Monastery Immaculate Conception

150 Sisters of Saint Benedict live in community in Ferdinand, Indiana.  Here are some pictures I took when I went on a silent retreat there.

I hope you are in good shape if you go there.  The dormitory is downhill from everything else – dining hall, the chapel…and there are over 70 steps to get there.

There is a way to get where you need to go if the weather is bad.  There can be some pretty impressive snowfalls in Indiana, so there are tunnels all over this complex. They can be a bit damp, however.

Here’s one of the places you are headed to – the dining hall.  The food is served cafeteria style, and guests and nuns eat the same food.  They keep a separate eating area for us so we can be silent. The nuns are quite chatty and amiable, and while that is nice, it is hard if you are trying to have a silent retreat.


Some scenes in the dormitory.

In my room, I made  little votive shrine of the saint cards I bought at the gift shop.  All churches should have gift shops, in my opinion, and the Catholics do not disappoint in this regard.


In the basement is a lounge area with a lot of recliners.  It is quite homey and inspires naps.  I wonder if the chairs came from the nuns when they entered and had to give up all their possessions?

There is a statue of a young Mary with Jesus in the basement dining area – I’ve seen the same statue, painted, at a Sisters of Mercy convent.

There are some other interesting things in the dormitory that seem very old.

The various services were quite confusing.  We were fortunate that the nuns understood and took the time to set up our prayer books for us so we could follow along without getting lost.  They recite the office of the hours several times a day. Note all the different bookmarks – this is for just one service.



The pews were cleverly designed – you could create your own bookstand. This is closed, and then open.

Here is the pew-side view of the service.  The nun who helped us at this one is sitting in front of me on the right.  They no longer wear their habits. But you can still tell they are nuns by their kindness.  They have a sort of inner glow.

More of their impressive chapel – the baptismal font is the first thing you notice (on purpose).  Ideally, it is always in line with the table where the Lord’s supper is celebrated. This unites the two sacraments.


Views from outside the chapel, and the grounds.

I was especially enamored of this corner, and took the time to sketch it. It looks a little strange broken up like this, but I didn’t know my phone could do panoramas at this point. While sketching, some nuns noticed me and started to ask me questions.  They thought that I should stay with them.  I’m not sure how that would work out since I’m married, not a Catholic, and past their age requirement for entry. But it was kind of them to see a calling in me.



Saint Joseph’s chapel

This is a small chapel at St. Meinrad’s.  While it looks very simple and humble, they’ve stored the altarpiece from the original Abbey here.  It is overwhelmingly ostentatious.  Fortunately it is at the back of the room so you don’t get distracted by it when there is a service here.

This is in the hallway on the way to the chapel. 19

This is in the chapel itself. You enter from a raised area. Interestingly to me, there was a small hand drum to the right of the chapel.  Even though it was a silent retreat, I enjoyed playing it at one point during my time there.  There was nobody else around, and I played softly, so I didn’t disturb anyone else.  This chapel is attached to the building that has the seminary, not the guest house.



Here is the over-the-top altarpiece.  It was removed when they renovated the Abbey to make the altar no longer attached to the back wall, but in the center of the room, among the people.  That was part of a movement after Vatican 2 that tried to make the symbols of the church match the message of the church – that Jesus is among us, not hidden away, far removed.




Here are some details.


Imagine how much money and effort was required to make this.  Imagine how many hungry people could have been fed with that money and effort.  While this is outwardly beautiful, it is a direct affront to the very call of Jesus.  We are specifically not to build up treasures for ourselves here – we are to take care of people.


This is to the side of the chapel. A bit of glass has broken and is now on the music and nobody else has noticed.


I wish that Protestant churches had guest houses for silent retreats so I could go there instead and I wouldn’t get so wound up about the hypocrisy of it all.  This place is beautiful, don’t get me wrong.  But only until all people are taken care of (no more homelessness, no more sickness, no more wars or poverty) can we even think about building places that are this opulent.  They are extras.  Money and effort has to go to following the instructions of Jesus first.  If more Christians followed Christ instead of Christianity, the world would be a better place.

