Carmelite nuns pray, holding their breviaries, behind a screen at the Carmel of Maria Regina in Eugene. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Carmelite nuns pray, holding their breviaries, behind a screen at the Carmel of Maria Regina in Eugene. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
A secular definition of a monastery is “a building or buildings occupied by a community of monks living under religious vows,” but a Catholic definition might be “a place where monks or sisters pray.”

What makes religious houses unique is their insistence that prayer must sanctify the days and nights. The chance to pray with the monks or sisters is an important benefit of a retreat at an abbey, convent or monastery.

“We tell guests they’re coming into a prayerful community,” says Benedictine Father Pius Harding, a monk at Mount Angel Abbey. “Guests encounter Christ in a prayerful community. Having the Divine Office five times a day makes a difference.”

Even non-Catholics can step into the prayer life of the Divine Office because lauds, vespers and the other hours don’t include the Liturgy of the Eucharist. “Non-Catholics can fully participate in the divine office as Christians baptized into the one body of Christ,” says Father Pius.

He quotes chapter 53 of St. Benedict’s Rule when explaining why the Benedictines welcome guests and invite them to prayer: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

St. Benedict wrote, “After the guests have been received, they should be invited to pray, then the superior or an appointed brother will sit with them.”

Father Pius notes that “quiet” while on retreat or pilgrimage doesn’t exactly correlate with decibels. “It’s about interior quiet,” he says. “It’s no good to make a silent retreat if we’re making notes to communicate. ‘Quiet’ is about settling down inside and resting with Christ, a wordless resting in the divine presence.”

For Monica Bochsler, praying with the monks at Mount Angel is a key benefit of working at the abbey. “The bells ring and tell you it’s time to stop work and think about God,” she said. “So many people talk about being present and centering themselves — prayer does that.”

It’s not immediate. Father Pius says the first invitation to guests is to allow themselves to quiet down. “For some it needs a full day,” he said. “Then they discover they have a whole interior life that’s speaking to them, that’s been overwhelmed by the media.”

Then there’s the prayer.

“If you’re a baptized Christian you’re never a bystander in the liturgy,” says Father Pius. “You’re not just observing, you’re participating.”

Benedictine Sister Rebecca Pirkl of Queen of Angels Monastery in Mount Angel believes it’s the calm and quiet that draws guests, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Retreatants sometimes pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the sisters, morning, noon and vespers, but they also spend time in quiet meditation at the Mary shrine in a grove on the grounds. They pray as they follow the route of the outdoor labyrinth and they may even walk up the hill to Mount Angel Abbey. “They reconnect with God,” says Sister Rebecca. “And they appreciate seeing the sisters — while eating in the sisters’ dining room, praying in the chapel or reading in the library.”

Many of the retreatants return to recharge again.

Jethro Higgins, who works as e-commerce manager at Oregon Catholic Press (publisher of this newspaper), grew up a mile from the Carmel of Maria Regina in Eugene. “I grew up listening to the bells all my life.”

The bells call the nuns — and guests — to prayer.

Higgins still visits the chapel there.

“You can join the nuns for the Liturgy of the Hours,” he says. “The nuns are behind a screen, so you can’t really see them, but if you have your book or cellphone app open, you can pray the Liturgy of the Hours with them.”

“The book” Higgins refers to is the breviary, a tool that’s easy enough to learn but needs explaining. Higgins prefers Catholic prayer apps for cellphones and tablets. “You refresh each day,” he says. “It takes the guesswork out of how the book works.”

However, if you want to learn how to use a breviary, the monks at Mount Angel or the sisters at Queen of Peace are happy to teach.

Higgins learned how from Dominicans at St. Thomas More in Eugene. “Our Western Dominicans are fantastic and love to share how to do it.”

Spiritual direction is available both at Queen of Angels and at Mount Angel Abbey. “Because things surface in silence,” Father Pius says. “And sometimes people are afraid of what might surface.”

Spiritual direction helps. “Several guests have commented that Mount Angel provides a safe place for them to go deep and deal with life.

Then the pilgrims and retreatants return, restored, to their work in the world, to their families. “People say they feel refreshed and renewed,” says Sister Rebecca.

As St. Ephrem of Syria wrote in the fourth century, “Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit and raises man to heaven.”