Saturday, 23 February 2013


I recently spent a fantastic week in a Catholic monastery. Here is a small (yet long!) piece of my experience, and a few pictures from the trip. Enjoy =).
(All photos were taken by me, with permission. Copyright.)

Day 1, Friday.
Today I arrived at Southern Star Abbey, the monastery in Kopua. Kopua is just a bit further north than Dannevirke, and the monastery is in the middle of a big farm.
It has been a wonderful day.

The monastery is a beautiful place. The guesthouse holds up to 11 people, and it’s gorgeous. It was designed for light and form, not ornamentation. The colours are lovely and it’s open and spacious.

Straight away I felt very at home here. There is a strong sense of peace about the whole farm. It’s quiet, it’s still. It’s inviting.
Part of this monastic way of life is being hospitable, and I think they do it extremely well.

After being shown around I met some of the other guests. Typically, I was the youngest haha. Everyone was very friendly and we shared “dinner” together around a few tables.
It was very interesting to hear some of the people’s stories as we ate – why they came to the monastery, where they were from, parts of their pain. Even though we spoke only briefly, I felt a renewed compassion for other people. Some awful things happen in life, things that really don’t seem to be fair.

Though the joy of knowing Christ was equally present among these conversations. Everyone I have met today is seeking God, drawing closer to Him, exploring His love, and really finding His presence.

I read through some of the guestbook today, and one man had written,
           “Found God – he’s here!”

And it’s true.
Yes, God is present everywhere, always, but there is a thickness to this air.
God’s presence dwells here.
As I walked the grounds after dinner I felt soaked in Him. As I sat down and looked at the landscape, tears welled up within me and dribbled down my face. Tears of fullness, of gladness, of true contentment.

I didn’t want to interrupt this tangible presence so I sat a long time. What a great week this will be!

In the afternoon I walked and explored the bush and the river. It’s not a huge farm, but it’s so open. I felt I could breathe, and this freedom thrilled me.
The blaring silence made me smile and praise God for this wonderful experience.

Shortly after 5 there was “tea.” A lighter meal, which was vegetable soup that included MUSHROOMS!! Boy was I loving it =).
Quite a few guests had left so we all sat at one table. I talked with a lovely Australian woman about her life’s adventures. I heard the latest cricket scores from a new guest – deeply exciting stuff. An India couple told us about their childhood, and an English Brother shared political stories which mostly I didn’t understand but was happy to listen too.

Even though I was among strangers, we felt like a big, multi-cultural family.
The monastery has a wonderful vibe. People are free to do what they want, yet everyone is very friendly.

After tea was the Evening Prayer and Compline. This was the first time I saw the monks. I don’t know much about Catholic monasteries, and as I had never been to one I sat at the back and observed. Both services went for about half an hour. We sang hymns and Psalms, heard a sermon, and spent a decent amount of time in silent meditation. I later found out it was only 15 minutes but it felt a lot longer! Sitting silently in a room with a bunch of other people is really beautiful.

The singing was slightly difficult as I didn’t know any of the tunes and I could hear my own wobbly voice way too loudly haha! The sermon was short and mostly good. One quote I remember a Father saying was,
             “Christianity is not a moral theory; it’s a love story between God and humanity, which is consecrated in Jesus Christ.”

Pretty beautiful hey?
Christianity is a living, dynamic faith. It’s practical and out-worked; not theoretical and stagnant. Faith, while shown in multiple ways, is always done. It’s acted. It’s lived.

“Loving Father,
Thank you for bringing me here and expanding my viewpoint on what genuine faith in you looks like. May you bless all those who live here in the monastery with a continuous passion for you. May the monks inspire me to have a radical, disciplined, and daily faith. Thank you for your peace and presence in this beautiful place. Please reveal your heart and truth to me while I am here, and open my eyes to seeing you wherever I go. Amen.”

After Compline the Great Silence is observed until Community Mass tomorrow at 8am. It’s nice to finish the day with silence. Time to reflect, pray, and rest is so necessary.

At the end of my first day I’m feeling peaceful, satisfied, and very happy.
Thank you Jesus! (P.T.L! =p)

Day 3, Sunday.
At the end of my third day here I am feeling great. I am now settled in, used to the rhythm, familiar with what happens at what time.

Every day I have been exploring the area around the monastery, and yesterday I found “my place.” It’s a small walk, through some trees, down a track, then through some bushes until you reach the river. Here I walked through the water and found some comfy rocks to sit on and listen to the rapids. I felt overjoyed to find a perfect wee spot, hidden away, that I could claim as my own.
I sat there for a couple of hours, praying, meditating, and thinking, all the while smiling at the beauty.

