God enters by a private door into every individual.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
My call to the Westmalle Monastery in Belgium, famous for its world-renowned beer, was answered by a stern man. I asked if he spoke English and he answered curtly, “A little.” I asked him how I could visit.
“When?” he asked.
“September” I replied giving him two dates.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well,” I answered nervously unprepared for the question. “I’ve always wanted to visit a monastery, to take some time to reflect, to think about our place in this world and connect with God.”
In truth, to “live with the monks” had been a goal of mine since I took a seminar in college 20 years before on the subject of Transcendentalism. After reading Self-Reliance, I did not abandon my Catholic faith or trust in authority. I wasn’t radical enough to do that. It did, however, challenge my pre-conceived notions about the power of silent prayer versus the value in Mass. I heeded the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind” and pushed myself to hear the voices that only one can hear in solitude, something that has never come easy for me. I found sitting in the silence of my university’s Cathedral and by its pristine lakes more enlightening than the manic ritual of Mass.
“OK” the Westmalle attendant said cutting me off and crushing the K with his guttural accent. “Good. See you soon.”
I figured I would offer details like my name and credit card. But by then he had already hung up the phone.
I arrived in Antwerp, Belgium, in September of 2016, at the end of a work trip and based on the uncertain invitation from the Westmalle attendant. I enjoyed a night in the beautiful city but my mind started to wonder as it always had when I found myself alone. I became filled with self-doubt and anxiety. The late-night walk did not ease the pangs of missing my family and the concern over whether I was doing something that would prove unfulfilling just to cross a task off a list.
The Abbey is a 50-minute bus ride from Antwerp. It is a beautiful journey as you escape the city confines and head into a bucolic countryside littered with farmhouses and shops. The Abbey is about a 600-yard walk from the bus stop. As visitors walk along the tree-lined brick road they have ample time to admire the sprawling 18th century compound, which is bounded by a canal and a brick wall, in the distance. A car pulled up just as I was taking in the postcard view while sweating from pulling a large suitcase replete with souvenirs for my children on an unseasonably hot Belgian day. An older woman rolled down her window and told me to “Hop in,” amusing herself at her clever word play. She was one of the local volunteers who assist at the Abbey. I thanked her and tried to gather some intelligence about what I was to expect. “Everybody needs to weed the garden of their souls from time to time,” she offered.
She dropped me off at the gate and drove off. I gathered my bags and peered at the massive front doors of the Abbey’s residence. I remained uncertain as to the purpose of this excursion and whether my time may have been better off at home. Ever since I was a child, loneliness has always engendered fear. It was a great contradiction. Although I found peace in solitude, it also made me unsettled. I walked up the long driveway to the entrance and it reminded me of when I had started Kindergarten, frightened as to what I would discover behind the Gargantuan door. I was going off to a monastery not the Battle of Antietam, but the angst remained. Two days alone with nothing but my thoughts. Just as I had done when I was a boy, I opened the door and ventured in, the prospects of seeing what was on the other side outweighing the self-doubts.
There is a lobby and store with cheese and beer on display. The sales finance the Abbey and its resident monks. While waiting, I reflexively reached for my smart phone and started scrolling for messages. After about ten minutes, a man in a white robe, brown sash and sandals appeared. He was bald and had a neat trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, was in his mid-50s, and strongly built. He walked with a self-assured gait and his deep voice bolstered his authoritative presence. He introduced himself as Brother Benedict. He gave me a firm handshake and it felt like the start of an interview when the hiring manager checks the candidate out for that key first impression. His eyes went straight to my phone, which I had jammed in my pants pocket. His welcome was neither rude nor unfriendly. I realized that he was the one I had talked with on the phone and his attitude bore the same inquisitiveness, as if he were making a split-second moral judgment.
Brother Benedict then walked me across the manicured lawn to the guest house, which was in the process of being remodeled. There was no check-in or pleasantries that you come to expect when staying at a hotel, “How was your trip?” “How long will you be staying with us?” Instead, Brother Benedict showed me to my room, which was sparse but spotlessly clean. There was a wardrobe for my things and a desk on which there was a sheet of paper with the daily schedule.
