We had come to the edge of no-where. Alice and I had driven through a landscape of small valleys and gentle hills in the glow of late afternoon. Eventually we reached Walker Lane, a half-mile long track stretching toward a distant line of golden trees. Crunching across the gravel, we came to a gateway that marked our arrival to Our Lady of Consolation Monastery.
A monk wearing a heavy woolen robe walked us several hundred feet to the guesthouse, where we would spend the night as guests of a priest-friend who celebrated Mass for the monks. It was a spare and disconnected world. The refrigerator was empty apart from a container of orange juice and a single glass picture of milk for the next morning’s breakfast. There was no television, nor newspaper. A notice on the wall read: “Guests are asked not to use radio or cell-phones while at the monastery.”
We had a social engagement in Yamhill, some 20 miles to the north, and by the time we had returned at 10 PM the monastery was in darkness and a light rain had begun to fall. We went to bed, but neither of us slept well. The rain, growing heavier, rattled across the roof of our room and reinforced the isolation of this serene but strange place.
I had enquired of our priest-friend about the religious education of these monks. He explained that they had learned less from theology books than from the Liturgy of the Hours — a spirituality reflected in the words of the great 12th century abbot William of St.Thierry to his monks: “”It is for others to serve God, but for you to cleave to Him. It is for others to believe in God, to know, to love, to fear Him, but for you to taste, to understand, to apprehend, to enjoy Him.” It was the middle of the night, and I was enveloped a world of the spirit, yet at arms length from it.
We had only spoken to the monk briefly. A middle height man, with a trim gray beard and clear eyes, he had been perfectly at ease with us, but had asked us no questions, nor lingered for conversation. The sign on the guesthouse wall reminded us: “Please do not speak to the monks if you encounter them.” At some point, the rain stopped, and silence laid hold of the morning. My cell phone read 4:45 AM. The monks were rising for Morning Prayer.
In a world of short-lived sensations, the prayers of the monks stand out for their timelessness. Many hands across a period of 700 years helped compose the Old Testament psalms that make up monk’s Office of the Hours. The verses have been sung uninterruptedly for well over two thousand years. In poetic imagery, the psalms mix a yearning of the simple soul for God with praise for the Lord of the heavens. In the morning stillness that handful of men touched the deepest ground of being: “Lord fill us at daybreak with your kindness,” they prayed, “that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.”
Our encounter with graced solitude was short-lived. By noon Alice and I were on the highway twenty miles to Salem and then onto I-5, once more in the reassuring cocoon of cell phone communication, radios, and billboards. From time to time, however, an image flitted in and out of my consciousness. When that morning’s celebration of the Eucharist had ended, and we were leaving the chapel, the monks had remained in their choir chairs. Each face was a composition of silence that reflected the wisdom of the ancient psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”