Joco Opinion

The lessons of silence at New Melleray Abbey

Rachel Marshall
Rachel Marshall

These days, silence is often characterized as awkward, uncomfortable, and even irresponsible. But the silence experienced at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, is anything but these. In this remote place, the echoing limestones of the sanctuary help us to hear the reverberations of silence against our own souls like a long forgotten song. Here, aloneness and apartness allows one “access to the heart” to quote the abbot, Father Brendan Freeman.

Today, we are enveloped in a culture where silence is disdained and introversion is scorned—or at the very least discouraged. Taking a personal spiritual retreat at New Melleray is an opportunity to heal the scars involuntary inflicted on our hearts and our humanity by virtue of being alive in a fractured world. I am not Catholic — I identify as agnostic. But praying through the Liturgy of the Hours (Opus Dei) with the monks is a transcendent experience defying words. At the abbey and in the yawning farm lands surrounding it, silence is cherished and revered — not in a punitive, restrictive way, but as in the tranquil, soft opening of a door.

The things of our antagonizing, demanding and spiritually vacuous culture count for nothing in this sacred space. There are no TVs, few computers, and the use of phones is discouraged. The pointless, even Kafkaesque busy-ness of a work ethos we are apt to laud means little here. All are on the same level before God. Life is simplified and organized around prayer, which begins with Vigils at 3:15am and ends with Compline at 8:00 p.m. And there are many kinds of silences: sacred, tranquil, searching and meditative.

I never imagined I would come here. But I, and I think most of us, have become overwhelmed by the superficialities of an increasingly artificial world and all its affects. The simplified formula of this Trappist order of monks touches everything from the dressed down Gothic architecture to the absence of adornment and the deceptively unassuming but satisfying home-cooked meals. Everything is a meaningful reflection of what is important in the life of the monks — and in yourself. Nothing is without purpose here.

the abbey, established in 1849 by Irish monks in the wake of the Irish potato famine, is young compared to its European counterparts. But it offers a connection dating back to the 11th century and the founding of the monks’ order in Citeaux, France — the town’s name being where the term Cistercian originates. The Cistercians were among those seeking to embrace the Rule of St. Benedict, a formula for monastic life outlined in the 5th century by Benedict of Nursia. Benedict’s Rule emphasizes manual labor, prayer and simplicity of living. Through the centuries, monastic reforms caused many monasteries to stray from the Rule. In answer to this, the Cistercians of La Trappe in France founded their own chapter known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The monks at New Melleray and those like them are known as Trappists.

Anyone can benefit from a retreat into silence. If you can go to a monastery, I encourage you. If not, you can make your own retreat at home by building a day around a routine centered in moments of silence. One of my favorite ways to do this is to walk in Shawnee Mission Park. I find I can experience the same isolating silence there as at the monastery. Lastly, I am grateful to the monks for opening their beautiful abbey doors, and not just theirs but mine — and giving me access to my heart. It’s been a long time.

Rachel Marshall lives in Merriam.