In late spring of this year I made a retreat at Julian House Monastery in Wisconsin. Attracted by the promise of several days of prayer and silence, I found myself along side a group of individuals whose lives were consumed with prayer. They were at once both profoundly other and completely unremarkable.
Julian of Norwich lived in the late 14th Century. She received a vision from Christ and spent the next twenty years of her life wrestling with the meaning of that vision. Her Revelations of Divine Love are available in many modern translations. Finally, at age 50, she enclosed herself in a small apartment (anchorage) attached to her church, St Julian's, the only name by which we know her.
In 1985 Father John-Julian Swanson founded the Order of Julian of Norwich. It is a contemplative order of Episcopal monks and nuns and affiliates.The Monastery has been located in Wisconsin since 1989. I visited there in May of this year (2014).
Visitors are welcomed gladly to the monastery but are expected to maintain the Order's disciplines of prayer and silence. This suited me well. I was looking to immerse myself in prayer for a few days.
Here is a mown path through a wild meadow on the monastery grounds. The path diverges in two just where that smaller tree is on the center right. Have you ever hugged a tree? You could do worse.
The sisters and monks (who live off site but come for services and major tasks) are avid gardeners, growing much of their own food. Below are some young tomato plants sheltered from the early summer sun.
Besides prayer, the sisters work very hard caring for their house and land. Visitors are sometimes permitted to join in the work. I was allowed to weed this bed.
I asked permission to take pictures around the public areas of the monastery, but shyness kept me from asking to photograph any of the sisters. I wanted to be there are a faithful person, not a reporter. Here is a picture of Father John-Julian. It is taken from a photograph in the book shop. "My life has been one miracle after another," he told us on my last day there.
The monastery grounds are a haven for birds and the sisters love watching them. This is a robin's nest (abandoned) in a crown of thorns sculpture on the front wall of Julian House. A new nest had been built on the drain spout near my room.
Silence is kept throughout each day. Voices are heard only in prayer. The sisters meet occasionally to discuss business in what they call "session" and, of course, when a visitor arrives, someone shows them around. But otherwise all is silent.
I anticipated this silence and longed for it for many weeks before my retreat. I needed to be alone with God, away from the cares and needs of others. Silence would nourish me. I would gain insights, truths. This didn't happen.
Walking the halls in silence, wandering the grounds and taking my meals in silence only increased my awareness of everyone and everything around me. Desperate to fit smoothly into the routines of monastery life, I sought clues everywhere for right behaviors, wrong behaviors. And how could I seem to be at peace when I was always getting lost?
Then, as the days wore on, all my unsaid apologies, all my unspoken questions simply melted away into nothing. How did this happen? Why did it? Because no one cared. I was not a disturbance to them, and, at last, I was no disturbance to myself either. My awkwardness didn't matter. My anxiety about being "right", being valuable, wanted, approved of meant nothing. It was nothing. Like sin that God wipes away without even thinking about it.
This is the habit of silence that I so wanted. This was the lesson: stop thinking about myself. Stop needing a pat on the head. Stop needing to "get it right." My friend Trischa has a lot more to say about the gift of silence, and she says it much better than I can. Read her words here.
When the silence finally settled on me, we had reached the feast of the Ascension. This meant a special dinner with dessert and conversation at the table. You would think that living daily in silence would bring an outpouring of words when such a break occurs. Not so. The sisters barely had anything to say. "I saw an indigo bunting in the oak tree." "Our asparagus crop is long gone." "We have ginger beer for a special beverage."
No positioning. No agendas. No compliments. No worries. No need. Silence sheds all unnecessary talk and with it all unnecessary maneuvers.
The thing I learned at the monastery was that belonging to God, utterly belonging, meant that everyone around me is loved and beautiful. Prayer supports the individual and the community but without the evidence of support that we usually look for. \
The life of Julian House revolves around prayer. There is morning prayer at 4:45 preceded by "still prayer" at 3:30. There is Eucharist at 7:30. There is noon prayer. There is evening prayer, again with still prayer right before it. There is compline at 7:00. That is the structure of the day. Below is the long hall leading to the entrance to the chapel for the monks and nuns. Visitors use the entrance leading to a separate section, closed off from the "choir". Communion is brought to the visitor. The celebrant comes to the visitor to exchange the peace.
Over the course of my stay, this hallway grew in significance. Connected as we were in prayer, I was still apart from the enclosed ones.
Here is the empty chapel.
Probably the clearest difference between how prayer is offered in our churches, and in our homes, too, from how it is offered at Julian House is that here prayer is almost always sung. Chants can be simple or very complicated. On a few occasions, there are 5 notes on two syllables in the alleluia, the "le" and the "lu." A Capella. These were hit perfectly every time. Not by me, of course, but by them. Psalms and some prayers are chanted antiphonally. It is indescribably beautiful.
It took a couple days for me to take all this in before I could settle into the prayer practice. Eventually, the prayer took hold of me. To have the day, every day, shaped by the Daily Office taught me to count time differently. Prayer was what the day was for. Other tasks were wedged in and around this important work. The prayer was alive. Scripted and formal, it breathed itself into each day.
Of course this is my favorite room: the refectory. It's cozy and thoroughly functional, designed to allow people to eat silently. At the far end is a hearth, unlit in summer, of course. On the right by the window you can just see a poinsettia coaxed back to flowering. At dinner, one of the sisters read a passage from In the Heart of the Desert by John Chryssavgis. Meals were simple but delicious. Whole milk. Real butter. Wisconsin is the Dairy State, after all.
The Order of Julian of Norwich is a community, a world-wide community with affiliates in many countries. Vows of various stringency are taken by members. Prayer is the central purpose. What kind of a community has prayer as its reason for being? In this day and age, with so much wrong in the world, what can prayer do? Isn't Christ better served by activists working to uplift those in need?
When I sit down to a meal and remember to say a grace, I am nudging myself as if to say: Oh, right, God. At Julian House, grace is the essential act in the refectory. The meal is secondary. Everything is secondary to prayer. These people are not wispy, other-worldly beings. They are down-to-earth, hard working, practical people who are called to a life of prayer.
If all of humanity is connected, as I believe we are, we need these pray-ers. If an evil act taints all of us, so a life of prayer raises us.
To find out more about the Order of Julian of Norwich, click here.