Monastery of the Visitation



Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Monastery of the Visitation


What a week this has been! It began with a train to Paris, and from Paris, I took the Eurostar to England! England is such a lovely country-- it's beautiful, and the people are just so darn charming. If I ever move back to Europe, I've got my eye on the UK.

The reason I travelled to England was that I wanted to live with nuns for a few days! So, once in Ashford, I rented a car and head towards the Monastery of the Visitation, a nunnery that invites women to retreat with them. I'm not sure I needed a "retreat" in the traditional sense of the word, but it absolutely turned out to be a time of rejuvenation and relaxation for me-- more on that later.

So, once in Ashford, I rented a car and took off! The monastery was nestled deep in the woods of East Sussex. The countryside was absolutely beautiful (what I saw of it at least). I'm sure I might have seen and enjoyed more of the scenery had I had the peace of mind to take my eyes from the road on the way there. I was such a nervous wreck. For the first time in my life, my hands were at 10 and 2 for the entire drive.

And it wasn't even driving on the left side that was hard-- I adjusted to that fairly quickly. It was driving a stick shift that got me. Like, how on earth do you start moving again when you're stopped on an incline?! (I can roll backwards just fine, but accelerating forwards...) I never did figure out how to do it gracefully. I had to restart the car more times than I'd like to admit. And what really got me was knowing that the people sitting in their cars behind me were probably thinking how terrible women drivers are and I'm there putting along, proving them right! Honestly, I need so much more practice with a manual car.

Thankfully, the monastery was out in the country, so I was able to stick to the back roads where traffic probably wouldn't have been backed up had I not been there to do the backing. These people were flying down these narrow roads where side mirrors skimmed by with millimetres to spare. I was terrified every time a car approached me.

It was a struggle. I almost wish I had spent the extra money to get an automatic (but then I wouldn't have anything to brag about, so where's the fun in that?); although, it surely would have saved me tons of stress.

When I finally arrived, I was about ready to convert to Catholicism just so I wouldn't have to take the car back!

As soon as I got there, a sister was there to take me in. I had interrupted their supper, but they were gracious about it. I was happy to sit and eat, although it was strange to be thrown right into the middle of it so suddenly. I learnt then that there is a method to everything the sisters do. At the table, every place is set neatly and every person has a place.

After supper, I went to my room to unpack, then a little while later, I was invited to join the sisters for Compline. This turned out to be my favourite time of day. This service was held in the candle light, and there was more singing than at the other services. I followed along as best I could and sang with them. One of the sisters was kind enough to find my place for me in the books before every service. Turns out, I'm quite helpless when it comes to The Divine Office.

After Compline, the sisters went upstairs to bed and I returned to my room. After I'd unpacked everything, I made myself some tea at the tea point and sat down to browse the books on their shelves. After tea, I went to bed and fell asleep quickly because the room was warm, the bed was comfy, and I was so relieved to have made it all in one piece!

The next day began with the sun streaming through my window. Friday was the most beautiful spring day. I went to breakfast and then one of the sisters showed me around before she let me go explore the place. Between breakfast and Mass I had about an hour and a half, so I walked the grounds and just enjoyed the outdoors.

Mass was an interesting experience. I've been to a few French Masses, and an Italian Mass, but I don't remember ever going to one in English. It was nice. The priest was very welcoming and had a deep, calming voice as he read the scriptures and offered communion.

After Mass, I had another hour and a half before the Office of Readings. I took a book from the library and found a bench in the sun and spent my time there. At noon, I went with the sisters to Office, then we had lunch, and then a second Office. The afternoon is left mostly free except for tea time at 3:30. I took a short nap before tea, then headed outside once more.

The grounds around the monastery are beautiful. There are fields of yellow flowers and
trees everywhere. As it is spring, the ground was very wet, so I couldn't go some places, but I made my way around.

Recently, the sisters moved from their old monastery into a new building. The old building sits a short walk from their current building. The grounds are extensive there and were incredible. I walked through the gardens several times.

One thing that really surprised me was how quickly the time passed when I was enjoying myself and not worrying about the time at all. At afternoon tea, the sisters come and go with their tea and snack. I was given a small snack and tea, and was allowed to sit in silence and fully appreciate the act of eating and drinking. I ate at a normal pace. I looked out the windows and watched leaves rustle in the breeze and had a lovely time there in the silence with my tea.

