Just returned from three bizarre days at a Benedictine monestary and the major theme of the week seems to be death, death and a little more death.
Why, you ask, was I at an abbey for three days? Some of you may know that I work for a church (long story, which can be found in my introduction) and they sent the entire staff on a retreat to an Abbey, paid for by the church. The church is not Catholic, but has a good relationship with the Catholic Church despite theological differences. The retreat wasn't mandatory, but my curiousity to get a glimpse of monastic life got the best of me (and a free, paid vacation of silence and rest and meditation was hard to turn down to tell the truth).
It was quiet there, although I never felt completely at peace for the entire three days. There was a definite heaviness in the air at the monk's abbey where I was staying. I was comfortable enough in my sparse accommodations and I valued the solitude. But for whatever reason, I can't describe the place as "peaceful".
Before I went up the abbey, I discovered that ten years ago, there had been a shooting at the abbey and two of the brothers were killed. The shooter had not had any connection to the Monestary or the monks. Seemed to be a random, senseless act. While I was reading about the shooting, I also read about allegations against the monks of pedophilia and molestation. Perhaps my knowledge about these events tainted my experience of the no estate and the tiny self-contained community around it.
On the second day, I was invited to go to visit the Sisters that live in a nearby convent. Again, my curiousity took hold. The minute I stepped onto the property of the Sisters' I felt more at ease. Unlike the monk's abbey which also housed a library and seminary and had many people coming and going, this place was so quiet and still. Only 80 Sisters remained here, many of them elderly and they lived in complete solitude. And this is where I found peace for a short time. But this is also where things began to get strange.
After a short tour of the convent, I was left alone in the chapel to take pictures. It was beautiful in there, full of old mosaics and statuary from Europe. The air felt sacred rather than heavy and dark like the monks' basilica. It felt warm and welcoming to me. Out of habit, I dipped my fingers in the font of holy water and as I did, the tower bells started ringing. I didn't think anything of it until an older sister came bursting into the chapel. She came to me and put her hand on my back with a worried look on her face and my mind was racing. Had I done something wrong? Was I not supposed to be there or to touch the holy water?
"Would you say a prayer?" she said, sorrowfully, "One of our sisters just passed away,". I thanked her for telling me and she went and knelt to pray. Soon other sisters came into the chapel and began to silently pray. Many of them were crying. I sat in the back of the chapel and was quiet, soaking in the moment. I prayed. Not to the Christian God or the Christ, but I looked around at the statues of Mary and the other saints and I sensed so much MORE in that room than just the so-called Holy Spirit. I prayed to saints and to the spirits of all the Sisters that had once lived here over the 200 years that building had been there. And I reached deeper to the spirits of the land with whom these sisters lived so harmoniously. And I asked them to care for her in death as they had in life and to guide her to peace.
After leaving the chapel, I went to the relic museum they had on site. I stood among over 600 relics...bone fragments and teeth and hair, many centuries old. I looked at their certificates of authenticity which were themselves hundreds of years old, many of them stating that the convents these artifacts had come from had them in their possession since the Middle Ages. And at the end of the reliquary, there was a glass case which held a tiny corpse, the skeletal remains of a child martyred in Roman times. The juxtaposition of the bones, with the bells still ringing in honor of the dead Sister was odd. The moment seemed sacred.
When I returned to the monestary where I was staying, I attended the Vespers prayer time with the monks. But as they began to chant their psalms, I had a terrible coughing fit that sent me running out the back of the basilica out into the cold. Horrible spasms of uncontrollable coughing with phlegm and convulsions. Later, I told my coworkers that it must have been the frankincense that triggered my fit, but fuck. I am a witch that used to be a minister....frankincense is an old friend of mine and I've never had any irritations. To be honest, I felt driven from the room. Whatever spirit that dwells there didn't take a liking to me and I avoided the monks' prayers for the rest of my time there.
I went to a talk that evening that had been set up by my work. I didn't know what the topic was until I got there. It turned out to be a pastor speaking who had lost his young daughter the year before. The title was "Death, hope, and the laughter of God." He was a remarkable speaker, and despite my absence of faith, I could not help but be moved by his words and his story. it was a heavy, heavy atmosphere in the room, especially for those in the room with children. As I sat beside my boss, listening to the Pastor speak about how he learned the news of losing his daughter in a car accident, I heard my boss's voice in my head, saying the name of his own daughter. Later he confided to me that all he could think of while listening was about his daughter who is set to get her driver's license this month.
When he had finished his talk, there were prayers offered for all of us who may have had wounds opened in sharing this pastor's grief, prayers to cut spiritual bonds. I went back to my room and talked to my ancestors a while, meditating and grounding myself. Just before falling asleep, I asked my tarot to help me make some sense of the events of the day, and the card I pulled was the "Mourning" card of my Wildwood deck...reversed.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of all that. Whether it's an omen of death, or some sign of change in my life, I don't know. A tarot reading I had done a week ago had showed that same Mourning card as something that was coming to an end in my life, something that resonated with me and where I have been the last year or so.
So it's got me thinking, listening and watching.