Restoration Hardware: You Might Need A Retreat in 2018

Assumption Abbey Photo .jpg

It’s a cool store and all but that’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about what you might consider as you look at the unfolding year in front of you. Taking a retreat (or two) this coming year could be the opportunity for your very own restoration hardware and software of body and soul. I’ve written extensively about my retreats to Assumption Abbey in my new book, Meaningful Work. My retreating to the guesthouse of this Trappist monastery, located in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest in Southern Missouri, started 17 years ago. The gravitational pull of this holy ground is fully described in the book. My retreats deepened over the years to the point that four years ago I decided to become Family Brother. I’m no longer a guest but when I visit the abbey, as I did this past week, I live behind the cloister with the monks, and fully participate in their rhythm of prayer and work. But I am getting way ahead of myself so let’s back up and dive in to the “how” you can take a retreat in 2018. I am not going to take time to talk about “why” we all need our hardware and software restored and make the presumption you know who you are. And further presume that you feel this need down deep in your bones. Let’s jump in.

  1. Schedule your retreat and put it on the calendar. Tim Ferriss is right about this; schedule it now, block off the time, buy a plane ticket, make a reservation, do something that will lock you in and diminish the likelihood of cancelling it.
  2. “Time apart from the world” is what the monks call it. How much time should that be? My retreats at Assumption have always been three to five days. I would take longer time if I could and encourage you to try it if your schedule permits. Less than three and it’s not really worth it since it takes me a minimum of 24 hours (more in my earlier days) to settle down without a cell signal or any access to Wi-Fi. I can begin to feel the rhythm of the place at about 48 hours.
  3. Where to go? There are many retreat and meditation centers around the world. There are monasteries all over the world with guest housing. There are forty Benedictine and thirteen Trappist monasteries here in the U.S. that have guest facilities. Most of these places are very inexpensive asking only for a small nightly donation. It’s important to remember that these spots are not The Four Seasons. I will say, however, that guests are very important in all monasteries because in most contemplative traditions hospitality is a critical facet of spirituality. The Benedictine Rule, for example, devotes an entire chapter to the topic, stating, “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.” You might be wondering if a retreat necessitates staying at a religious guesthouse. Of course not. You could stay home and have a retreat, rent a cabin in the woods near you, or pitch a tent on the Pacific Crest Trail. Likewise you may ask if it’s okay to go to a religious place for a retreat, even if you’re not religious and the answer is yes. At my abbey, for example, nobody is expected or required to attend any the five prayer services per day open to the public. There are no monks trying to convert anyone. If you are having trouble finding the right place let me humbly suggest Assumption Abbey, home of the best fruitcakes this side of heaven. Give our guesthouse manager,Jill, a call at the and she will set you up. That way you’ll have an excuse to stop by a chocolate factory that I know located in the town you’ll be flying into before traveling to the monastery.
  4. Who should you go with? My short answer is: yourself. Go alone. There are many types of structured group retreats you can attend which include learning and group discussion and those are indeed beneficial but that is not what I am talking about here. My retreat is one of solitude. This takes a lot of courage because most of us are not used to being alone with the thoughts in our heads that dart from one place to the next. We’re not accustomed to it because we’re able to tamp them down and keep them just below the surface with scrolling, likes, views, shares and retweets. I’ve been retreating for 17 years and sometimes it’s still hard for me. In fact, sometimes it’s downright painful. Sounds like so much fun! Then “why the hell would you want to do this?” you ask. Thomas Merton says “Solitude means being lonely not in a way that pleases you but in a way that frightens and empties you to the extent that it means being exiled even from yourself.” Wait, that might be the comfy quote I was looking for. There’s a point here I promise. The point is that once we can settle in and dip just below the surface of our monkey minds we can find rest and deepen the search for our true selves. And even experience glimpses of pure joy in the process.
  5. What’s the retreat agenda? This is a trick question because an agenda of questions we’re hoping to answer is generally not a good idea and often results in disappointment. I know this from hard earned experience. A general intention for our retreat is a great idea, however. For example, during my visit this past week, while not really a “retreat” my intention was to restart my practice of “centering prayer” as a method of resting in God’s presence. Obviously, we might think in advance, “on this day I want to hike in the mornings and pray at these times and journal at this time.” For the most part, I recommend that you leave big blocks of time for being alone with no agenda but thought, rest, reflection, prayer, walking and writing. It’s tempting to have long conversations with other guests but I’d suggest resisting it as a possible distraction from your solitude. At my abbey you can ask to speak with a monk, the Guestmaster, if you’d like and that can be productive. I tell people to generally schedule that conversation for the next to the last day of the retreat in order to have time to settle down and quiet your mind. However, if the anxiety level is super high at the outset it might be a good to chat with one of the monks right at the beginning or even before you arrive.