Vigils Night Prayer 4:00 Midday Rest/Quiet Time 12:30
Reading & Reflection 5:00 Nones Afternoon Prayer 14:00
Lauds Morning Prayer 7:00 Labour 14:15
Breakfast 7:35 Vespers Evening Prayer 17:15
Manual Labour for the Monks 7:35 Evening Meal 18:00
Terce Morning Prayer + Eucharist 10:45 Quiet Time 18:30
Quiet Time 11:30 Compline Night Prayer 19:30
Midday Meal 12:30 Bed 20:00
I read the itinerary and cursed myself, along with the ghost of Emerson.
“The bathroom is down the hall,” Brother Benedict said. “All good?”
“Great,” I said. “But what happens. What do I do?”
“You’ll know” he answered.
“Is there a key?”
“And Wi-Fi?” I asked. “Can I get the password?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “No Wi-Fi.”
I showed him my phone. “There is Wi-Fi but it requires a password.”
He looked at the phone and paused as if weighing the matter. He then looked at me authoritatively, as if I were a teenager asking for a prolonged curfew. “No Wi-Fi,” he said. “You are not here for Wi-Fi.” And the matter was closed.
For the first hour, I struggled with the abundance of time and nothing to do. With two active daughters, work and other obligations, time was always a commodity to be cherished. But once offered boundless time as a gift I had no idea what to do with it. I peered out the window and saw two men who looked like the ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry. Instead of coming up with a new flavor they were in deep meditation. I picked up Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I sat in the desk chair and after five minutes opted for the bed out of fear I would suffer from early osteoporosis. I began reading The Transcendentalist but fell asleep before making it past the first two pages.
At 6:00 PM, I was awakened by Brother Benedict’s hard knock on the door. I opened it trying to feign like I had been in a deep state of meditation but he could tell I had been sleeping. “Now we eat,” he said sternly.
He led me to a small dining room in the same guest compound. The room was modest and the décor was in the “Cleveland Parochial School Style,” pictures of what I assumed were former abbots and sturdy tables that were unremarkable but for the fact that they were likely hand carved and made from one of the many trees that occupied the property. I sat down and received a plate of fish, cheese, salad and a roll by the woman who had dropped me off earlier. She was not as jocular as she had been earlier. She was joined by another woman who was in her 70s and whose demeanor was equally serious. They said nothing, abiding by the policy of silence, the rules for which had not been explained to me by Brother Benedict but he had assumed I would follow. I despise awkward silences and have forever been the one in meetings or during dinner parties to break the discomfort. I looked at the women as we ate, raising my eyebrows and making grunting sounds of pleasure or inquisitiveness as I passed the butter or salt and took bites of the fish and cheese. “MMhhhphh?” I noted in a high-pitched whine as I removed a small bone from the fish. They ate in silence, staring at their food and stoically wondering why Big Foot had been invited to the Last Supper. I wanted to ask for the beer but felt that would appear presumptuous.
After dinner, I walked around the Abbey grounds. Due to the fame of the beer, The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Heart of Westmalle is simply known as “Westmalle.” It was founded in 1794 by the Order of the Cistercians. The monks who occupy the Abbey, about 25 in total, are Trappists and therefore dedicate themselves to a communal life of prayer and work, and specifically the four pillars of poverty, obedience, the monastic way of life, and loyalty to the order.
I awoke the next morning at 3:45AM to the thunderous chiming of bells emanating from the Abbey. I got dressed and walked over to the chapel for the Vigils prayer session. I walked inside the clean and modern chapel and saw Brother Benedict at the organ. He looked surprised when I sat down. Later, when I left the monastery, he admitted that he thought I would sleep through the first session. He explained that “Everybody always sleeps through the first prayer. … And you were sleeping within the first hour . . . . . and asking for WiFi.” For Brother Benedict and the other monks, sleep deprivation seemed like a testament to dedication.
The chapel is organized simply but methodically. There are rows of pews behind the section reserved for the monks. The main area is in a W shape, with individual seats reserved for each monk along opposite walls, with half of the monks facing the other half. Brother Benedict sat on the left side. In front of the chapel is a lectern, altar and seats occupied by those monks leading the session.