St. Meinrad guest house

St. Meinrad Archabbey is in St. Meinrad, Indiana.  It is a Benedictine monastery and seminary.  The Benedictines have as part of their Rule to serve the guest as if he (or she) is Christ, so they always have guest houses that are quite nice to stay in .  They are good for going on retreats.

Here are some pictures from the guest house there.

The guest house itself, as seen on the way back from the Abbey.

guest house

The baptism font is outside of the doors of the chapel. This is right in front of you when you exit the dormitory area.

gh font

At the back of the chapel (in line with the font) is this unusual crucifix.  It looks like Jesus needs a chiropractor.


(Edit to add – I looked up why his head is tilted, and learned from the website that crucifixes “…that show His head tilted slightly down (or up) and to the right are taking some artistic liberties. The right hand, in Christian faith, is the hand of blessing. Since Jesus chose to sacrifice Himself for our sins, He, in turn, gave us the ultimate blessing. This is why His head faces right in some crucifixes – to show that His death is a blessing for all of us.” It goes on to say that other reasons include “One stated that Jesus was facing the good thief, whom He saved before dying. The other said it was to reinforce that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

On the right side is the eternal flame signifying the presence of Jesus, and the aubrey, which holds the reserved sacrament (blessed communion wafers).


To the left is the paschal candle.

gh chapel 2

And a carved wooden statue of Mary and Jesus.

gh chapel


Near the front is an icon of Christ.jesus


We had a room there that had supplies for us to work with while we were there.  There were coloring books, pens, paints, magazines, juggling balls and scarves, and jigsaw puzzles.  I was amused that the one that people pulled out to work on was one of a huge cathedral.  It was impossible for one person to do it all in the time we were there, so we all took turns (without discussing it, because it was a silent retreat) to work on it.  We were working together to build the church in many different ways.  jigsaw2jigsaw1jigsaw 3


Brother Maurus, our host and liaison, made sure to put out wine for us at dinner.  wine


The sign on the door to the dormitory, reminding people to be mindful of others who were there.  Not everyone who goes there is on silent retreat. quiet

Quotes about silence and solitude

“But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary seabird that opens its wings on the steak. Let me sit here forever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” – Virginia Woolf

“You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts; and when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound becomes diversion and a pastime.” – Kahlil Gibran

“All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their chamber.” – Blaise Pascal

“You rest now. Rest for longer than you are used to resting. Make a stillness around you, a field of peace. Your best work, the best time of your life will grow out of this peace.” – Peter Heller

“There is a loneliness more precious than life. There is a freedom more precious than the world. Infinitely more precious than life and the world is that moment when one is alone with God.” – Rumi

“While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards?” – Barbara Brown Taylor

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” – Rumi

“I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days.” – Hafiz

“Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise.” – Richard Rohr

“Silence is precious; by keeping silence and knowing how to listen to God, the soul grows in wisdom and God teaches it what it cannot learn from men.” – Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew

4 x 6 collage – January 2015

I created my first 4×6 collage at a retreat a few weeks back. When I was given the assignment, I balked at the size. Too small, I thought. I’ve got a lot to say. I made the first one, and then quickly made two more. I’ve learned to appreciate the need to edit my thoughts with this format. It also appeals to my love of collecting phrases and images from magazines. Fortunately, the magazines are free – discards from work. The scrapbook paper is not. I shake my fist at my friend who turned me onto this. Like I need to spend money on a whole new set of crafting supplies…

wild tame 011915

spiritual landscape (the retreat theme)
spiritual landscape 011015

other way (a reminder to quit butting heads and try things differently)
other way 011015

land-sea (poem)
land sea 011915

hidden treasures
hidden treasures 012515

God’s calling (al
Gods calling 011015

Bead control

I once taught a prayer bracelet workshop at a silent retreat. That was very difficult for me. I normally want to control things, and when I can’t talk, I can’t control. I could have written down what I wanted to tell people right then but either I didn’t think about that or I thought that was cheating. I had printed instructions for the very first silent retreat that I taught at but it seems like nobody read them or followed them.