A retreat in solitude can be restful and recharge your batteries. Mostly, though, it gives us a chance to momentarily experience our true selves once we reduce the noise. The greatest benefit of a retreat is the awareness that you can “bring it with you” into the world after your time apart. I have yet to master this but I am working on it, details in the book.

“People Come, People Go”: The meaningful simplicity of a monk’s life and death

I’ve been going on retreat to Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the wilderness of Southern Missouri just south of Ava, for about seventeen years. Four years ago I became a Family Brother. I write about that process in our upcoming book released on November 14th. And as a Family Brother  when I’m there I no longer stay in the Guest House but behind the cloister with the monks following their work routine and prayer schedule. Upon arrival each time I stop by Brother Francis’s office and inquire which room – the actual word in monastery speak is “cell” – I am assigned to live in. They’re very small and sparse. My visit two years ago in December was a little different. This time I asked which cell but I prefaced my question with a request. I asked if it would be possible that I not have Brother Boniface’s room. I told Brother Francis that I knew he’d just left to live out his days in a nearby nursing home. I explained that I was close to Bonnie, his nickname, and I would not feel right in his room. Thankfully, Francis acquiesced and gave me an empty cell down the hall from Bonnie’s old room.

Brother Boniface died this week, almost two years after he left for the nursing home, and we committed his body to the earth on Wednesday. Here’s what Bonnie taught me about death and life. I need to begin this story by backing up a bit.

Boniface, the Abbey’s long time  bread baker, cook, tailor and keeper of hiking trails was declining in health after Brother Dominic died. Finally, his dementia got the better of him and for his safety he was moved to a nearby nursing in the little town of Ava. He was originally from Illinois and entered the Trappist life as a monk in 1950. Always a smile and quick wit. I came to know him really well after Brother Dominic’s cancer diagnosis. It progressed and he had to move to a nursing home in Springfield in order to receive hospice care. Dominic was expected to die fairly soon and Boniface was his caregiver. Since the nursing home was so close to my house (and not that close to the Abbey) I visited Dominic and Bonnie almost weekly when I was in town. Outliving the short prognosis Dominic survived almost one full year.

Here is the stunning thing: Brother Boniface lived at the nursing home with Dominic. Not figuratively. He only went home to the Abbey every two weeks for a couple of days to bake bread for his brothers. Somehow the Abbey arranged for Boniface to sleep in the bed next to Dominic in the same room. I remember marveling at the time that I don’t know many spouses who would live in a nursing home with their loved one. Visiting daily for sure, but to live day by day, hour by hour with a sick person, who is totally mentally intact is a gift of service that is beyond compare. Jesus talked of laying down our lives for our friends. “There is no greater love” He said. That was Boniface. He was a simple humble monk who served his friend, his brother, even though it may have hastened his own death.

The story does not stop here.

When Bonnie declined in health and mind he moved to a nursing home and a few weeks after he left I visited the Abbey. Brother Francis kindly did not assign me to his room. It would have been too sad for me to sleep there and he seemed to understand that. I will pick up the story as written in my journal the day after I arrived.

