If I'm honest, I can say that part of my fantasy included foggy walks amongst dew soaked ruins of a Gothic cloister (hey, I'm nothing if not dramatic!) so the stark unadorned limestone walls of the Abbey with a complete lack of ornamentation was a contrast to be reconciled.
I envisioned time for reading (got that), long periods of silence (check) and lots of opportunity for prayer (double check).
What I hadn't counted on was the pleasurable company of other travelers on their diverse spiritual journeys, being stretched by artwork and different ways of 'seeing', hearing words of instruction during workshops that reframed not only the human experience but my disordered relationship with food and being drawn into 'mystery' on an emotional level through music and 'traditions of being' that have endured for centuries.
Celtic spirituality speaks of 'thin places' - those places in which the boundaries of time and space become blurred and movement between the dimensions becomes more fluid than we usually perceive.
For me, the Abbey is a thin place.
I'll relate one experience, although I was blessed with several.
I don't wear a watch or use an alarm (either clock or cell phone).
I tell myself what time I need to wake up and, generally, within 5 -10 minutes of the appointed time, I wake myself.
One morning, my intent had been to sleep through Vigil (@ 3:30) and go to Lauds instead.
So, when I woke up at 2:30 am, fully awake, I was both surprised and curious.
I chose to take it as a sign from God that I was meant to get my ass out of bed and go down for Vigil and that I might as well even go early since I was already awake.
I stumbled down three flights of stairs to the guest chapel, located at the back of the Abbey; space shared with the main sanctuary but separated by a wrought iron rail defining 'guest' and 'monks' space.
I entered and found a solitary light illuminating the entire space.
I was alone.
The cavernous sanctuary, with choir stalls, organ and altar, was in complete darkness; a blackness that was impenetrable to my eye.
I knelt and was immediately and unexpectedly overcome with a sadness and sense of being utterly alone.
I began to cry; not the dainty moist eyes and sniffles of a heroine in a Jane Austen novel but the gut wrenching sobs of one from whom everything has been stripped away.
It was a feeling of nakedness before God and total vulnerability that bordered on being terrifying.
How long this state lasted I can't say.
All I know is that just as inexplicably, I was flooded with a warmth and the knowledge that I wasn't alone.
I felt a palatable presence; the silence had substance.
It wasn't the absence but the presence of something.
The silence had a density, a richness and it began to pervade my being, comforting me.
I raised my eyes and peered into the void, almost calling aloud, "Is someone there?"
Within minutes, I heard a soft sound on the tile floor, followed by the creak of wood yet my eyes were still unable to discern any other human form in the church.
It was a full 5 minutes before I saw the white cowled robe of a monk enter their portion of the sanctuary and turn on a small light, revealing that we were indeed the only two people in the space.
During Vigil, I sat listening to the monks chant the Psalms of praise to start the day and I wish I could say my thoughts were holy.
I was instead filled with a sense of my own importance, delighting in how special I must be to have been given this experience.
I mean, come on... it was a sign, right?
I didn't have to pay for airfare and go to Lourdes or Medjugorje
I felt like the character in the movie Field of Dreams who asks: "Is this heaven?" and hears the reply,"No, it's Iowa."
In fact, I was so blinded by my own sense of being chosen that, after Vigil, I completely overlooked the tile step going out of chapel, tripped up and fell flat on my face.
Gotta love that about God; he's got a way of reminding us about our place.
Quite literally, Pride goeth before the fall.
Made me feel right at home with Bernard of Clairvoux who said that "personally, he was more acquainted with the ways down than the ways up".
Work will give me plenty to kvetch about all too soon.
I needed to journal about this experience because I don't want it to be lost in the haze of my 'normal' existence.
I want to remember that in the silence was a presence.
At the heart of the silence was Him who is all stillness, all peace and all poise.
My soul can definitely use all three.