I arrived at Central House Monastery on Sunday, January 5, 2007, around 5:30p.m. My family had been quite nervous about me driving through New England in the dead of winter, but I encountered no snow on the two-day trek. Five minutes after I parked my car on the monastery driveway, snow began to fall.
“You must be Clint,” an elderly nun held out her hand as I walked towards the door, “I’m Sister Cleo*. Welcome to Rose House.”
I entered the monastery house, which immediately struck me as extraordinarily quiet, and Brother Arch, then the guest steward, showed me my quarters and went briefly over the general rules. A bearded man in late middle-age, he spoke tenderly and soft, but he also appeared subtly self-conscious, as if I was a potential employer giving a job interview and he wanted to make a good first impression. And it occurred to me that they had all been anticipating my arrival for quite some time. For a contemplative community of six nuns and two monks, where the highlight in the day is often the side dish at dinner, housing a long-term guest whom no one has ever met is potentially high drama.
I noticed a framed quote by Yeats, hanging on the wall in the entrance-way:
“Let us make our minds so like still water that beings gather around us so that in our quiet we live fiercer lives.”
I’m in good hands, I thought.
Dinner was shortly served, and it was a talking dinner. Father Hilton, a tall, thin man in his late thirties, sat at the head of the table and introduced me to the community, in order of seniority: Sister Cleo, Mother Mirabel, Sister Jessica, Sister Calliope, Brother Arch, Sister Marlee, Sister Loretta, who was at that time a postulant, and Emily, an associate of the order, a poet, who lived down the street and often joined us for meals and services. People asked me about Atlanta, about the drive up, and the friendly banter was often laced with witty jokes. I felt like I was back home in Atlanta, meeting old friends for coffee. At one point, police sirens sounded in the background.
“Here they come,” joked Brother Arch.
“Uh, guys, there’s something I didn’t tell you,” I said with mock-drama, “about the real reason I needed to come to a monastery for six months.”
Everyone laughed. I had noticed that bells rung three times before dinner, so I asked Father Hilton,
“Now, do bells ring in the morning to wake us up?”
“Actually,” he began sarcastically, “bells ring every hour during the middle of the night at which point I barge in your room and require you to get on the ground and prostrate three times. Then you go back to sleep until it happens all over again the next hour.”
I laughed. After dinner, he motioned me into the parlor. We both seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief. Yes, this would work out okay.
“You know people get all these notions in their head about monks and nuns,” he began warmly, “and I tell them, ‘we’re just people.’ Our vows, our way of life, our faith – we’re deeply and genuinely committed to it, but you’re not going to get any sort of....what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Hyper-piety,” I offered.
“Yes. We won’t have any sort of hyper-pious or holier-than-thou judgments on you. We’re really pretty laid-back. We’ll often get postulants who want to join the order and they’ll be freaking out, and their family will be freaking out, and I tell them, just come. Just come and see how it is.”
That first night, after Compline, I returned to my room thinking it was much too early to go to sleep. It was only nine-o’clock, an hour that hadn’t been my bedtime since early childhood. No matter what my schedule in the world mandated, I always defaulted into artist’s hours, staying up late in order to have the world's energy to myself, and sleeping through most of the morning. I had slept until eleven that morning, in a hotel room on the road, and I remembered having at least several cups of coffee on the second half of my drive that day. I was not sleepy in the least. Nevertheless, I climbed into bed.
I closed my eyes, and I immediately felt a warm embrace entering my consciousness. And rather than simply seeing nothing, golden light filled my inner vision. The embrace, though, did not feel intrusive or even dramatic; it felt more like a dense air holding and guiding me into myself. I was led deeper and deeper inward, like being lowered down into a well, until I was gracefully and instantly sound asleep.
A couple of days later I told Father Hilton about the experience.
“You know, I had an old friend stay here awhile back – she had recently been raped and hadn’t been able to sleep at all since the experience. So I invited her out here. And the first night she stayed here, she went right asleep and slept through the whole night.”
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Names of people and places have been changed to protect confidentiality.