Posted by: jevcat | March 27, 2011

Time Travel

I started writing this on the way back from a weekend spent at Holy Cross Monastery, mother house of the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross.  It is a lovely old Victorian building, on the National Register of Historic Places, and sits on a bluff overlooking the river at West Park, New York, in the Hudson Valley.

I’ve been coming here with groups from my church once or twice a year for something like 20 years, and I would come more often if I could.  There’s a handful of us who are so regular that we call ourselves “retreat groupies,” and if one of us is sick and has to miss a Lent or Advent retreat, the others will get a joint card from the monastery gift shop (lovely place to browse) to sign and send.

In the early years, I left work early and drove, sometimes not arriving until after nine, if traffic and/or weather was/were bad, which seemed to be much of the time.  I have memories of “white knuckle” driving behind salt trucks and missed dinners (something you definitely don’t want to do at Holy Cross – the food is so good, I think atheists would come on retreat just for the meals).  Then one year there was an ice storm, and the morning weather and traffic reports were so terrifying that I called the church office to find out when and where the folks taking the train were meeting.  I haven’t driven since.

The monastery is across the Mid-Hudson Bridge from the Poughkeepsie stop of MetroNorth’s Hudson Line, and I discovered on that first non-driving trip that this is the ride of my childhood, the one my father, who worked for what was then the New York Central Railroad, would sometimes take me on for a special treat day-trip.  The Hudson Line tracks follow the river for all but the first few miles.  By now, I could almost recite the station-stops from memory, starting from Grand Central, through whose thrillingly stygian underground labyrinth Dad used to occasionally lead me (Dad practiced “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” before there was such a thing).  Next comes 125th Street, then Marble Hill, where my Beloved grew up, and where we used to stand watching the water when we were in high school, then to Yonkers and on to Croton-Harmon, the stop for Croton Point, where our grammar school’s church-school picnics were, past more stops, some of them places I visited with Dad or on my own, past the forbidding grey mass that is West Point (not a station-stop).

I know we are getting near when, between Cold Spring and Beacon, from the train’s window I see the romantic ruins of Bannerman’s Castle – another Victorian building, but one that’s withstood time’s passage less well than Holy Cross — floating on an island near the tracks.  Finally, Poughkeepsie, a quick cab ride to the west over the river, and down the long, winding driveway to Holy Cross, where wait overstuffed sofas, wonderful food, gorgeous icons (many by the Rev. John Walsted, formerly a brother here), the simple church with white-washed walls splashed in daytime by impressionistic colors of sun through stained glass, and the brothers, in whose round of psalms and prayer we will be invited to participate.

From scanned Holy Cross postcard

I’ve known some of these brothers for more than 20 years, and I knew some of their predecessors in my teen years, when the order established a priory on the grounds of my childhood’s church, the Intercession.  I greet the ones I know now at Friday dinner, and the ones from earlier years later, in the crypt columbarium under the church.  I always give a special polish with sweatshirt sleeve to the brass plate that marks Brother Augustine Brown’s niche, as I do so wondering where lies his mother’s Pekingese, Chopsie, who lived with Brother Gus for years at the Absalom Jones Priory.  While, in theory, she was attached to Brother Gus, Chopsie was known to have a severe crush on one of the other monks, Brother Boniface, a vestment maker who later left the order, leaving her bereft.  Chopsie would follow him devotedly everywhere, and persuading her not to follow Brother Boniface to Mass could be challenging.  She occasionally snuck into weekday morning Eucharists at the Intercession, once startling my mother by kneeling next to her at the Communion rail in the chapel.

There are still brothers, those who are older or have been in the order a long time, who remember these stories, and sometimes we chuckle together over them, before or after the weekend’s silence.

It is the silence that draws many of us here, over and over again.  It is a silence both spare and rich, nurtured and presided over by the brothers’ Benedictine hospitality.  Not all retreats there are silent, but it is what those of us from my parish who come prefer, in part because what remains when the outside noise is stilled is always informative, if not always comfortable.

We choose to have a few sessions led by one of the brothers during the weekend to guide us on this inner journey.  We do not specify, and which brother we get varies from retreat to retreat, but they are all knowledgeable and ready to aid us in our journeys by sharing their own, bumps, detours, and all.  This weekend, we are introduced to some different forms of lectio divina, the prayerful examination of Scripture – in this case, of the readings for Holy Week.

It’s curious how many times one can hear and read these passages, and yet still find new insights, either our own or others’, emerging in the discussion times.  For me, personally, the most important insight that emerged this weekend was from the reading of Matthew’s version of the Crucifixion, and Jesus’ use of the first verse of Psalm 22:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  I know the psalm well – we chant it in full every Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and it comes up regularly in the Daily Lectionary.  It’s a grim psalm of abandonment and betrayal – for the first two-thirds; then it changes.  Its final verses are ones of soaring praise.  (When I mentioned this, the brother guiding the discussion noted that in Jesus’ time the first line of a psalm was often used as shorthand for the whole.)  Which led me to remembering how my own current dark time is not the final word, anymore than the Crucifixion was.  It’s a rather basic thing, really, but not always easy to things in the dark, even if you know where they are.

So, as always, I leave refreshed and renewed, travelling back through my past to the present that waits for me at the end of the journey, and home.


  1. “I leave refreshed and renewed” Because of this I think the Resurrection is just not an event. It is a cycle if we choose to avail ourselves of the opportunity. We may each have our own resurrections every time we renew in Christ, mend our ways, and take on new life doing positive and charitable things. Seems like your retreat was a battery re-charge.

    • One of the reasons I love following the liturgical calendar is that it’s a reminder that things are cyclical — there are always things to celebrate and always new chances to start over. And yes, a Holy Cross visit is always a re-charge — a very special place, and very special people.

  2. Janet–
    this is lovely–so refreshing just reading about your weekend!
    It makes me miss the liturgical calendar–we don’t follow one here at my church…
    lately, I’ve been missing the faith of my growing up years…go figure.


    • I would be lost without the liturgical year. That and the sacraments. I love sharing the Eucharistic meal, and the idea that we do so with the whole company of saints, not just those present with us at any given service. And the cycle of the year means there are always reasons to celebrate and times to start over — I need both of those! That said, different ways work for different people, and I sounds as though you are happy with your current church in other ways.

  3. I’m admittedly not all that religious, but there’s a Catholic sanctuary called The Grotto in Portland that is a wonderful place to go for quiet reflection. Actually, its “real” name is The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother. Anyway…walking around the beautifully manicured grounds always fills my heart with a sense of peace, and stepping inside the ornate chapel at Christmastime awakens a spiritual longing inside of me that I hardly knew existed. Every year, without fail.

    • Sounds like a wonderful place — and I much prefer “The Grotto” to the official name! I rather suspect Mary would, too.

  4. Sounds so therapeutic and peaceful, jevcat. And as always so beautifully written.
    Glad you’re refreshed and renewed.

    • Holy Cross is an extraordinary and special place. If you’re ever this side of “The Pond” and decide to see the Hudson Valley — and it’s lovely and historic — try to include it in your itinerary. (The Monk’s Cell Gift Shop alone is worth the trip 🙂 .)

  5. What a beautiful post! Blessings to you! Such a rich soul you have!

    • What a beautiful thing to say, Kathy! I’m honored; thank you.

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