December 29, 2015. Journal Entry:

I searched the work assignments on the bulletin board this morning after Terse for my name. Found it. My work for today: “Shawn – clean Brother Boniface’s room.” I could not believe what I was seeing. I gulped and said nothing. I knew that I had to clean it from top to bottom and get it ready for a new occupant whether I liked that assignment or not.

The year [with Dominic] took it’s toll on [Bonnie]. By the end he seemed more frail, less sharp, tired. He went back to his routine of bread making, cooking and life in the Abbey but mentally he declined rapidly. I’m not sure if he has Alzheimer’s but it would not surprise me. The monks visit him daily, perform mass and check on his condition.    

So, today my work assignment meant clearing the last vestiges of Boniface’s personal things out of his room and clean it up for the next monk or family brother.  A small box of Reader’s Digest magazines dating from the 70s, a few medical items, and one small box of personal effects. One box of “things” that signify, at least externally, that Brother Boniface was here. A 50th anniversary high school graduation program, some pictures from much younger days here at the Abbey that I couldn’t not look through. One great picture caught my eye. The photographer captured the Abbey dog of the time, Dires, licking Bonnie’s face. And Boniface seemed to love the dog (other pictures of the dog were in the box).

Father Robert was passing by in the hallway as I was cleaning the room. Father Robert is 91, became a monk in 1949 when he was 23 years old and now has a long white beard and always a smile. He is the man who taught me Lectio Divina (a kind of praying the sacred scripture) years ago. I showed him the picture of Brother Boniface with Dires. I told him I felt strange cleaning out Bonnie’s room, with him in a nursing home, knowing he’s never coming back here. I expected some kind of shared empathetic reply that might comfort me. Father Robert, off to complete his own morning chores not wanting to chit-chat I could tell, looked up from the picture, smiled at me and said “Well, people come, people go.” And he walked on. To myself: What?! “People come, people go”! That’s it! Five words! That’s all you have to say about your brother of more than 50 years?

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. My incredulity has turned into a version of Lectio from living life. Life Lectio. Father Robert’s reply is perfect. The picture, the room, the one box; those are not who Boniface is as a human being created in the image of God. Father Robert knows that deep, deep, deep, down in his heart. He also has peace that God’s will be done. I guess it seemed a little… abrupt. OK it was but it was also perfect!

End Journal Entry

Bonnie Dires

During Bonnie’s funeral mass this week I pondered this layered story and treasured it in my heart. Father Alberic, the Abbot, asked me to be one of the pallbearers at the last minute, literally, and helped carry Boniface’s body a short walk to the monastic cemetery. It was my humble honor. After the mass and burial I asked Father Paul why we shoveled dirt directly onto his body clothed in his white robe and habit, laid in the grave without a casket on only a wooden board. He said, “Because we committed his body to the earth and the dirt you shoveled on it was our expression of the reality that Bonnie is dead. He’s not ‘out there’ somewhere, he’s with God and his old body is dead.” I drove the winding roads back home in silence reflecting, in gratitude, on my friend Brother Boniface who taught me these things.

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Monks Take A Vow of Stability: The Antidote To The Shiny Object Syndrome

The Rule of Benedict has governed life and business in Catholic monasteries and convents around the world for over 1500 years. In order to become a monk or nun you must take a vow, called a solemn vow, after a three year trial period of discernment. This “practice” is both for the community and the prospective monk to prayerfully determine if indeed this vow is the right thing to do. The commitments made in front of the community and God are “stability, fidelity to the monastic life, and obedience.” As sacred as a wedding vow. I want to talk about the vow of stability.  

Stability is a cornerstone of the Rule of Benedict. Some say that the Rule is the oldest management document in continual use. The pledge of stability is one of place. That a monk or nun will seek the monastic life in this place, in this community. Or as my copy of The Benedictine Handbook says, “This promise is very different from the lifestyle of a wandering monk of Benedict’s day.” There is no question that this promise of stability has anchored the faithful that brings us such joys as Trappist beer, cheese, and fruitcakes. What application might this promise have for us?

