You Are Here to Kneel
Photograph by Tamara Hill Murphy
We arrive at the monastery in County Limerick around 3:00 p.m. By 7:00 p.m., I’m scolded by Father Donovan — twice. By 7:15 p.m., I’m on my single bed, sobbing to my husband across the room on his single bed. I am ready to leave.
Our family and friends gave us this month in Ireland as a second honeymoon in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary. The gift covered about three weeks, but we knew we needed a full month. Our twenty-fifth year of marriage just about knocked us out with emotional, physical, and spiritual demands, and we were drained. We decided to extend the trip to one month, devoting the additional week to a more traditional sabbatical — the Daily Office, study, contemplation, and silence. In my search for a place to retreat, I discovered this ninety-year-old Benedictine community living behind the replicated walls of a twelfth-century castle on the southwest coast of Ireland. They had a room available the week we needed it, and they met our budget (pay what you can).
It felt a bit risky to make the reservation since we are not monastics, nor are we Roman Catholic. We decided to take seriously the reputation of Benedictine hospitality and hope they'd welcome two married American Protestants. I didn’t think about the risk again until we hustled toward the guesthouse doors, weighed down by luggage and high expectations.
We were locked out, but the woman behind the main desk in the reception building assured us that Father Donovan would meet us there. She rang him up to be certain. As for getting into the acclaimed icon chapel, that would be Father Donovan we'd to see as well. So when Father Donovan answered the doorbell, my face was practically pressed up against the glass door. I was impatient for answers to my questions and words for my prayers. The monk did not hasten his gait toward the door. He opened it halfway to us, asked us who we were, and paused, as if evaluating our sincerity.
I could not wait for him to show us our room. I had a more pressing concern. “The woman at the front desk told us you were the one to ask to see the icon chapel?” The color on his ruddy cheeks darkened to almost crimson, “Oh, of course she did. Isn’t that just the way it always goes?” I blinked, unsure of how to respond. Of all the things I’d imagined for my first conversation with a monk, a sarcastic reply didn’t even make the list of possibilities. Father Donovan — still holding the door half shut — launched into a monologue, lamenting his level of energy compared to the demands others make upon his time.
I began to wonder if being here was a terrible mistake. I mentally calculated my losses and interrupted his tirade, “We understand. We’ll be here for a full week, so we have plenty of time.” I said this a bit too brightly. I’d seen the images of the icon chapel on the Abbey’s website and had imagined myself spending hours there in contemplation, perhaps even rhapsody. My daydreams leading up to this sabbatical week did not include an ornery tour guide.
A half hour later, while Brian unpacked, I read and re-read the monastery map. I was looking for all the landmarks I’d studied on the website: church, library, dining hall, pond, and terraced gardens. I figured I had a bit of time between Vespers and dinner to stop by the library. Brian opted out of Vespers, exhausted from navigating our rental car, driving on the opposite side of the road through Ireland’s twisting hedgerows.
I scurried off to the sound of church bells, already forgetting my disappointment about the icon chapel. I was ready to listen to prayers sung in Latin, surrounded by the aroma of incense and musty prayer book pages. Just inside the doors of the Abbey Church, I barely noticed a large placard announcing, due to major construction, the building would be closed after the evening service. During the chanted prayers, I forgot this would be my only time in the marbled sanctuary. But I didn’t think about the disappointment because I was excited about exploring the library afterwards.
In the library, I wandered from shelf to shelf. I was completely alone in the building and nearly giddy in the presence of so many books. I decided with a full week of unscheduled time ahead of me, minus the Daily Office prayers, of course, I could tackle a stack tall enough to reach my eyeballs. I began accumulating from the poetry section: Seamus Heaney and Yeats, of course, and James Joyce because I’d still never read him. I made one trip to the desk in the front of the room to set down an armload of books before returning to the shelves. While I searched for Thomas Merton titles, I heard the door on the other side of the room creak open. I shook off the curious instinct to hide, and stepped out of the stacks to meet Father Donovan’s gaze. I noticed his cheeks were crimson again.
“May I ask what you are doing in here?”
My unnaturally bright voice said, “Just looking through the books.” I didn’t mention the stack I’d already lifted off the shelves. “My husband and I are staying at the monastery for a week.” I wrongfully assumed this would be explanation enough.
