When I first arrived at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Sping Bank in June 2005, I was struck by the relative isolation of the place. Snuggled between two low ridges, the rectangular enclosure appears right at home in the midst of cornfields and pastures.
I remember getting up in the middle of the first night there and standing on tip toe to peer out the window at the woods, barely visible in a quarter moonlight in the wee hours of the morning. Alone-ness, but yet not lonely.
This physical solitude by itself was healing. However, I soon came to realize that there was a deeper dimension calling out from within this solitude. Part of this silence was due to the relative lack of human contact. With only five monks and no retreat house or guest quarters, one could almost go all day without encountering another human being, except for the eight daily occasions of communal prayer. At these gathering times one's focus is rightfully not on the others who gather with you, but on the One who gathers us. Even at the common table divine reading and music replace the usual buzz of table talk which surrounds this most common of human interactions.
In the midst of the solitude I sensed a certain interior silence, supported through but not engendered by the peaceful surroundings. This silence remains a gift, which, like a single coal from a dying fire, I strive to carry with me between my infrequent visits. This interior sense of peace returns at times, especially when I am in the practice of private prayer.
However, during this last visit I also learned of a third level or aspect of inner quiet.
This is interior stillness.
All is quiet outside. One's inner voices are also stilled by means of attention to the thoughts and cultivation of something resembling a library room quiet- atmospheric but also internal. Within this temple not made with hands, or thoughts or speech I found and find a certain divine Presence. Although the Divine Presence has always been there, I have frequently not been present to Him.
This Presence is best cultivated in solitude and silence. However, these are simply doors through which one enters into stillness. Solitude and silence are the precursors to an inner stillness which became the real subject, object, and result of this retreat.
More about that stillness next time.