciscan, into religious life. He said that he had been in the monastery for fourteen years, which means he may have been a novice the last time I was on retreat there. He then explained how he had only recently been ordained a priest, within the last year. I thought of asking him for his blessing, but I was worried about the other retreatants getting the idea and it becoming a scene. But maybe I should have done it. As old Fr. John Proppe, may he rest in peace, once told me, "The blessing of a new priest is worth wearing out two horses."

I saw that there was a novice. Novices stick out in choir with the white scapular. On Thursday there also appeared in choir a tall young man in secular clothes, with a beard that would make a Capuchin novice proud. Maybe he's discerning. One time when I was walking into church I saw the novice helping him find his place in the book, and that gave me delight. Let's pray for the two of them and thank God for their vocations.

The meals were in silence, of course. On my past retreats we have listened to an audio book, but this time it was music. On one day we started listening to N.T. Wright's Paul: A Biography, but after that it was back to music. There was no explanation for this. I was a little disappointed because I had found the beginning of the book entertaining. Then I thought I would buy the book and finish it myself when I got home, but I haven't done it yet. I have to decide if I'm curious enough for $15.95 (Kindle edition). Maybe the monks and the publisher are in cahoots. They get you hooked on a book, and so forth.

There were two special events during the week. The first was the solemnity of the dedication of the abbey church on the first full day of the retreat.

At the first vespers of this observance, which was the first evening of the retreat, we retreatants were pretty confused about where we were in the psalter, but we seemed to have figured it out by lauds in the morning. I overheard someone saying that there were certain candles around the church that are only lit on this day each year.

The second special event was the resumption of communion under both kinds, presumably post-Covid. While the priest monks were vesting for Mass on the last morning of the retreat, a monk approached us retreatant-concelebrants in the corner of the sacristy where the albs and stoles are set up for retreatants. (When you register for a retreat, you are asked your height so that an appropriate alb can be set out for you.) The monk instructed us that, starting on that day, we would not receive by intinction, but should consume the host and then drink from the chalice. This went fine for us concelebrants when the time came, but something seemed to go wrong with the logistics of the communion of the other monks and the people in the visitors' galleries. I saw the abbot gesturing to the various priest monks who were ministering Holy Communion as if to redirect them to certain places. He also seemed to be trying to get the attention of the principal celebrant as he descended to the monks and retreatants who were lined up, but in vain. At this the abbot let out what seemed like a sigh of resignation. So it's not just friars, I thought. At that moment I recalled a previous conversation with the monk who was the principal celebrant, in which he exclaimed, "I am a free dancer." It seemed like an odd thing for a Trappist to say. That story is back in this post

There was a full house of eleven retreatants. Five of us were priests, or at least five concelebrated at Mass. Of the other six I gathered that two or three were permanent deacons. There seemed to be a couple of groups of two or three on retreat together. Retreatants there together always means more talking, unfortunately, and we were admonished about this in the middle of the week. It was far, however, from the worst group in this regard I have been with on retreat at the abbey. That's another story. I seemed to remember that at previous last breakfasts before departure we were allowed or instructed to talk so one could meet the others he had been praying with (and hopefully for) all week, but in any case it didn't happen this time. It was the usual music, so I finished the retreat without getting to know any of the other retreatants. I prayed for them, though, during the week, for their openness to and discernment of the graces God desired for them during our time at the abbey.