It’s so easy to praise God for His creativity and majesty when you are surrounded by such wonderful creation. Yet I long to praise Him with such ease no matter what surrounds me.

After tea I went to Evening Prayer then skipped Compline to watch the sunset out the back of the farm. Sadly some thick clouds covered most of it, but it was still so gorgeous to watch the sun slowly hide behind such a stunning back-drop.

Then to my delight the stars came out on a cloudless sky.
I lay on the grass for some time, gazing at their beauty. The stars are something that have always reminded and reassured me of God’s presence. And seeing them in this country, in such high definition with nothing to interrupt them, was a true delight.

Today is Sunday, and at 10am there was Community Mass. A number of people from local farms and close towns joined us for the Mass. It was so different to any service during the week! There were children crying and playing, rather than the usual stiff silence. While that proved rather distracting it was nice to have a fuller church.

I met some of the locals after church and a lady spoke with me about the wonderful atmosphere here at the monastery. She noted the hospitality of the monks, saying, “They are so inviting. They don’t need to know your background, or who you are, they just welcome you in.”

And it’s so true! Many of the Fathers have asked me what I do with my time, but only out of politeness, not necessity. They are some of the most accepting people I’ve ever met.
             It’s such a great example.

I went on a big walk today and found another great spot by the river. I stayed a few hours, singing, praying, and writing poems. The creative juices certainly flow when you’ve got nothing to distract you!
I definitely do not miss checking Facebook or replying to texts =).

Tonight I spent a couple of hours talking with a lady visiting from Palmy. She is a counsellor, and so easy to talk with. We discussed our families, struggles with the Church, why we were here, and what we deemed important in life. Meeting her was great – we were able to talk deeply and honestly with each other. The other guests have kind of kept to themselves, and I’ve only really seen them at meal times. Which is cool, but it was nice to connect a bit more with someone.

At this point I’d definitely say that you all should come to this place! It’s so, so peaceful. It’s relaxing, it’s restful, it’s interesting, it’s different, and it’s very comfy.
I’m so grateful these places exist, and bring such benefit to both the guests and those who live here permanently.

“God, thank you that these wonderful places occur right here in New Zealand. You call people into many different areas of life, and that diversity is awesome. Please continue to bless those who come to this monastery, and deepen the sense of Your presence and closeness here. Continue to challenge me and speak to me, I pray. May all glory and praise go to You and Your loving cause, Jesus. With gratitude, Amen.”

Day 4, Monday.
After going to the Prayer of the Sixth Hour today I stayed after the service and sat looking at the church.
It’s so different to my church, and to any church I’ve been in, even other Catholic ones.
From what I’ve observed, and after reading some given literature on it, this is what the church here is all about.

When you enter the church there is a table for the service books, with the holy water stoup next to it. The holy water is in a bowl, and those entering the church dip their fingers into it, then put the water somewhere on their bodies. People here seem to mainly put it on their foreheads. This water is used to bless them, in remembrance of their baptism.
In front of this are the pews, where the congregation sits.

On the left and right sides of the church are the Choir Stalls which the monks stand and sit in. Here they chant the Divine Office, which is the official Prayer of the Church. There is also an organ nearby, which the Abbot or a companion sometimes plays to support the chanting.
The chanting consists of singing hymns, psalms, and other prayers or benedictions. One Father told me each monk has to have proper singing lessons haha! It’s understandable; the services mainly consist of singing.

Between the two sets of choir stalls is a high table. This is the Altar, on which the Mass is celebrated each day. During the Mass the wine and bread are consecrated by a priest, “to become the true Body and Blood of Christ.” Communion is then served from this table. 

Behind the altar is the Lectern. This is where the scriptures and other writings are proclaimed during the Mass or the Prayer of the Church. The priests speak into a microphone so everyone can hear, and a number of them kiss the Bible after reading scriptures from it.

On a small table at the back of the church is the Tabernacle. The Sacred Host is kept in the Tabernacle, which is the bread that has been changed into the Body of Christ at Mass.

The priests write, “Jesus is truly present in the Sacred Host. Because of the Lord’s presence, when we enter or leave the church, or on moving from one side to the other, we all bow to the Lord present in the Tabernacle.”

This bowing happens multiple times during any service. When certain prayers are sung the congregation and the monks face the Tabernacle and bow to it.

To the left of the Tabernacle is the processional Crucifix, a wooden cross with Jesus hanging on it.

Just left of this is the entrance to the Meditation Room. As you enter there is the Sanctuary Light. “This indicates that the Lord is present in the Tabernacle.” This light is always on.