“The library is for the community.”
I am relieved to hear this. “Yes, we’re guests. We’re staying in your guesthouse for a whole week.” I wondered how Father Donovan had already forgotten me. He stared back, then looked uncomfortable. I said, “Oh, you mean the monks?”
Of course, the monks. He didn’t speak the words out loud, but I could see it in his eyes. He hesitated and then asked in a way that appeared obligatory, “Is there a book you need?”
My phony-bright voice practically gushed, “Oh, no. I don’t need any books. I have loads of books in my room already.” I said this with an almost haughty tone, as if my own carry-on suitcase could possibly compare to the centuries-old collection behind us. Father Donovan turned toward the exit and I stood speechless until I saw his black robe sweep through the outer door. With a bit of a vindictive flair, I left the stack of books I’d collected in a heap on the desk for some unsuspecting monk to sort out later.
This is when I found my way back to our room, to my resting husband. This is where I flopped down on the plain white bedspread and cried.
I’d like to say the week improved after that, but it didn’t.
At breakfast the following morning, Father Donovan snapped at my husband for taking only enough milk out of the refrigerator for his own bowl of cereal. “We try to run a civilized kitchen here.” He said this as he poured the milk into an ornate silver pitcher. I think he may have muttered something about Americans under his breath.
As announced, the church was closed, leaving only an old room with drop ceilings and florescent lights for the monks to chant prayers. They canceled services without notice, and left a handwritten sign for us to find when we trudged the dewy pathway at 6:30 a.m. We walked to the terraced garden to pray instead. There was a padlock on the gate. Eventually, we received notice through Father Donovan that Morning and Compline Prayer times are cancelled until further notice. We didn’t even attempt noontime Mass for fear of running into a scowling priest at Eucharist.
Back in the guesthouse, the beds were uncomfortable, and the prayer bench in our room was about three times too small for my over six-foot-tall husband. The wi-fi and congeniality of the guest master were intermittent at best.
The other guests seemed oblivious to our discomfort. They didn't hesitate when Father Donovan asked them for explanation about their whereabouts, or why some of the breakfast china was moved a fraction out of place. When he huffed displeasure about an exit door left ajar, they smiled and moved on in what appeared to be reverent prayer.
When I watched Father Donovan hurry to the back door to stop a couple from walking onto a wooded trail behind our building, I began to wonder how much access he has to CCTV. Otherwise, how could he know their impending trespass onto a pathway intended only for the community?
Later, in my room, I selected a book from my suitcase. Before we left home, I had grabbed this unread title off my shelf because I vaguely remembered that in it, Kathleen Norris wrote about her experience visiting a midwest monastery. Weeks ago, I couldn't have known that I would need this American Protestan woman to explain the quirks of a monastic community. I begin to understand Father Donovan in a new way:
Saint Benedict, writing in the sixth century, notes that a monastery is never without guests, and admonishes monks to “receive all guests as Christ.” Monks have been quick to recognize that such hospitality, while undoubtedly a blessing, can also create burdens for them.
I remember the first day arriving to the guesthouse, taking up one of the last vacant rooms. It had not occurred to me that my eager questions might place a burden on an aging, hard-working monk. Norris continued:
A story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery has an older monk telling a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”
Our first encounter with the curmudgeonly Benedictine guest master began to make a little more sense. I would still avoid Father Donovan, but not out of fear as much as a desire to ease his burden of hospitality.
By day three, we discovered another garden, hidden behind stone archways and protected by leafy tree branches. Without the monks to lead us in the Morning Office, we carried our own prayer book and a thermos of hot tea toward a wrought iron bench. Peeved, I almost didn’t notice the beauty of the flower garden bordering the bench. It’s the patter of a single stream of water in the stone fountain that caught my attention. This garden was beautiful.
One of the daily readings in our Celtic prayer book references T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding:
[Eliot] seems in these verses to capture something of the nature of pilgrimage—the precise directions to somewhere often awkward to find; and you’re not sure quite why you came or what it was you’re looking for. If you find it, or it finds you, words cannot easily convey what has happened, but it becomes part of the journey that continues.