There was a certain length of cord that I provided for the bracelets this time. That helped a lot. When I’ve taught prayer bracelet classes before where I could talk, people sometimes ended making bracelets that were either too short or too long. Some of them were more like necklaces.

Another thing that is important to tell people when making prayer bracelets is that they need to not put anything really heavy in the center because it will slide to that underside of your wrist and you’ll never see it. I couldn’t say that this time, and saw it happening. I knew the person would be frustrated later, but I had to let it go.

When I have taught the class before I would sometimes have to have people take the entire thing apart and redo it. At this retreat I couldn’t say anything, so I just had to let the bracelets be the way they were. Bracelets and people are a lot alike.

I had printed instructions telling them that they were supposed to put a special bead and then a plain bead and then a different special bead and the same kind of plain bead. Since the bracelets were only five dollars each this is a way that I wouldn’t lose money. Nobody did it this way. I had to let that go too.

I never thought that I would learn a lot about myself from teaching a prayer bracelet workshop at a silent retreat. It was hard to let go. I’ve invested a lot of my life into beads. Part of all of this was about relearning and unlearning. I wanted to share this new way of praying with people, but I didn’t need to do it in such a way that I needed therapy afterwards.

Mary’s finger

So, I found Mary’s finger. And not just any finger, her right index finger. That has to mean something. That has to mean more than just her pinkie finger, right?

I was on retreat at Mercy convent – a convent for retired nuns of the Sisters of Mercy. There is a statue of Mary in the back garden, made of marble. I went outside to draw it. I’m not much of an artist but I like to try. I’d just realized that drawing is easier if I use pencil and an eraser rather than a pen to make my first sketch. You can go as deep on that as you like.

This is the angle I was working with.


Part of drawing is noticing what is actually there. When we take pictures, we often work so quickly that we miss things. Or, well, at least I do. There are things that our brains fill in and we assume things are like we think they are. I’ve learned that when I take time to actually draw something I learn where those gaps are. I learn what reality is, versus what I think reality is. It is a very useful meditation.

While looking, I noticed that she is missing some fingers. She looks a little sad about this.


Here is her left hand. Some repairs have already been done.


Here’s her right hand. There is a lot more damage here.


There are six intact fingers, and only one thumb in total. There is a small chip marble rock garden at the base, so I thought that the rest of the fingers could be there. It was a long shot. Surely someone else has looked for it.

Here’s the rock garden. The plaque says “Our Lady’s Garden” In memory of Sister Mary Demetrius Coode, Fall 1993.


I started looking on the left-hand side. That is the side I was closest to. I looked around a bit, but not really very hard. I mean really – someone else has to have thought of this, right? White marble statue pieces fall into a small rock garden filled with white marble pieces. That is where you look.

But the people who live here are all old. They don’t have great eyesight. They aren’t quite fit enough to hunch over and study these pieces. Their knees and backs aren’t so great anymore. They’ve had a life of service and now they are resting.

I gave up looking on the left side and moved to the right. There was more to look for over there – bigger pieces. It should be easier.

After about a minute I found it.


An electric shock ran through me. It was like finding an Easter Egg, or a four leaf clover, or a diamond. I found it. Me. It was here.


I thought briefly that they had left it in there as a treat, as a special thing to be found. It was the fact that I found it that made it special. It wouldn’t have been the same if it had been intact, or if it had been sitting at the base.

There is something about seeking, and finding, that is special. There is something about putting forth the effort and having it rewarded.

I thought about keeping it. Then I thought about taking a piece of chip marble as a token instead. In fact, I thought about taking one anyway, even before I found the finger. I thought about taking a piece as a memento of the search. I was going to pretend that the chip was a piece of the finger. Kind of like a diamond in the rough. The pieces at the base and the statue were both marble. The only difference between the two is one had a lot more work and skill applied to it. But the material is the same.

