I recently visited St Gregory’s Abbey near Three Rivers, Michigan for the first time, on a personal retreat. The weather was perfect and the drive was pleasant enough, but I found myself growing more and more anxious as I realized I had not “prepared” anything for the retreat—no agenda, no spiritual exercises, no questions to investigate in my solitude. I have visited several monasteries and convents, but only for convention-style group retreats which included meetings, seminars, and group prayer, along with socializing in the evenings … this time it was just me. While I had come with a purpose I feared that without a plan of action my time would be wasted there.
The brothers own about a square mile of land situated between rural woods and farmland. I pulled into the Abbey entrance and stepped out of my car. Just as the scenery was beginning to calm my nerves, I noticed my phone had no signal. I located the main building and guest master and once pleasantries and a brief orientation had concluded, I asked about the cell signal and how I could log onto the WiFi network. “Oh no,” said Brother William, “there is no WiFi on the property and no one has built a cell tower close enough yet to provide a signal.” My panic returned. I thanked him for his time and headed back to my car to get my bags and go to my room. With each step my anxiety grew as I realized I couldn’t let anyone know I had arrived safely, I couldn’t work on my sermon as panned without WiFi, I couldn’t watch Netflix before bed!
Forgetting all about my bags and my room, I jumped back in the car and drove off in search of a signal. I knew full well how ridiculous I was being. I mean, it’s not like my world would end without technology for 4 days, but I couldn’t shake this panic! I drove for what seemed like miles before I was connected again and as I pulled over to the side of the road to inform my loved ones I was safe and sound I felt embarrassed by my reaction. Between the anxiety over not having planned enough for this retreat and the anxiety over not having a connection to the outside world while on the monastery property, I was off to a GREAT start.
Needless to say I didn’t relax into the rest of my time there well. I drove into town each day and “connected” to check texts and download a video…. I admit it. But the anxiety over my lack of any “agenda” turned to shame. I joined the monks at prayer throughout the day and at meals and spent lots of time in silence… but each silent spell I struggled over what I should or could be “doing” with my time. I even asked the brothers if I could help with any work or dishes. They politely declined the offer and I was back to sitting by myself and starring off into the cornfields.
I ended up reaching out to another guest on the second day who had come to the Abbey with a spiritual dilemma following the tragic death of her son a year ago. I talked with her about scripture and life– nothing terribly earth-shattering but a comfortable conversation about God and love. She seemed challenged by my words, but in a positive way. She noted that she had never had a conversation about spirituality like this before and I told her how rich her spirituality seemed to me. During my time with her I realized all my fear and shame had vanished. She had a warmth about her and I was moved that in her grief she came to a holy place with a question for God. By the end of my visit, I sought her out to say goodbye and thank her for spending some time with me. She hugged me and told me that she was in a better place emotionally than before we began talking a few days prior and that she believed God had brought her there to meet me. I knew in that moment God had also brought me to meet her. The experience was an affirmation for me and my journey. It also became clear that even when we come with no agenda, God will offer us opportunities to minister and walk with someone. And each time we accept that gift, we walk with God.