I have just returned from a short retreat at Bethlehem Abbey in Portglenone, Co. Antrim. Immersed in a Cistercian tranquillity, the troubles that have assailed my mind for so long evaporate; in such a setting, I can embrace solitude and quiet once more – it has been such a long and arduous journey to reach this point were quiet has eclipsed unquiet.
I love attending vespers (evening prayer) in the monastery. The monks are small in number, predominantly elderly, but the atmosphere in the chapel is always special. Chanting the psalms is mesmeric and infused with a peace that is difficult to put into words; it simply has to be experienced. The low-level lighting augments the unique atmosphere which is permeated with prayer and periods of silence, only disturbed by the shuffling of monastic feet and the occasional cough.
The grounds of the monastery, with the well-kept gardens and beautiful woodland, are equally calming. The Autumnal colours are heart-warming and upliftingly welcoming.
As Thomas Merton once said:
‘When I am silent, I hear my true self and reach my soul. When I am silent, I hear with a caring heart. Silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it’.