How do things get value? Why is this piece of marble more valuable than that piece? How does this relate to ourselves and our lives? Deep down, we are all the same.

I didn’t take the finger. I put it on the base, easily visible. This was during the silent part of the retreat, so I knew I couldn’t explain it to the sister who is the caretaker of the place. I figured if I left it there it would make it easier to tell her later.


Then I thought that maybe it is safer in the rock garden. It can’t fall off the base and break into more pieces. It could shatter if it fell again. And I thought also, maybe I should leave the joy of finding it for someone else.

I didn’t find her right thumb, but then again I didn’t look too hard after finding that finger.

A whole finger! Of Mary!

She looks pretty happy that her finger has been found. This is around 11:30 a.m.


Later, at the end of the retreat when we can talk again and it is time to go home, I went to tell the Sister in charge. I thought she was going tell me that they left it there on purpose. No – she was delighted that it had been found. “Now I can write up a work order!” she said.

I was about to leave, but I followed her outside to make sure that she found it. Maybe it had fallen off. Maybe someone had moved it. I went to have some resolution. I went to help find it again if necessary. I went, in part, because I didn’t really want to leave.

She was beaming when she noticed it, and carried it carefully, like a baby bird, in her hands.

She told me that members of the church that sponsored the retreat came once and cleaned this statue. She was so happy about this kindness done to the Sisters.

She told me “We have to be the finger of Mary.”

Yes, and her thumb, and her big toe. And everything. We have to be Mary, willing to let God into the world. We have to let her take care of us, and we have to take care of her. It is reciprocal, this relationship. She isn’t God, but she is a face of God. She is mothering, kindness, compassion. She is a willingness to say “Yes, here I am” when God asks for a favor. She represents who we are when allow God to work through us.

And we also have to be marble, allowing ourselves to be shaped by a Master’s skill.

And we have to understand that we are valuable even as chips at the base of a statue.

Mary is beaming now. This is at 7, after I told the Sister about her finger.


Silent retreat.

I love going on silent retreats. I love making a special time to be alone with God.

And then I hate it. I feel like I’ve gone on a long road trip and I’ve forgotten something. I feel like I’m four hours away from my hairdryer or the book I meant to bring.

No matter where you go, there you are.

And that is the problem. When you go on a silent retreat, there you are. You can’t get away from yourself. You can’t talk to other people to distract you from you. You can’t listen to their problems so you don’t think about your own.

You are stuck.

And that is where the magic happens. You have to learn to live with yourself, and love yourself. You have to learn that this crazy mixed up bag of humanity that is you is loved, by God, completely and totally, head over heels, no doubt about it, loved.

You have to relax into it, this love. It is pretty overwhelming. To know that you, yes you, are beloved. To know that God wants to talk with you and listen to you, directly, no intermediaries, no message takers. There is nothing between you and God.

Everything is stripped away, and all that is left is all that is needed.

Going on retreat is like going to a deserted island, but everything is taken care of. There’s a bed, and food, and things to read, and arts and crafts to work on, and a nice place to stroll.

There’s a whole lot of nothing, and that is everything.

We spend our days just jam packed with noise. We have so much noise all the time we can’t hear ourselves think.

So we certainly can’t hear God.

Sure, you can go on retreat in your house. You don’t have to go anywhere. You can’t get away from God. God is stuck on you closer than a Band-Aid.

But sometimes you need to make a point of getting away. Sometimes you have to leave home to get it. Home has too many distractions. Home is too easy. Sure, you can turn off the television and the computer and you can set aside this time, from here to there, that you will do nothing but listen to God.

Sometimes that works.

For when it doesn’t, you have to go on retreat, with other people, where you all do it together. All together you get on that boat and you head out into the sea that is God, and there is no life raft, or oars, or sail. You are adrift on that sea, with no way of knowing where you’ll end up.

Sounds scary, right?

It is. And it is beautiful, and wonderful, and amazing. And God’s got you the whole time.