At least once in the year I like to get away from the world and retire to the peace and quiet of a Cistercian monastery that has made me welcome as a visitor for the past number of years. There is nothing grand or spectacular about this simple farmhouse community. It is a working dairy farm worked by a simple religious community of men of no doubt varying degrees of holiness. This little abbey is my spiritual home-away-from-home, and a place where I get to have peace and where I can allow my soul to catch up with my body and mind. Yesterday I arrived in the afternoon and was greeted by my friend the guest-master who showed me to my room – the same small cell he has given me since my first visit. As you might expect, this is far from five-star accommodation. There is a small bed, a chair and table, a window and a cross on the wall. All the luxuries and distractions of life are removed so that the soul has a chance to breathe. I explained to the guest-master that I would not, this time, be joining the community for prayer. I had come simply to get away and regroup from the busyness of the weeks that had just passed. I did however join the monks for Sunday Mass.
This is not mere spirituality. There is nothing shallow or hollow here. Religion in the company of the Cistercians is not à la carte. So often we are told of the benefits of this modern personal spirituality where ‘the best bits’ of various religions are plucked out of the air to ensure that they will always agree with our moods and wants. All of this is of course pointless and meaningless dribble. Such spirituality serves only our own needs and demands nothing from us. Tradition and the discipline of religious life draw us out. They forces us to face ourselves in the light of a truth that we have no control over – a truth that is completely other to ourselves. In the silence of this life we have no option but to listen to the inner noise – the noise we often ignore amid the distractions of our real lives. Unfortunately my own time of silence was assaulted by a terrible clamour. For my entire stay in the house I was suffering from a terrible man-flu. As I choked and sniffled my way through lunch the Abbot paid my private refectory a visit – as he always does – to touch on why I had come. My answer quite surprised me. “Father Abbot,” said I, “I’m here because I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” We had a long and very interesting conversation, and he asked that if ever I found what I sought if I would return to tell him where it can be found.