I recently spent 5 days on retreat at a Benedictine convent, which was restful and soul-filling. So much has stayed with me about my time there, but the one thing I keep coming back to is the simple, mindful way of life the Sisters have cultivated within their community. The Rule of St. Benedict, which has guided monastic life for nearly two millenia, is predicated on practices such as hospitality and restraint.
True abundance – and I would add – hospitality, comes from knowing you have all you need. Goodness flows from knowing you are being sustained in body, mind and spirit. There is no hoarding or grasping after extras.
We stayed in one of the beautiful new group retreat houses, which was spacious, clean and comfortable. One of my retreat facilitators, who had visited the convent before, noted that although the space is new, the Sisters had thoughtfully reused bedroom furnishings in good condition from the former guest house, rather than just buying new items. None of it was shabby or in disrepair. It was just enough for what we needed for our stay.
Meals were likewise simple and humble. The only extravagance came in the form of a dessert at lunchtime – the biggest meal of the day. The portions, doled carefully out to us by a cafeteria worker or Sister, were neither too big nor too small. Our group noted that any portions not served had a way of showing up again at another meal in a different form. Mushroom soup that was served for lunch one day found its way as the creamy base for a breakfast casserole the following morning. Nothing was wasted.
We also noticed that we were never hungry between meals, despite having modest portions. I have taken quite a few classes with the seminary Spirituality program, and we always have a lot of snacks available in the meeting room. This time, they mostly sat on the table instead of getting eaten. We were comfortably satiated, and didn’t need to fill ourselves with more. It was just enough.
While we did not observe strict silence, except for one day, we were reminded of the Benedictine rule of restraint with regard to speech. A Sister passed me in the hallway one day and responded to my cheery greeting with, “Are you all keeping silence?” Secular cultural rules, especially in the South, emphasize an overt acknowledgment of some sort, possibly followed by small talk. She was reminding me to pay attention to my compulsions. A nod or gentle eye contact as greeting is just enough.
One facilitator told us about the mnemonic WAIT, which stands for Why Am I Talking. So often we speak because we can’t bear the expanse of silence, but rarely does it add anything useful or meaningful. Silence is encouraged while on retreat, so speak only when there is something you absolutely must communicate. For our group – even the extroverts – that was just enough.
Most of what the Sisters did for us was done in small, quiet ways – everything from thoughtfully marking the sections in the prayer book each day so we could follow along easier, placing the right amount of linens on our bed at check-in, or leaving several umbrellas near the entrance to our guest home in case of rain. Their hospitality was a deep well of abundance borne from decades of community life. They knew exactly what we needed and that it would be just enough.
During the Liturgy of the Hours, we retreatants were instructed to keep our voices somewhat subdued during the singing of the Psalms. (We could, however, make a joyful noise during the hymn!) No one person’s voice should dominate another, as a way of emphasizing the community aspect of prayer. And yet, the sound of mostly women’s voices singing these ancient prayers twice daily was replete with holy presence. It was just enough and it was abundant.