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Unplugged in the San Juan Islands: Retreat and Recharge @ Our Lady of the Rock Monastery

Monastery Pasture at Dawn

With fall in the air, it is only natural to look back wistfully on your summer vacation. No doubt many of you went away to exotic places. Your days were probably jam-packed with fun activities like beachgoing, sightseeing, shopping, or trekking the Himalayas. Mine was a bit different this year. I decided I was tired and needed a restful retreat. So I packed up and headed for the Pacific Northwest's San Juan Islands, a divine spot off the northern coast of Washington state. Oh sure, there are lots of activities up there, too, like kayaking, whale watching, and hiking. But I knew I needed a more profound rest. I needed to UNPLUG—away from phones, computers, TVs, noisy hotels, and crowds. I needed a body, mind, and soul vacation. So, much to the chagrin of my family and friends, I headed for a monastery!

Accessible only by ferry, and with a mere 200 inhabitants, this little piece of heaven is home to a cloister of Benedictine nuns who work their 300-acre farm, complete with raw-milk dairy and vegetable, flower, and herb gardens. They raise sheep, llamas, and alpacas for their wool. Cattle and dairy cows provide them with meat and milk. The nuns’ vocation, or work, is to pray the Divine Office, an ancient ritual dating back to the times before Christ; they recite the Old Testament's Book of Psalms. What is unique about their practice is that they have chosen to keep the time-honored tradition of the melodic, mysterious tones of Gregorian chant in Latin.

A self-sufficient group, they receive no income or sustenance from the Roman Catholic Church or the Vatican. Rather, these holy women who live off the land in seclusion rely on donations from visitors for a good portion of their income. Their hospitality offers a gracious invitation to people from all walks of life to take a respite, a retreat from the world, to relax and reflect. Visitors may participate in the rhythm of monastic life to work, pray, and rest. Being Catholic is not required to be a guest. The nuns receive guests regularly from around the world.

Much to my surprise, I awoke effortlessly every morning at 5:30. I'd pull on my clothes while others slept, make coffee, and walk up a long gravel drive to the chapel. The farm was still quiet; the only creatures to greet me were a few roosters crowing at day's first light. Up that road, in the small wooden structure, heaven and earth seemed to meet, as I listened to the nuns sing. Afterward, I would retire to my quarters for rest or take a morning walk, admiring the view and snapping a few pictures. At 8 a.m. I would return to the chapel for Latin mass, feeling as though I had somehow traveled back in time a few hundred years. These mornings were especially peaceful, not at all like the ones spent at home. Only the cows and a few guests were up and about enjoying the stillness of the pastures.

The day consisted of two work sessions, one from 10 a.m. to noon, the other from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. I spent every morning shift working the lovely vegetable garden, full of summer squash, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, green beans, and cabbage. I spent afternoons packing mustard (one of the homemade treats they sell at the gift store), feeding cows, or simply chatting with guest secretary Mother Hildegard.

Visitors reap the rewards of summer's bounty at dinnertime! From homegrown vegetables, fresh-laid eggs, home-baked bread, and sweet raw milk, the meals were incredibly delicious. Hot lunch and dinner are served to guests daily. I never knew that monks and nuns ate so well! After some research, I learned that when governments collapse, hungry people often head to monasteries, knowing that good food grows there! God forbid we go just for the meals—but it is tempting!

The nuns live by the rule of St. Benedict, a monk from 500 AD, who set forth that a monk's daily life should include a practice of prayer and work, interjected with times of quiet rest, reflection, and study. This balance has withstood the test of time, and it agreed well with my mind, body, and soul. I enjoyed this rhythmic way of life only for a week, yet emerged from my vacation rested, renewed, and invigorated. Surprising! Usually, I come home tired from a trip and need a vacation from my vacation! 

So if the busy-ness and noise of the world are creeping in around you, and you sense a need for deep respite before the holiday season, try something different. Try going away to a quiet place, where you can participate in and enjoy the ancient rhythms of monastic life. You may very well just find heaven on earth. I did.

  Mother Cat's Dilectible Bread




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