Retreat from Noise of Everyday Life

By Butters, Patrick | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

Retreat from Noise of Everyday Life


Butters, Patrick, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Patrick Butters

It comes on suddenly but quietly. Jette Clausen starts to weep just a bit, talking about her weekend stay at Holy Cross Abbey near Berryville, Va. It has helped her step out of life, slow down and work on "grief issues."

"I'm an oncology nurse. I work with dying people," she says, removing her glasses and wiping her eyes. "So you're strong during the day and then you have to let go . . . "

This is the Bethesda resident's first weekend retreat at this monastery, run by monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (Trappists). Located 60 miles west of Washington, the abbey offers a specially built, 16-room guest house for "retreatants," lay visitors who spend the weekend or a week meditating, reading or walking among rolling fields surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Holy Cross is one of two monasteries in the Washington area that hold out to lay people the prospect of a step back from the madding crowd. Here - or at St. Anselm's Abbey in the District, run by monks of the Benedictine Order - visitors can be quiet for a few days, and take a spiritual break from busy, media-drenched lives.

Guest rooms and meals at both monasteries are simple. Daily services take place in the monastery chapels. Although both monasteries are Catholic, the retreats stress the spiritual, not the religious doctrine.

"You can't bottle what we have in quiet," say the Rev. Hilary Hayden, guest master at St. Anselm's, which sits on 40 acres in Northeast. "It's a rare commodity nowadays in ordinary society. You don't have to watch television, you don't have to answer the telephone. You just sort of soak and live the way we do for a while."

* * *

The way they live at St. Anselm's is by the rule of St. Benedict of Nursia, a 6th-century monk considered the patriarch of Western monasticism. His regimen prescribes a life of prayer, meditation and work rooted - unlike that of more "worldly" religious orders such as the Jesuits and Dominicans - in the monastery.

The rule is the same at Holy Cross, that of St. Benedict. Cistercians, who trace their lineage to the Abbey of Citeaux in Burgundy, where the Order began in the year 1098, are Benedictines who focus more intently on St. Benedict's injunction to live "by the labor of their hands." Trappists, the inheritors of a tradition begun in the 17th century at the monastery of La Trappe, in Normandy, lead lives of even greater austerity and seclusion.

Retreats at either St. Anselm's or Holy Cross let one burrow inside the life - or at least the lifestyle - of a Benedictine monk. Silence is no longer required, but still encouraged.

Retreatants come for any number of reasons. For a man in a bulky red coat, for example, the hospitality of the retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey has proved indispensable. Wearing dark tennis shoes, Ross - who asks that his last name not be used - had just quit his job, left his home in Fairfax the night before, and headed down Route 50, looking for a hotel. In what he called a state of shock, Ross eventually wound up on Leesburg Pike, meandering down the winding road that leads to Holy Cross Abbey. The California native had been to the abbey twice before.

"I felt at home here, more than any other place in the world," he says. "As much as I've screwed up, this is one place I can come and be accepted. You don't get preached at."

Ross lumbered into the monastery grounds at 11 p.m., but he didn't want to bother Brother Stephen Maguire, the guest master. So Ross slept in his car that night in the parking lot of the abbey's gift shop and information center. The next morning, he approached Brother Maguire.

"I asked him, `Can I stay for the night?' " Ross, 54, says. " `I'm cold, hungry and need a place to lie down.' "

Ross stayed for the night. Unexpected arrivals like him, says Brother Benedict Simmons, 64, is why Holy Cross usually leaves one room open for last-minute emergencies.

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