After last week’s long article on Richard Rohr, I thought I might take a break and head out to the wellspring of my soul, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.
I was in need. Serious need.
Between listening to endless political ads and my crazy ass schedule of work, I was in need of a spiritual fix. So, I ventured out on I-20 East, trying to dodge the infrastructure fixes of our blessed Loop known affectionately (not) as I-285 Speedway. Fortunately the gods of the Georgia DOT smiled on me, and my passage did not send me deeper into the realms of Hell.
It’s so funny that the pastureland of Conyers has developed so much, so quickly. There are horse farms with paddocks, large yards surrounding the ubiquitous brick houses, but the intrusion of business and shopping centers is jarring to my soul. What used to be a mom-and-pop store where I might stop for a cup of coffee is now a huge island gas station. Yeah, I am THAT old man who shakes his head at all the change, at least here at my beloved spiritual oasis.
I got to the Monastery early afternoon on Saturday. There was a minimal crowd of people, mostly older folks…..like me. There is a huge bookstore, now more of a gift shop, though books do rule the center of the space. I took a clockwise stroll around the structure, which began with Roman Catholic saints in statue form. There were two of St. Francis which were typical of the birdbath depiction of popular thought. One of John Paul II, leaning on an elongated crozier, depicting a piety that remains spiritually seductive, particularly to those that long for the proverbial “good old days”..
Odd that you move from that section to Trappist sweets, jams and jellies made at another monastery, but marketed here. In the corner is a coffee shop, with, of course, coffee, and other Coca Cola (my sponsor) products. I remember the days when the main product sold was the monk’s bread, a wheat bread that carried an air of holiness. No more. Bakery closed except for an incredibly well-done fruit cake. No driving after eating this cake, laced with copious amounts of bourbon and rum. Delicious, rivaling my Collins Street special from Corsicana, Texas. Okay, fruit cake is not cool, but I’m dancing with what’s here.
The rest of the story is sort of funny, Following the wall, there are all kinds of religious trinkets and schlock. I must confess that I am a bit….no, a full-bore snob when it comes to this popular religious art. Someone has figured out the marketing angle of busloads of older Roman Catholics. I made my way around the four walls, smiling, laughing….my resident defense mechanism to such stuff. Here comes that Old Man in me again: I remember when this used to be a spiritual bookstore! Yeah, grandpa….settle your ass down!
Truth is, there are more books in stock now than ever before. In the past, a few tables, with stacks of two or three copies of religious titles that would fill the space. Now, a plethora of bookcases with all sorts and conditions of books. The focus, thankfully, is on the spiritual life, prayer, with a distinct tilt to those from the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition. The fan of modern mystic Thomas Merton will be excited to see a full plate of his titles. There’s a special shelf that features some of the local monks’ work, along with a few well-produced photographic treatments of life in the monastery. All in, the bookstore could be an afternoon’s work, with a lovely reading area provided in the middle of the shop.
Bad news for me was that the bonsai shop is closed. Father Paul, a friend of Merton who had come from the house in Louisville, was the master gardener. For years, I would come to the greenhouse to stand at Paul’s elbow, watching him artistically prune the dwarf trees into works of art. It became known as one of the “go-to” places if you are interested in bonsais.
Confession time: I am a murderer. I have bought and killed several bonsai trees in my lifetime. One, in particular, I bought for the opening of my psychotherapy office at the Brookwood Center on Peachtree Road. I bought a lovely stand for my prized tree to reside. A spotlight lit the scene dramatically. “Perfect” I thought, as the champagne corks popped at our opening. Some of the monks came by to survey my wondrous office. It was quite the moment. As I said, “Perfect.” Except for one small issue……the airflow from the AC was positioned to mess with the ecosystem balance of my tree. This botanical specimen died an ignominious death, a tree that was so expensive that I paid for it on a Monk’s time payment plan. A “write-off”, my accountant offered to assuage my grief. Another tree died at my hands, on my watch. Damn. Dave the Ripper.
In recent years, the bonsai shop no longer had the oversight of Paul, who had departed for that monastery in the sky. Without his expertise and personality, the shop was doomed. They tried to diversify the shop with other gardening accoutrements but it did not bring in the revenue needed. So it is closed. It looked rather ghostly as the display greenhouse and shop are bare. Did I mention “ghostly”?
Connected is a wonderful museum which is joined with the original monastery, which was an old dairy barn where the monks lived as they built the present structure. Farming, cattle ranching were early ways of supporting the life of the monks. Their spartan life is chronicled in this museum, and the “story” of the monks is told in a well-produced video that is able to be viewed in a small theater. The museum itself is worth the trip, and sometimes Father Tom is positioned at the entrance to “greet” you. You may be there for a spell….but it will be a memory worth holding onto, pondering.
There is a retreat house that offers people a place to come and stay, in a guided retreat setting around a spiritual topic. Or, one may set up a private retreat, utilizing the spiritual counsel of one of the trained monks. Occasionally, there are special opportunities to encounter leading spiritual teachers who bring fresh perspective to the life of the spirit. The retreat house offers meals for the retreatants during their stay. And you can choose to take your meals in the dining room where you can talk, sharing your stories and question. Or you can choose the “silent” dining room where you are to refrain from talking. Introverts and extraverts are both welcomed in this spiritual house. You can inquire about a visit at their website by googling trappist.net .