As I sat down in one of the pews Brother Benedict pointed at three numbers that had been posted. These were the prayers that the monks would chant at the session and I could follow along in a Missal, which was only in Dutch. The brothers started appearing one by one. They varied in age. Each would enter, find his assigned seat and then sit silently while he waited for the others to arrive. Right before the session began I could hear a click-clack noise that was getting progressively louder until an old brother finally appeared. He was hunched over and aided by a walker. As soon as he found his seat, Brother Benedict launched into the first hymn and the brothers chanted along with a dedicated soloist for each prayer. Although half asleep, I was enraptured by the beauty of the simple gathering. It was teamwork and art blended as one. The Chicago Bulls meets the Vienna Philharmonic. And the drama of going from sheer silence to an outpouring of emotion, heightened by the fact that it was in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, could fill even the most hardened soul.
I returned to the morning session at 7:00AM. I was the only one attending the services. It was just me and the Westmalle brothers. For the entire day, I followed the itinerary, with each task growing more comfortable. Every minute away from WiFi and the other distractions of life helped me unwind. I went to service, ate lunch, and then went back to my room to read. I was buoyed by Emerson as I reached back into my own sub-conscious, reciting prayers and self-reflecting: “Make your own Bible,” Emerson had instructed. “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”
At lunch, a volunteer who I had seen around the property asked me if I wanted to help in the garden. I accepted and he led me over to rake leaves and water plants. One of the monks was assisting as well. I noticed it was a younger monk who was a soloist from both sessions. As he approached me, I broke the vow of silence and said “Hello.”
“I have relatives in the United States,” he said in a voice that was harmonious even when offering such a simple statement.
“I live in Seattle but I grew up in Connecticut,” I replied. “Where are you from?”
“Nearby,” he said, and it was clear that the conversation was going to be brief. The brother had exhausted his communication quota for the week. Nevertheless, I tried to see if I could get more out of it.
“What brought you here?” I asked.
He stopped what he was doing. He looked around at the blue skies, the bucolic farmland, the garden, and the overwhelming serenity. Although he did not answer me, bowing as he left, the words of Emerson, ones I had read earlier before, filled the void:
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that through the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that lot of ground which is given to him to till.
That night, I ate dinner by myself as the volunteers were gone. Brother Benedict had left me with the same meal I had the night before: salad, cheese, fish and a roll. Feeling more comfortable in the confines of my temporary home, I searched the kitchen and found a bottle of Westmalle beer and an official chalice. The beer had helped generations of monks see the light. I hoped it would have the same effect on me.
After dinner, I walked around the secluded grounds. The weather remained unseasonably warm. I looked at the clear night sky and stars and thought of my father, who had died ten years before my visit to Westmalle. After he died I never took time to think about his impact and the loss. I was busy caring for my mother and dealing with the litany of administrative issues that are inherent when someone leaves this complicated world of paperwork and bureaucracy. You would like to cry but you are too busy sifting through the 401(k) succession plans, guessing passwords, and hacking accounts to track down assets and liabilities.
In the late summer of 1988, before my Senior year of high school, my father and I set out to drive across the U.S. to deliver a car he had purchased for my brother, who was starting his Junior year at the Air Force Academy. My father could have just bought the car in Colorado, but he claimed he had gotten a better deal in Connecticut. In truth, he wanted to spend time with me and see first-hand what the vast American landscape had to offer. It had always escaped him in his New York bubble. My father was born and raised in New York, worked on Wall Street but had not really ventured much further than Vermont. He planned the trip for weeks, analyzing maps laid out on tables like he was preparing for a Napoleonic War. He went to Sam Goody and Tower Records and stocked up on Willie Nelson and John Denver tapes. I was sixteen and cared little about the route. To me, Kentucky was no different from South Dakota. Mostly, I was rightfully concerned by how many altercations we would have during the drive as my father was an aggressive driver. He had an edge about him that made it difficult for him to get close to anybody except for his wife and children.
