ASSUMPTION ABBEY — I’m at the desk in the guesthouse, Room #8, my favorite, as it has windows on two sides looking out over the cemetery and woods. Pavarotti is singing “Ave Maria” from the CD player (always brings thoughts of Grandma Mary and unconditional love).

ASSUMPTION ABBEY — I’m at the desk in the guesthouse, Room #8, my favorite, as it has windows on two sides looking out over the cemetery and woods. Pavarotti is singing “Ave Maria” from the CD player (always brings thoughts of Grandma Mary and unconditional love).

Drove down Friday afternoon for a pre-Christmas retreat — this time with son, J.T., a good opportunity to renew our relationship in silence. Share some father-son solitude.

I’m packing deep sadness about losing my beloved Lab, Andre. My son’s using Andre’s death to be grateful for all life’s gifts (this after admitting he sometimes took Andre for granted). Sister Ann Marie met us in the parlor and offered supper but we’d already eaten in Ava, Mo.

After stowing my things, I settled in to read from a book loaned to me by longtime friend, Dick Loffswold — the biography and poetry of Lillie Sachs, a German Jew who escaped to Sweden where she wrote poetry and plays about the Holocaust.

Providence must have directed me to bring the Sachs book as I’m grieving and her work speaks to anguish in an ecstatic, mystical, visionary voice of healing. Her images enter through the spine rather than the head. Remind of another German poet, Rilke.

 At 7:30, I went down to the chapel for Compline, the last prayers of the day, then did centering prayer alone in the chapel, lit by the soft glow of a solitary candle.

 Read from Thomas Merton’s journals till around 9:30, then I padded down the dim hall to the dining room for a peanut butter, monkbread, honey, banana, and milk snack. Fell into deep sleep listening to Vivaldi and Mozart.
 Hiked into the woods and down the path along the Stations of the Cross after morning Mass on Saturday. (Saw vision of Andre romping along with me.) After lunch, my son and I walked slowly the mile down Highway 00 past the PAVEMENT ENDS sign to the soothing sounds of Bryant Creek rushing under the low water bridge and over stones. Stood, gazed and poked around in silence; found an excellent beaver chewed walking stick for him. Back at the abbey, I visited the grave of Father Ted, touched his Cistercian cross marker, said a prayer.

 Sister Ann Marie, always a somewhat perfunctory woman, was very short with me at lunch when I remarked that I hadn’t see Brother Lazarus in chapel.

“Sister, where’s Lazarus?” I queried.

“GONE!” she replied with disdain.

“Uh…gone on a trip … or … left?”

“LEFT!” she said with such enmity that Annie, a woman there on retreat from Springfield, went eyes wide and gave me a bewildered look that said, “What was that all about?” Then I heard Sister in the kitchen giving my son the business about how he was eating the jelly.

She certainly has everything squared away in the guesthouse (perfect right angles). I was reminded of Sister Beatrice of my youth.

Only I’m not in 5th grade so I just laugh and work with her suchness. Smile and look her in the eye without biting the hook, which gives her room to back off and let her compassion show.

It was great to hear her jabbering away on the phone like a happy schoolgirl behind the office door later that afternoon. This after we padded down to the dining room for a snack and got a giggle when I whispered, “You watch the door for “Sister OCD … I mean Ann Marie … while I get out the peanut butter and crackers.”

As for Lazarus, I found out later from Brother Francis that he’d left and gotten married. He said it was painful, but shared no details. Also shared, with a sigh, that they were no longer taking novices, as the novitiate was now closed; a great sadness for the community. Francis said he felt they were going through a Passion … but then smiled a little and said, “But, at the end of the Passion, there’s a Resurrection.

Vespers was a series of stops and starts on Saturday. First Brother Francis started singing too early (before Father Cyprian could light the candles on the Advent wreath). Then Father Alberic (who was playing organ for the psalms) started on the wrong melody. None of which appeared to bother anyone in the least. Once they got rolling things went pretty well, although, when they later sang without the organ, some of the monks got pretty off key, creating an amusing dissonance.

This chapel scene was, for me, about as spiritual as it gets; a community of men on a hill deep in the Ozarks inviting the divine light of Christmas as they stumble through a psalm of praise.

I took it as my Advent message, and headed home Sunday morning  resolved to keep singing and move forward in my life — no matter how off key and dissonant events get — remembering both the monks in chapel and the words of Lillie Sachs. “There are places in the heavens above us,“ she says, “that open only to the voice of song.”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services, 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499 or