Back from the Benedictusberg

Benedictusberg - Tower

The sun streamed into my room through blue skies and  two glorious sets of double-tall, double-wide windows facing the afternoon sun. The fields and farmlands in the valley below me were partially obscured by a thinning layer of fall foliage, down to the last of its papery leaves.

It took some traveling (bus – train – bus – bus) to get to this Benedictine monastery, situated on a hillside right up against the Dutch – German border. But I didn’t mind. After less than half-an-hour at the Abdij Sint Benedictusberg, I felt refreshed already.

The monastery building itself was very simple in its construction: all stone and wood and concrete. Every room in the monastery was equipped with uniformly simple, custom-made wooden furniture — not a cushion in sight — still it was comfortable. Elegant, even. I loved the simple color schemes, all white and grays and browns and muted greens. My guest room was quite large and comfortable, and I was especially appreciative of the large desk facing the windows. It would be home for my much-anticipated three-day spiritual retreat.

Benedictusberg - Guest Room

I arrived at the Benedictusberg a bit later than expected because of some mix-ups about the bus stops. Consequently, upon arrival I had to wait in the front entryway while most of the people on-site were busy with lunch. After fifteen or twenty minutes, however, a bald, bearded, middle-aged monk in a black friar’s robe came to meet me. He introduced himself as Brother Marc, the same monk who had confirmed my e-mail registration word with a two-word response (“genoteerd. welkom.”). He spoke with a soft Limburgse accent, bidding me welcome, then he immediately started leading me to my guest room in the bottom of the southern tower. As we walked through the monastery he offered friendly indications of where I could find the inner courtyard, the gardens, the toilets, and then my room. Leaving me to unpack, he said he would return in 20 minutes to bring me to the dining hall for a late lunch. Quickly placing my things in the cabinet that stood along the one wall of the room, I took to snapping a bunch of pictures with my camera phone, completely charmed by the setting. Shortly a light drumming of fingers on the door indicated Brother Marc’s return to bring me to my lunch.

When I entered the dining hall it was almost completely empty. Two monks with white hair and black robes sat at one end of the long room. The monks at the Benedictusberg are not committed to any sort of vow of silence; however, they ask their guests to respect a general environment of stillness and contemplation. Thus when I first entered the dining hall I could only hear the sounds of their cutlery on their plates. I was shown to a table in the middle of the room where a very impressive lunch awaited me: steaming vegetable-beef soup, meatballs with tomato sauce, asparagus au gratin, three boiled potatoes, a large salad with hard boiled egg on top, a plate with a single piece of wheat bread, and a carafe of water. The food was really good! I ate in silence, but I was somewhat relieved to hear the two older monks occasionally murmuring to each other in low voices (this not completely hard-core about the silence thing). When I finished with my meal, one of the two monks helped me to clean off my place at the table, and then I had about 15 minutes to take a walk through the gardens before the mid-afternoon prayer service.

Benedictusberg - Limburgse Heuvels

The grounds were beautiful. The sun warmed me as I drank in the scenery. Both Germany and Belgium were visible from where I stood, in the Netherlands.

Benedictusberg - Passageway

The church bells started ringing five minutes before the start of the prayer service. Walking quickly through the monastery corridors, I entered the sanctuary and found a seat just before the monks entered. Their liturgy was done entirely in Latin, Gregorian chant. I could understand almost nothing of it, but glancing down into the Benedictine prayer book I brought with me from my room, I noted that they were going through the Psalms, which I quickly cross-referenced in my own NIV Bible. As the monks read / sang from Psalm 114-117, my attention was captured by Psalm 116:7, which said, “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.

The following three days would be a powerful experience of God’s presence and peace, on multiple levels (I hope to write more about my experiences sometime soon). Really, though, the essence of the entire experience was boiled down for me right there, in those words from the 116th Psalm. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.” Even since returning from the Benedictusberg back to Amsterdam and trying to get caught up in my normal rhythms and routines, these words and this sensation have stuck with me. And for that I am incredibly thankful.

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