The village of Weston, population 566, is surrounded by the green mountains in southern Vermont.
It is famous for two things; the Vermont Country Store where you can buy almost anything that was for sale in the Fifties and the Weston Priory, the Benedictine monastery four miles outside of town. For the past four or five years I have been spending one week a year, sometimes two, in a kind of secular retreat.
The experience of being away from home, from smartphones, laptops, the internet, television, radio is exhilarating and sometimes ominous.
I usually go for five days. I take with me a satchel of books yellow legal writing pads an ipod with all my classical music and earphones. On the ten or eleven hour drive from Toronto, I listen to audiobooks, usually history. my latest five day sojourn was this past November.
My room in the men’s residence has a desk, a lamp, dresser, single bed and a night table. I am provided with two towels and a facecloth. The large picture window looks out on the mountains It is very quiet. As usual I am welcomed by the genial guest master Brother Alvaro.
On the first day I always have to fight off the feeling of a nervous dislocation. I know at some point in the week I will ask myself “What am I doing here.?”
Complete silence is observed only at meal times. The monks are open, warm, friendly. They make it clear that they do not offer individualized spiritual counselling. The food is hearty and varied.
The main meal is at noon. Supper on the first night is bean soup, salad, cheese. Brother Peter, the reader is carefully taking us through the biography of Rabbi Akiva. I’m very tired after the long drive. In bed by nine. I read a chapter of Lincoln in the Bardo, then turn out the small bedside reading lamp.
Breakfast is a half-mile walk from the men`s residence to the refectory. At this early hour, I carry a flashlight. The beautiful pond froze over during the night but will thaw in the midday sun.
In the afternoon, after lunch, I walk the small labyrinth outside the Barn Chapel. The grounds of the monastery have a visitors`centre, a gift shop and the main Stone Chapel.
Walking the labyrinth takes 25 minutes. It is a very peaceful, calming exercise. It is meditative and focuses the mind. The trick is to do a walking meditation to try to shut down the monkey brain.
The eucharist is celebrated at five p.m. The chapel bell brings the faithful from the nearby village and surrounding farms. The Stone Chapel is simply furnished, and is warm and inviting. Even if
you don’t take part in the service, there is something terribly compelling in its simplicity.
In bed and lights out at 9:30
After a cereal breakfast, I go AWOL. I drive into the village to pick up a copy of the New York Times. I buy the paper mainly for the crossword I’ve been doing for the past 20 or so years. But I have to confess to myself that I want to read about the latest Trumpian outrage.
The Weston monks who never have a bad word to utter about anyone on the planet seem to be embarrassed by the current occupant of the Oval Office. One monk embraces me to thank Canada for taking in so many Syrian refugees.
Lunch today is venison steak and vegetables. The meat is tough to cut and difficult to chew. I fill up on the vegetables.
The monks themselves are friendly and funny. Two of them were born in Canada. Each has his own manual labours. One bakes bread and makes honey and candles. Another is in charge of the plant itself. Another handles all the music.
The monastery has been in Weston since the Fifties and has generally prospered. largely through the worldwide sale of religious choir recordings.
No one can come to the Priory and not dwell to some extent on the great eternal questions. Who am I? What is the purpose of being alive? What is consciousness and does everything end at the inevitable moment of death? And how does one lead a moral life.?
I ponder these and other questions in my room but I find that too much introspection leads to a certain amount of discontent. But if there is to be thinking, complex, important questions, this is the place to do it.
Thanksgiving Day, American style. The most important holiday in the US calendar, bigger than Christmas and certainly bigger than Canada’s anemic offering in October.
The early morning was cold and clear. The village of Weston is quiet; everything is closed. Part of the cloistered area of the monastery is opened up to retreatants and people from the local village, many of whom have made meals, helped with the upkeep and volunteered for helping with the eucharist.
Someone says he had seen a moose that morning. People are reminded that the hunting season is in full swing. There is wine and famous Vermont cider.
Later we file into the dining room for the main meal at noon. The serving table heaves under the weight of turkey, salmon, mashed potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, stuffing plus a choice of wines. The music, courtesy of Brother Alvaro, is Brazilian.
One year, on Thanksgiving Day, all the power in the monastery went out. Quick thinking monks disappeared and returned with some very tall altar and sanctuary candles. It was a wonderful way to celebrate Thanksgiving even if it wasn’t my festive holiday.
The question that hovered in my mind and threatened to blemish the noonday feast was this: What in this year of Donald Trump are Americans thankful for? Surveys suggest that most Americans think their country is in a very bad way and are fearful of the direction its leaders are taking it.
Vermont is a poor state. Wages have been stagnant since the early eighties. The towns and villages pray for new investment which will take their economy beyond the seasonal ski economy.
Vermont voters rejected Donald Trump in 2016 by huge margins. The two senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy are both progressives.
The monks eschew conversations about politics but one whispered to me that he was ashamed to be an American.
The monks of Weston are in the world but not of the world. But that does not mean they are naive and wholly uniformed about the forces that confront a shifting world.
Theirs is a lifestyle which might be envied but not emulated. The structures the various routines, the peace and quiet, are what we retreatants are looking for when we travel to Weston. But as a way of life, I’m not sure it answers the questions that a week here generates.
THE LAST DAY
During the Thanksgiving Day eucharist, one of the monks in his homily said that it is the little things that are at the heart of life. If nothing else the four or five days at a Benedictine monastery can fine tune the focus on the little things of life.
On the travel day back home, I have to change the sheets and pillow cases on the small single bed.
It is a chore I hate. But I have learned how to concentrate on making the bed and perhaps turning it into a kind of worship. The hope is that the simple act of making a bed is transferable to other areas of one’s life.
Breakfast as usual is sparse; some cereal, coffee, a toasted bagel. Eaten in a reflective silence. I return my room key to Brother Alvaro, the guest master.
I promise to see him again in a year. A cold wind blows up mixed with a few showers as I start the car to begin the long drive home.