On the back wall of the Meditation Room is another Tabernacle, where the Sacred Host is kept.
“This allows us to feel very close to God in our meditation or contemplation.”

The community of monks (and any guests who want to join) celebrate the Divine Office seven times a day. These are done at 4am, 6am, 8am, 11:30am, 2pm, 5:15pm, and 8pm on weekday, and at slightly different times on a Sunday. The whole book of Psalms is recited during a two weekly cycle. Which is pretty awesome!

A lot of this monastic life is awesome. It’s so different to anything I’ve experienced.
There is such dedication given by the priests here, both in the sacrifice they’ve made to God and the way they treat their guests. They serve their community and God very selflessly.

               And I think it is just beautiful.

Day 7, Thursday.
Today is my last full day here at Southern Star Abbey. Which is kind of a shame, but I also think I am ready to leave. I wrote a letter to a friend the other day saying how being in the middle of nowhere is so freeing, like taking a much needed breathe of air. Yet I noted, “It’s tough though too, being away from normal life and people I know. Tough mainly because I don’t want to lose this close connection with God when I return to the distractions of everyday life.”

It’s easy to cling to God when you’ve got nothing else around you. It is hard being so isolated, and you miss that comfy sense of familiarity, but you still feel it. You feel it inside, that you are home. Home because God is our true Home, and He promises to always be with us.

I’ve definitely experienced a new part of my Home this week. How stuck we can get in our own traditions or ways of worshipping God.

Being a Protestant, not a Catholic, a lot of what happens here is very new and unusual to me. To be honest I kind of smirked at this way of life at the beginning. I thought parts of the Catholic practices here were funny or amusing.
But I’ve come to realise that everything these Catholic monks or lay-people do is saturated in meaning. Everything has a reason behind it. And generally people know what that reason is.

                Which is a beautiful thing – to have, and know, reasons behind the way you practice your faith.

There have been times in my faith journey when I’ve not understood properly why I practised Christianity the way I did. But these Christian’s know what they are doing, and why they do it, bringing a deep sense of meaning to their spirituality.

I think what confused me most about Catholicism was how repetitive it is. The services here, and regular weekly masses elsewhere, move in cycles. The monks here repeat the same prayers, psalms, and hymns – spread over time but they never change. I asked, how can they say the same thing again and again yet keep recognising its specialness or meaning?

A friend of mine once told me she withheld saying “I love you” to her boyfriend until she was sure that she really meant it. Then after she had told him, she was scared to say it to him all the time because she wanted it to be a special phrase. She thought if she said it a lot it would become regular, usual, and would lose the beauty of its meaning. She soon realised this was a silly worry. Repeating the words “I love you” didn’t make them meaningless, because her love for her boyfriend grew and changed.

Likewise, a Christian’s love for God is always growing and changing. So even though these Catholics might be saying the same prayers and hymns over and over, the thought behind the words is different. They can be said each time with a new perspective, conviction, and love.

I’m so glad God has given me a deeper respect for Catholicism, and for the diversity of worship in general. I’ve certainly had my perspective on faith broadened while being here.

I grew up in church, so I’ve been taking communion for basically my whole life.
              Yet I’ve never been so moved by communion as I was when I took it here, two days ago.
I felt deeper the sacrifice and love of Christ’s death, as well as the appreciation I have for our consequent salvation.

I’m not sure if this was a break-through – or more of a break-down! =p.
I’ve been feeling and crying a LOT this past week.
And despite this wealth of emotion and stirring within my heart, I’m still not entirely sure what God is trying to communicate to me. I think what He’s saying is that He is with me. And He’ll never leave. And He notices me, cares for me, and loves me in a unique and special way.

Which sounds so simple, so utterly basic! It’s something I learnt long ago, back in Children’s Church.

              Yet it is a truth I frequently forget, and a truth I’m delighted at when reminded of it.

I’ve started to read a delightful book by Henri J.M. Nouwen, called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.’ To so much of the author’s struggles I can relate.

In one part I read this morning he says this,
Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of. While walking home, I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome when I get there.
As I look at my spiritual journey, my long and fatiguing trip home, I see how full it is of guilt about the past and worries about the future. I realise my failures and know that I have lost the dignity of my sonship, but I am not yet able to fully believe that where my failings are great, “grace is always greater.”
(Page 52).

Pastor’s say, “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, or to make God love you less.” And I soo struggle to believe that, but it’s actually true.

God’s gift is unconditional love.
                While my love is not enough, Jesus’ love is more than sufficient.

With grace and peace,
La. x

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