Lessons from the Convent

IMG_0497Last spring, I began making plans for a study retreat.  I set aside an entire work week – August 3-7.  Then I began looking for the right setting.  I had four criteria:  I needed internet – for some writing projects, a place within a reasonable driving distance, reasonable cost, and a conducive environment.  After some googling and some correspondence with a few places, I decided upon the Community of the Transfiguration, outside Cincinnati.  I reserved an apartment for five nights.  The cost, including three meals a day, was $265!

The apartment was spacious:  living room with table big enough to work on, small kitchenette, bedroom, bathroom, even a porch!  IMG_0471

I arrived late Monday morning, ready to work.  I had a milk crate full of books in my trunk, my laptop, and a long to-do list.  I had been told I’d be eating with the sisters.  My hope was to eat my meals as quickly as possible, and spend most of my time by myself, working.  I was anxious to get started.

When I checked in, I was told that Sister Jacqueline would give me a tour and show me my apartment.  Sister Jacqueline, about 4’8″, was not in a hurry.  She showed me every nook and cranny of the convent, especially proud to show me pictures of the history of the order.  She told me that the sisters prayed four times a day:  before breakfast, before lunch, before dinner, and before bed.  By the time I unpacked my car, it was almost lunch time.  I decided to go to worship (“noon office.”)  The small chapel, the oratory, in the convent, has two-person pews.  I was assigned a seat next to Sister Eleanor, who could not have been more patient with this free-church Protestant who could never figure out the Book of Common Prayer.

Mealtimes, I soon learned, had their own rituals.  Stand outside the dining room until the bell is rung.  Find your napkin ring.  Stand for prayer (even though we’d just come from worship!)  Sit for a scripture reading.  “We have very peculiar customs,” Sister Hope said.  But even they forget what they are from time to time, giggling when they say the wrong prayer.

There would be no rushing at the convent, no leaving before the meal ended with a prayer, and no way for me to avoid getting to know and deeply appreciate these women.  As the week went on, I had the opportunity to meet many other guests, some of whom have been connected to the community for decades, others of whom were first-time guests like me.

I learned (or re-learned) that assumptions are so often inaccurate. My assumption that Episcopal sisters would be conservative and traditional was off the mark.  Their genuine hospitality has made them a welcoming place for a wide variety of people, including many in the LGBT community.  I shouldn’t have been shocked by that, since that is in keeping with the policies of the Episcopal Church, but I hadn’t anticipated it.  Nor had I expected to see an 80-year-old sister reach into her habit and whip out an I-phone to show me a picture!

I probably spent, on average, an hour a day worshiping with the sisters.  It was far from wasted time.  This retreat was my most productive, by far.  The time I spent working was efficient.  Maybe because the days were so structured?  Maybe it had something to do with prayer.

I came for a study retreat.  I got that, but so much more.  It ended up as a spiritual retreat, offering me the gifts of rest and renewal I hadn’t even known I needed so badly.  And I received the gift of friendship with a community I look forward to visiting again.IMG_0496

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