When I stood to leave, I glanced at my watch and couldn't believe that nearly a half hour had already passed! That doesn't seem like a long time, but I hadn't even noticed it passing.

After tea, I sat with my book again until Vespers before dinner. I particularly enjoyed this time as well. During this one, the sisters would pray aloud their own prayers after reading through the written prayers. This time seemed most sincere to me, as I could see the heart of the sisters and what they loved and cared about.

At dinner, we listened to classical music, which didn't bother me a bit (actually, I really liked it!). The food was always delicious, and I'm sorry that I didn't get a chance to thank the sister who prepared it everyday. Again, except for the music, we ate in silence, and until you do that, you can't imagine how wonderful it is.

I ended the night with Compline and tea. (When I got back to Poitiers, I promptly went to the grocery store to buy tea. Lovely.)

The next day was much the same as the first in that I went to all the services; except that it was dreary and overcast outside (rainy days are my favourite days). It didn't stop me from wandering the grounds again. How often do I get to spend two days in the English countryside with nothing to do and nowhere to be, surrounded by flowery fields and tree covered hills? You better believe I was spending time outside.

When I was inside, I was happy to sit in the comfy chairs to finish my book and get some more writing done. I took my Bible and spent some time with it, and also spent a good chunk of time reading through the Catholic Encyclopaedia (hey, I don't know much about it and I'm a curious person).

It's a nice lifestyle. It isn't entirely silent all the time, but it is very quiet all the time. The chapel is filled with singing when the sisters are there, but the rest of the place is often undisturbed with noise. Before I went, when I would tell people what I was doing, they joked about it being easy for me to be quiet because I'm already such a quiet person, and it wasn't really difficult to not talk, except that I could have asked the sisters a million questions about their lives.

Another thing about the silence is that it's so very non-threatening. I felt completely at ease among the sisters. For the first time (maybe ever), I didn't feel like I had to have everything together in case someone was watching me. And even if someone was watching me, I felt that they would accept me as I am which is a complete mess. That was probably the best part of the whole weekend.

In all honesty, I'm attracted to what the sisters do. To live in a place where I can wake up to the woods every morning would be glorious. I like how structured everything is. I like the routine of it all. That's not to say I'll be joining them anytime soon (because I know there is so much more to what they do that I didn't experience), but I felt a definite lack of something in my own life that I found at the monastery.

In recent years, it's been a trend to 'be present' wherever you are, and with all the distractions of today, that is often difficult to do. I try to be present when I'm with people; I try to give them my full attention, but sometimes I fail. I realized this week that there's a flip side to being present-- It's not only for when I'm with other people, I need to be present with myself too. I often pass time distracting myself. I watch Netflix while I'm eating and have music constantly playing in my apartment.

As I was enveloped in the silence at the monastery, I was taken aback by how nice it was to just be. I left my phone in my room all day. I didn't watch TV. It was awesome. (I realize that it's not always necessary to be present, and distractions aren't all bad. I'll still be watching copious amounts of Netflix.) I'm at a loss for how to describe just how great the whole experience was.

I wish I could have stayed a day or two more, but I had homework due Sunday night, and I'll be real with you-- going without Google was really driving me mad. (I started a list of things to Google when I got home... sometimes I have an unhealthy need to know things.)

I will absolutely do this again if I ever have the chance, and I really cannot recommend it enough. The sisters were wonderful-- genuine and entirely welcoming. Once my mind quieted down, I began to realize things about myself and it helped me get back to a place I want to be mentally and emotionally. It was a healthy exercise for me.

When I returned to Poitiers Sunday afternoon, I promptly got my homework finished and turned in, then spent the rest of the evening and the next day doing nothing. I was really counting on volleyball Monday night, but they cancelled it. Then Tuesday, I packed and went to French class.

Today, me and the other two are travelling to Amsterdam! I'm quite excited about this trip. This is the last big trip I have before I have to go back to class. (Did you remember that I'm actually here to go to school?? Me either.)

Anywhow 2 months until I go home. That's 57 days. May 29. (Just in case you forgot.)

Je t'embrasse,