The grounds of the monastery are gorgeous, well-maintained, and provide a natural setting for reflection and meditation. There is a lake for viewing, along with some feisty geese in need of exorcism. Back in the day, Flannery O’Conner’s peacocks lived in a pen, as she had been a frequent visitor. Their screams in the dead of the night would wake me, wondering who was being killed in this Gothic novel in which I was living.
The monastery church is simple but stunning. It was built by the young monks who came from the monastery, Gethsemane Abbey, in Louisville, Kentucky. That was the very monastery community that was the home to Thomas Merton, one of the more significant writers and spiritual guides in the 20th century. Many of those early monks had been friends and students of Merton. They came here to Conyers in 1944, living on a dairy farm, and inhabiting the barn until their permanent quarters were built.
The church itself is simple in design, a poured concretes structure, plain, bordering on stark. The stained glass, made by the monks, provide for a space for prayer that is bathed in blues and purples thanks to the moving natural light source, adding dappled color with their own majesty. It is one of my holy spaces on this planet.,
The church has been under renovation during the pandemic, with new choir stalls with baffling installed. When I was there on Saturday, there is some work going on in the front, necessitating entrance using the side door. There are five times of prayer in the church, which are open for the public. Vespers is at 5:20 in the afternoon and gives you a chance to hear the chanting of Psalms, a monastic tradition. My favorite liturgy is Compline, at 7:30 PM with special chants that end the monks’ day before entering into the Grand Silence, which they will keep until morning prayers at the dawning of a new day of Creation.
For me, my visit flooded my mind and heart with the faces of the monks. While I love the grounds and the various buildings, the holy men themselves left an indelible mark on my soul.
Abbot Augustine, known as Gus. Straight out of Central Casting, the rotund, bald monk was a favorite partner on my walks around the grounds. He allowed me to live at the monastery for a summer while I “tried on” life as a monk. I was six weeks into burn when I went to his cell to inform him that I did not think I would be able to fade this celibacy thing…..his kind laughter let me off the hook, and gave me permission to find another way “home”.
Father Francis, a mini-monk, who for years greeted school children who came to visit the monastery, was the literal gatekeeper. He taught this South of God boy how to pray the Rosary, and gave me an appreciation for the purity of the basic folk religion which I observed in a small grotto chapel in the crypt area, graced by a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A magical, mystical tour of the soul.
Father Joachim, a monk who had “visions” and visitations. He was one of the main organizers around group that would gather for a visitation from the Blessed Virgin Mary to a lay woman, Nancy Fowler. On the 13th of every month, in the 1990s, an apparition of Mary would appear to a divorced housewife, with messages of love. People from far away would come to the monastery to hear of the recent appearances. I was on my Texas sojourn during that time so I missed what sounds like was quite a show, and Joachim served as Nancy’s priest. One of my treats was to help him set up the Nativity Creche outside the church at the beginning of Advent. He had an innocence which was childlike, refreshing to a cynic like me. He was my apparition!
Father Thomas, who led me into the practice of Centering Prayer, baptizing the Transcendental Meditation technique that the Beatles picked up from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Tom also patiently taught me the intricacies of sacramental theology. In many ways, he has been my Yoda.
Father Francis Michael, a young man from Philly who had a love for volleyball, nature, and particularly birdwatching. He and I have been like brothers throughout our lives.
Father Methodius, the artisan who heads up the amazing work of stained glass, who shares my love of music.
Father Paul, who was the founder of the bonsai greenhouse and the master of that art.
That’s only seven….I could name thirty more. Some irascible like Brother Louis who parlayed his disability with deft; some worldly-wise like New Yorker Brother Ken who had some repenting to do; some writers/artists like Father James who plied the trade of poetry from within the cloister. Each had a story that led them to this solemn vow of being a monk, of finding this particular and peculiar vocation. From a variety of backgrounds and stories, each one had a deep desire for a connection with God, best promoted within a monastic community. And each man offered prayer and prayers for the world, for you and me.
I take a certain comfort, not Southern, that I know that I am on the community’s prayer list every morning at Mass as an Associate of the Order. And I have had and have my name on the prayer list of individual monks that lift me up each morning, each evening. So like Carl the Greenskeeper in Caddy Shack, who looped for the Lama, I have that going for me…which is good.
The workings of prayer, the causal relationship of the mention of a name in an intercessory way, is beyond my spiritual pay grade. I have no clue how that works, the economy of prayer. As Flannery might chide, it’s a mystery. And yet, I pray for people that are on my heart and mind each day during my discipline of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, an Anglican short-form form for the monastic raft of prayer times demanded from a cloistered monk. All I know is that I have been surprised by prayer many times over the years.
And when I say “surprised”, I mean SURPRISED. “Shocked” actually is closer to the feeling. I have never felt comfortable “insisting” when it comes to the Godhead. Rather, my prayer normally is more of a discipline of aligning my errant will with that spirit that Jesus embodied, the image of servant. I know how that econ9omy works, and I have been recipient of several windfall paydays, gratefully.
And having these guys here at the Monastery praying for me gives me a damn good feeling, a peace that is said to pass understanding, at least my own. You could say, as Paul Simon wrote, it’s my Ace in the hole.
Do yourself a solid during this coming holiday season. Get your Self to a Holy Space, a liminal place, where the line between the Now and the Eternal seems thin, so that you might catch a glimpse, get a whiff, or even cop a feel of the Eternal. Blessings.