My fears ultimately proved unwarranted. My father relaxed with each mile we drove, our route taking us across the Canadian border, past Niagara Falls, and into London, Ontario. We had exhausted our entire stack of country music tapes by the time we parked in Mount Rushmore following a brief stint at Wall Drug. Our conversations were pleasant but not profound. Those conversations were reserved for my mother, who still questions the universe like a Buddhist monk. My father was not a deep thinker. He was a man of action and results.
By the time he reached the Yellowstone entrance in Wyoming he seemed to reach a different contemplative state. We awoke early in the morning as we always had when he was in charge of the schedule. This time he did not blare “On the Road Again” as we drove along the scenic Yellowstone highway, the sky purple and red from a fire that had engulfed some of the park. On the plains hugging the side of the road, we saw a herd of bison slowly coming our way and about to cross our path. Back home, my father would have gunned the car while grazing the leader. This time, he pulled over and stopped. He got out and watched as the herd crossed the road and he, a city slicker with a penchant for fighting and gambling, was at their mercy. After the majestic passing, we drove in silence for the next hour as his head was on a swivel taking in the beauty of early morning Yellowstone under the haze of smoke and the dawn of a new day.
My father spoke often of the trip but not of that specific morning until one night while he was sitting in bed with my mother. It was the year he died and the combination of medicine and fear of a failing heart made him maudlin. He relayed the story to my mother, describing what he had listed were his best days. The time he laid eyes on my mother when he was sixteen and working at Walgreen’s. The time he returned home from Vietnam to see my brother for the first time. And this time – when he and I came face-to-face with nature during a morning in Yellowstone. Perhaps it was the high alcohol content of the Westmalle beer but as I looked at the serene Belgian night sky I realized that Yellowstone was my dad’s monastery. That was his time to look deeply within himself, to find something in the abyss of his soul that could only be found after days of introspection, reflection and listening to John Denver for a week straight.
To “Live with the Monks” was not a goal but a gift, a gift to grieve and a gift to hit the Pause button on life as my father had done years before. I had somehow been able to do that in college. To find a few minutes to regroup from obligations and a hectic schedule. To sit in an empty Cathedral and reflect about what was important. What had changed? Responsibilities had changed. Obligations had changed. Technology had changed. My perspective had changed. Brother Benedict knew that. Like the best concierge at a 5-star hotel, he knew exactly what I needed. “You’re not here for WiFi,” he said. And it was not a demand but a challenge.
I awoke at 3:45 and followed the itinerary until the final morning service at 10:00 AM. I had to get to Brussels for my evening flight home. When I arrived at the mid-morning mass, for the first time since I had arrived at Westmalle, the pews were filled with people – local residents who attended the Abbey for weekend Mass. It made me feel as if I was the intruder, an outsider to this local community. I was about to turn around when I saw Brother Benedict wave me over. He had pulled a chair out next to him. I sat down in front of the pews, which were occupied by the local residents. I was now adjacent to the monks. It was not only a polite gesture but an invitation to gain a different perspective, something closer physically and spiritually. Or, maybe two days of sleep deprivation had earned Brother Benedict’s respect.
The monks entered in the same procession, ending with the same click-clack, click-clack, click-clack of the older monk. The monks lived in solitude and silence but they were not alone. They communicated not through idle conversation but with a passionate and focused prayer. They knew what they wanted and they were confident how to get it. Each chant, each sound connected to the other monks but ultimately to something greater. Their hearts and souls were their companions, their minds the lands they tilled. The monk with whom I had worked in the garden nodded at me. When Brother Benedict began the music, I chanted along. At last I found my rhythm of the song of silence, hoping I could contribute a verse.
Christopher Parent is a writer and intellectual property attorney currently living in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and two daughters. He moved to Zurich after serving as in-house counsel for Nintendo and in private practice in Denver. His work has appeared in law reviews as well as in Memoirist, Memoir Magazine, The Good Men Project, Ginosko Literary Journal, Points in Case, Public House Magazine, and The Haven. Besides travel and writing, Chris enjoys helping coach the Swiss Men’s and Women’s Lacrosse National teams.