by Mary Ann Treger
I’m a talker. When I’m not talking, I’m texting or emailing or surfing social media sites. Being connected is my cocaine. Even when I’m home alone, political pundits yak on TV in the background. So why in heaven’s name would this motor-mouthed writer go cold turkey and sign up for a silent retreat in an isolated abbey where shutting up is the numero uno requirement?
Truth is, I was burnt out. My mojo had vanished. I was plowing out magazine stories that were as flat and lifeless as a bar of soap. Sleepless nights were spent wondering if I had lost my touch or whether age was taking its toll. After chalking up a milestone birthday I feared I was over-the-hill and past my prime.
I had toyed with the idea of retreating at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., for many years, intrigued by the idea of experiencing total silence but I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was only when my incoming emails ratcheted up to nearly two thousand and I was starting to twitch when my iPad was out of sight, I finally got the message. It was time to unplug and go off the grid before my soul wound up in spam.
My husband was a doubting Thomas. He said I couldn’t stay tight-lipped for more than 20 minutes; that I’d be expelled for giggling. A friend playfully suggested I pack a roll of duct tape, just in case. And my sisters howled at the image of me sans room service, Frette linens or my nightly glass of Pinot Noir. No one believed I could do it.
But I had faith.
To amuse myself en route (or maybe just to hear my voice loud and clear before I zipper my lips) I sing along to an old Simon and Garfunkel recording of the Sound of Silence. Nestled between the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains, the abbey was founded in 1950 on a 1200-acre working farm. At its peak, 60 Cistercian Trappist monks lived in the historic 18th-century buildings; today there are 10—both young and old, monks-in-training and some who’ve lived here their whole lives. To make ends meet, they lease the farmland as pasture for beef cattle and sell fruitcake, creamed honey and chocolates.
My “cozy” (read: spartan) room and private bath the size of a phone booth have green cinder block walls. Furnishings are basic—a single bed, chair, built-in desk, floor lamp, nightstand. That’s it. There are no keys. No dead bolts. No safety chains. Doors lock from the inside only. My first instinct is to lock my wallet in the car, but—hold on—this is why I am here, to feel nurtured and safe. For a city girl, it’s hard to believe that no one will rob my wallet if leave it in an unlocked room but I do it. I trust.
The monks conduct five daily services including Vigils, Lauds, Vespers and Compline. I attend them all. They chant, pray, recite passages from the Old Testament or celebrate the Mass. Retreatants are instructed to remain silent, never reciting even one prayer. I listen and pray silently.
The only time I see all other retreatants (there are about 15 of us) is at meals. A few nod or smile as I pass by. With others, I feel invisible. Initially, sitting at a communal U-shaped table with an eclectic mix of silent men and women feels odd. After the second or third meal, I acclimate. I enjoy being in my own thoughts instead of engaging in idle chatter.
This is no place for fussy eaters. There are no menus, no choices. Breakfast consists of dry cereal or toast with the monk’s flavored honey. Lunch is a tray of unidentified fish filets, a bowl of potatoes and carrots. While I don’t eat red meat, Shepherd’s Pie is served at dinner. Nothing else. It’s Shepherd’s Pie or starvation. I clean my plate.
To pass the hours between services, I journal or read. Each time I catch a glimpse of my iPad tucked in my suitcase I feel like an alcoholic eyeing a bottle of bourbon. Just once I succumb to temptation. After skimming several meaningless emails I am overcome by guilt, I never reach for it again.
I thought the days might drag without my cyber links to the world but I discover that Mother Nature is better entertainment than any app. My “aha” moment arrives at 3:15 a.m. as I make my way to the chapel a half-mile walk from the retreat house. The beam from my flashlight reflects on a blanket of frost glistening like fairy dust over the fields. Overhead, a full moon and thousands of stars are strewn across the sky. It is cold. No, it is freezing. But I don’t complain. All I hear is the exhalation of my breath and the sound of pure unadulterated silence. The monks call this time of night, The Great Silence.
I left this weekend escape with a sense of peace and self confidence I hadn’t felt in a long time, vowing to hang onto this extraordinary sense of calm. Now, several months later, I’m still no saint when it comes to my iPad obsession but I am tuning out of mindless background noise and tuning into myself—speaking less, listening more. I no longer reach for the TV remote the minute I walk in the door.
I’ve learned an important truth that I hope will stay with me forever. Silence really is golden.
To learn more, visit www.virginiatrappists.org.
Mary Ann Treger is an award-winning travel writer specializing in luxury travel. She is a regular contributor to Style magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including USA Today, Marie Claire, US Airways in-flight magazine, Gulfshore Life, Washingtonian, The Washington Times, The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph in the U.K. Prior to her travel writing career she was ad agency Senior VP for Inter-Continental Hotels worldwide, giving her a keen understanding of the international travel industry from the inside. She is an active member of SATW, NATJA and The National Press Club in Washington, D.C..