While I still suffer from The Shiny Object Syndrome, I am better, not cured. Years in the trenches have both worn me down and given me perspective that I did not have in my 20s or 30s. Not that there really is a cure, it’s more symptom management and discipline than anything else. Guess I should explain a little bit about what it is. It could also be called the “follow your dreams” syndrome. It’s a person’s inability to focus when distracted by the shiny object in his or her peripheral vision. Over time this shiny object can become so luminous that it more than distracts but dominates our thoughts and daydreams. For entrepreneurs this can be devastating if not kept in check. What about Elon Musk and Steve Jobs you say? Well, for every one of them there are thousands of men and women whose businesses succumbed because they could not stay focused on the road ahead.

Fueled by the internet and social media this malady, by the way, is not only found in entrepreneurs but in all of humanity. We are surrounded by shiny objects on our screens. All. Day. Long. I see on Instagram that my friend opened a snow cone stand in Costa Rica. I could do that! Two or three hours later I emerge from day drinking Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest looking for something better than my life now, convinced I will find it in Costa Rica. The problem is not that we’re unsettled seeking a better life for ourselves but that the shiny lure is tempting us now more than ever. And it repeatedly brings us back for more hitting the same reward centers in our brain as crack cocaine. “That other thing has got to be better than this” overwhelms us in a way now that was never possible before. What’s the answer?!

Timeout. Wait. What? I am the poster child for leaving a successful career and starting a new thing. Talk about a shiny object! While it’s true I’ve written a book, with my daughter Lawren, which centers on finding your vocation in business I also talk about STAYING WHERE YOU ARE. I realize that I didn’t stay put but we write at length about that thought process and what it looks like to find your vocation right where you are. Now more than ever — staying where you are — your house, your car, your job, your city, your school, your spouse — takes courage! The chains that once held us to these things (another story) are no longer binding us. It’s easy to leave. Too easy.

I am not suggesting we all become monks and nuns. However, looking at this ancient idea of a “solemn vow of stability” is worthy of our consideration. My grandparents continue as my example on this point. They were married and lived on the same farm here in Southwest Missouri for nearly 65 years. They did not live an easy life but one steeped in stability. Of course things went wrong with the crops, the cows, the chickens, the garden but their lives were deeply rooted in their faith, in each other, in their work, and in their neighbors. Stability gave them peace when the world swirled around them. That’s what it can do for me and you.

The monk’s vow of stability means that they don’t just pick up and move to another monastery when things get tough. I know a monk who is in the process of moving after over 50 years at Assumption Abbey. He’s talked to the Abbot about this for a year or so, prayerfully considered it, and will have a one year trial period at another abbey. This decision is not taken lightly but with great discernment. I am a Family Brother at Assumption Abbey and the the complete process is six years long. I am about four years into my “promise” based on my Rule of Life (loosely based on the Rule of Benedict) and in two years I will take a final vow of sorts, a lifetime commitment to this Abbey. The brothers, the liturgy, the balance of work and prayer help keep me grounded. Like I said, I still suffer from the lure of the shiny objects but I am working on it.

If you see yourself in any of this then I recommend finding your own heroes of stability and talk to them. Ask questions and listen. Seek their wisdom as the elders they are. They can help keep you grounded, in check, and at peace. I hope you can talk to them face to face in person and develop a relationship that spans the years. This human connection might one day enable you to be the teacher when someone much younger than yourself seeks your wise counsel.

Read my book, Meaningful Work: A Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul, co-written with my daughter Lawren to learn more about this topic and others. The book will be out November 14th and is available for pre-order now (just click the book cover to the right).

Grandma and Grandpa With Lawren
My Grandparents, in their mid-80s, holding my daughter (and future co-author) Lawren in the den on their farm