I relate to the awkward pilgrimage in Eliot’s poem. I was stunned as I reread a familiar stanza:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
I recognized myself in Eliot’s warning, and slowly began to release all of my touristy expectations for this visit. In its place, I began to feel, instead, the gratitude of a guest.
For the rest of the week, Brian and I walk each morning to the walled garden carrying our prayer book and a photocopy of our church directory. Bit by bit, we pray for each family by name. By day five, I notice a hint of admiration in Father Donovan’s eyes when he asks at breakfast where we’ve been already so early in the morning.
We spend the rest of the week like this, praying and walking the pathways open to us, as guests. Then we return to the dining room to eat breakfast with the other guests under the studied eye of the guest master. Father Donovan takes the morning meal seriously. While waiting over a boiling egg, he explains that every night after Compline and before bed, he sets the table with china and linen. He procures homemade soda bread, eggs for poaching, and bowls of fresh fruit. In the kitchen, he washes the remnants of the dirtied teacups left by guests, and prepares the Crock-Pot for porridge. He fills pottery with gooseberry and currant jam he made from berries he picks in the monastery garden each afternoon.
I begin to understand how is able to notice even a teacup out of place. This kitchen is his prayer garden, the place he walks a pathway each evening and morning.
In the afternoon, we read and nap in our silent room. One or two of the evenings, we attend the fluorescently lit Vesper services. We notice the way the monks arrive to prayer — some early, others barely making it to their seat before the echo of the last bell. Some are stooped and gray, others tall and commanding. We eat in silence with the monks each evening, escorted by Father Donovan, ensuring we don’t arrive too early or make too much noise.
The food is delicious, and graciously served in the community’s private dining room. It is a surprise, the noise level of a silent meal. The monks appear unworried about scraping their plates vigorously, or the noise of the trolley cart one of the brothers pushes around on the hard floor to serve the food and take away empty dishes. Another brother reads out loud during the meal, a history of the 1916 Easter Uprising. When we want salt and pepper, or butter for our soda bread we wait until we make eye contact with another guest and hope they understand our hand gestures. When we are done eating, we wait for the brother serving our meal to notice and remove our plates. One night he smiles and tells a joke under his breath to my husband.
On our last evening, after we help prepare berries for the next morning’s jam, Father Donovan takes us on a tour of the icon chapel. It’s located in the church's crypt, and we all stand awkwardly while Father Donavan assists a wheelchair-bound guest down the handicap elevator to the bottom floor. Inside the crypt, Father Donavan instructs us on the story of each image. He is an eloquent and passionate docent. We are moved by this display, and we are silent — almost prayerful.
I'd planned to start my week here, in the ambiance of ancient images. Instead, I was frustrated by how little say I had in the matter. I struggled for days feeling like I could not fit in to the spirit of the Abbey. I felt ignorant and insecure and was continually tempted to make myself feel better with a prideful orneriness. At times I felt like I was back in high school again, squirming under the disciplines of the environment. If a sign said "No Entry,” I immediately wanted to enter. If prayers began at 6:35, I wanted to arrive at 6:40. For much of the week, it didn’t matter that I had acres of grounds to explore. I was Eve in the Garden, fighting for my rights. I was a tourist craning my neck in curiosity, the grounds and the monks themselves an attraction.
I decided that I was the wrong kind of person to visit a monastic order. I was too uncivilized and unlearned, too ornery and idealistic, and maybe even too Protestant. But during our final breakfast with Father Donovan, I scooped jewel-red currant jam I’d helped prepare onto homemade Irish bread and listened to the monk discuss theology, politics, and the proper method of a coffee press. I began to wonder if maybe I'm exactly the right sort after all.
In the end, Brian and I left a couple of nights early. We caved for the promise of a king-sized bed, cable television, and ice machines. We wanted mystic euphoria and instead received time to sleep, read, study, pray for our parish, eat Irish porridge, and learn humility. Kathleen Norris taught me empathy, T. S. Eliot admonished my contrarian spirit, and my husband, with prayer book and tea, helped me to pray. And not least of all, Father Donovan invited me to enter the true work of the Abbey — to kneel where prayer has been valid. We entered as tourists and left as grateful guests.
Photograph by Tamara Hill Murphy
* Father Donovan’s name has been changed, even though he is not otherwise fictionalized in this account.