At Ascensiontide in 1922, just after she had fully committed to being a part of the Church of England after many years on the margins, the writer Evelyn Underhill went on retreat for the first time at Pleshey in Essex. The others there at the same time were schoolteachers from the East End of London, whom she did not know. After the experience, she wrote:
“The intense silence seemed to slow down one’s far too quick mental time and give one’s soul a chance. To my surprise a regime of daily Communion and four services a day with silence between, was the most easy, unstrained and natural life I had ever lived. One sank down into it, and doing it always with the same people, all meaning it intensely, and the general atmosphere of deep devotion – for the whole house seemed soaked in love and prayer – cured solitude and gave me at last really the feeling of belonging to the Christian family and not counting except as that” (Evelyn Underhill, Fragments from an Inner Life (Morehouse, 1993) 112-113).
A decade ago, my family experienced a cataclysmic event, which forever delineated a “before” and “after” in both our individual lives and in our life as a family. In a few words, a family friend betrayed us and betrayed our trust, causing a cascade of hurt which shattered our family to the core. As if we were living out a reverse fairy tale, our once happy family plunged into darkness. Facing this brokenness, I have felt despair, hopelessness, and fear. But with God’s help, I am journeying toward hope and love.
As I try to piece together the broken pieces, reading the Psalms and writing poetry offer help. The Psalms, for example, invite me to make sense of “the valley of the shadow of death.” Likewise, writing poetry helps me to engage with the challenge of finding purpose and joy in a fallen world.
The sensorium of the Monastery Chapel on Memorial Drive can be overwhelming. The smell, the silence, and the interplay of light and darkness confront the senses the moment the door opens. They immediately tell my body to stop, to slow down, to absorb, and to sink in. Stepping into a place where the walls are steeped in incense and immersed in generations of prayers prayed and psalms chanted, I find the constant demands of life shifted into a new perspective. Belief seems to come more easily in this space. God’s presence seems more tangible surrounded by the wood, stone, and light. For almost twenty years, SSJE has been a place of retreat and friendship for me. Even after I moved across the Pond more than a decade ago, SSJE still feels like home to me. It has held me in great joy and deepest sorrow. It’s a place where God has been both present and silent, where discernment has seemed both easy and impossible, and where I feel known and loved for who I am. The sensorium of the Monastery embodies all of these things and more. It is a place I can trust, a sacred space in which the world stands still.