Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wrentham, Mass.


In the summer of 1999, while I was still in grad school pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing, my father and I planned a brief getaway—a bit of time for the two of us to change the scenery, to reconnect, to share simple meals, and to write and read and talk together. My father selected the destination out of a guidebook to monastery guest houses: we were to stay at Mount Saint Mary's Abbey, a community of Trappestine nuns in Wrentham, Mass. Mount Saint Mary's, it turns out, was the first monastery of Cistercian nuns in the United States. The first sisters had arrived from St. Mary's Abbey in Glencairn, Ireland, back in 1949, so our stay coincided with the Golden Jubilee anniversary year of foundation. We arrived, checked in, and were then shown to our rooms in the retreat house by the "guest sister." I remember two interesting things about the guest sister, though I don't remember how I learned them. Did she just volunteer this information? It would be unlike me to pry into a nun's background; maybe I simply asked how long she had been at the abbey (or maybe it was my father who asked). Regardless, I remember first that she tended bees and that she said she was not affected by their stings; they were used to each other, she and the bees. Second, I remember her saying that she'd only seen her reflection in a mirror one time, recently, since coming to the abbey decades before. I think she said it was while making up one of the guest rooms. She said that it was quite a shock, because she hadn't realized she'd aged so much physically; all those years, and she'd only had the mental image of herself in teenage years to draw on, that being the last time she lived in the outside world. This fact of her life took me completely by surprise. It belongs in a list of details you'd never imagine about the life of a nun—you just wouldn't think of it, having seen your own reflection in the mirror once a day, minimum, nearly every day of your life. At least I suddenly realized that this was the case for me. And just as suddenly I wondered if my looking, even when incidental, made me vain. I don't think anyone who knows me would call me so, but still, compared to a woman who had no idea what she looked like at all . . . Hard as I tried, I couldn't imagine seeing decades of aging all at once, a complete transformation from adolescent to middle-aged woman in the single flash of a mirrored medicine cabinet. My dad and I settled into our rooms. We were put on separate floors, for propriety's sake—perhaps because there was another female guest on the floor where my room was. Or did the two of us start out on the same floor, and then my father moved later, for the reason stated? Anyway, we settled in. For meals, I think we subsisted on a sack of groceries we had purchased and stored in the guest house's kitchen. Eggs for breakfast, yogurt, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner. I do remember the fresh bread that was always there on the counter, though: Give us each day our daily bread, baked and offered by the sisters. It was a hearty, grainy bread that was delicious. We toasted it in the mornings and spread thick Trappist Preserves (made by the monks at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass.) on top. We'd meet up for meals, talk, dip back into silence. We kept each other company on the sun porch, each absorbed in an activity, alone together in our thoughts. We went across the road sometimes to the church (I still confuse the services: Lauds is morning, vespers is evening, but in between I forget), and the singing voices—only for one reason, only to give praise—were beautiful, harmonized perfectly together. I have not often heard such a complete blending of individual voices (nearly fifty of them) into the sound of one unified voice. Not every moment of the stay in Wrentham was peaceful, however. I do have one unpleasant memory, from the afternoon I decided to take a walk alone to clear my head. I was following a bend in the road, and as I approached the turn (I don't know how far from the guest house, but far enough to be out of sight, out of reach of any helping hand), a dog began barking. I heard it first, then saw it. Black, medium-sized, running fast down the driveway in front of a (yellow?) house. What it lacked in height or girth it made up for in ferocity. This dog was clearly protecting the property. I was a reasonable distance away, walking in the middle of the road, and I thought the dog would surely stop at the boundary of driveway and street. No such luck. The dog advanced, slowing to a growling, barking halt about four feet away from me. I stood stock still, looked toward the house and hoped to see the dog's owner, but for the moment there was no one. I have to say, I was never so convinced in all my life that I was about to get mauled by a dog. I thought about running, but also realized that if I made sudden or quick movements, probably the animal would pursue me harder. I thought about my next-door neighbor in Chicago, Jenny S., who'd had a scar on her face from a dog bite. I thought suddenly about a time in my father's life, before I was born, when he was a man of the cloth (an ordained Presbyterian minister), and had a church in Tennessee, in the years of the Civil Rights movement. I thought about his stories of protests, the news reports and press photos I'd seen of angry police dogs attacking black demonstrators. I experienced a small sliver of the fear they must've had when they could see a dog coming at them. I was sure that the day would end with me in the hospital, getting stitches and rabies shots. I backed away as slowly as I've ever moved in my life, all the while facing the dog. No way was I going to turn my back. The dog kept up its deep growl, its chilling bark, but it didn't move any closer. Finally, it turned and went back to its driveway. I tell you, that day I believed in divine protection. I spent the rest of the retreat within the borders of the abbey's property. Happily, it was a very peaceful place to be. I was sorry when we had to leave—the time seemed short, and we had spent it so companionably, I wanted it to continue. As a consolation, when we gave our donation to cover the cost of our stay, we also purchased a couple of boxes of handmade Trappestine candy: the sisters make a wicked Butter Nut Munch, plus many more varieties of candy, including a maple candy called penuche. The abbey is currently in need of capital to be able to continue their candy-making industry, which goes toward self-sustainment (contemplation and work being equal partners in the Rule of Saint Benedict). In November of last year, the Boston Globe ran an article on the sisters and their need; you can read the article here. If you'd like to support the abbey through the purchase of some delectable confections (at a good value), you can shop for Trappestine candy here. I will always remember my stay at Mount Saint Mary's Abbey—in retrospect, even the horrid dog—with a profound sense of gratitude. The sisters' openness to visitors of any (or no) faith, their generosity, and their transcendent singing have stayed with me now for ten years. I hope they are blessed in their days, and that the abbey continues to thrive. And to my father, I have to say thank you—for making a retreat choice that I most likely would not have made, but that was wholly restorative, food for the soul, and a cherished memory.

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