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The Silent Treatment: A quiet vacation at Virginia's Holy Cross Abbey in the Shenandoah Valley

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At Holy Cross Abbey, a Catholic monastery in the Shenandoah Valley, monks live a life of quiet prayer and visitors relax and recharge in the pastoral countryside.

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By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, March 28, 2010

I'm an actor, an office aide, an editor, a student, a pet-sitter, a caregiver, a Sunday school teacher and a writer. It works because all my downtime is also opportunity to think about the beats of a new monologue or what I might write next. Which means somewhere in my head, a narration box is constantly whirring, because maybe what's happening right then is a story.

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My brain is quietest when I am doing a bunch of things at once: driving, putting on eye makeup, figuring out which road I should take, up until I start arguing with Diane Rehm's guest. My brain rarely shuts up, though I would like it to.

Where can you go to get a vacation from the buzzing in the background of your own mind?

One answer, it turns out, is 60 miles west of Washington in Berryville, Va., nestled between the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a working cattle ranch and Catholic monastery called Holy Cross Abbey. It'll be 60 years old in November and covers 1,200 acres. The 23 Cistercian monks make creamed honey and fruitcake and have a guesthouse where they accept as many as 16 visitors for a week or weekend. Guests, who can be religious or not, are invited to services with the monks and can make an appointment with a priest-monk for confession, reconciliation with the church or a chat about what it's like to be a monk. Half of each day at Holy Cross is the Great Silence.

Cistercian monks are withdrawn from the world to be closer to their God, a God whoeases toward you in a silence. Their emphasis is on manual labor and self-sufficiency. They hark back to Saint Benedict, who wrote in the 6th century that silence teaches obedience and awareness of sin. The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 by monks who felt that 11th-century monastic life had become too ... modern. Practical speech and talking with those outside the order are allowed -- it isn't a vow of silence, but silence is taken seriously as a spiritual tool.

These people who voluntarily gave up modern life, who live according to spiritual precepts from around A.D. 500, whose lives are built around withdrawing from the world -- what will they tolerate from a non-Catholic only as old as the personal computer; someone with impertinent, idiosyncratic beliefs; half-crazed from noise withdrawal, eating their fruitcake?

***

Turn off of Route 7 onto abbey property, and WAMU cuts out. It's immediately gorgeous: old Osage orange trees line the drive and filter sunlight onto the river. The trees open up into wide fields, some with cows. The guesthouse, modern brick and multi-leveled, rises in front of me.

Inside it's quiet, but a man in casual clothes welcomes me and shows me my room, using words and everything. Apparently, it is not currently the Great Silence. All 16 rooms are singles, with a twin bed, private bath and view of green pastures.

There's cellphone reception, but there's no Wi-Fi -- I keep checking every few minutes, just in case. But, no, this is a brain vacation: no family, no media, no job, no noise, no small talk, but meals included and books provided, for a suggested donation of $75 to $100 per night. A room is kept reserved for last-minute arrivals and for those who can't pay.

As I leave to take a walk before dinner, something feels very wrong. The doors lock only from the inside. Panicking a little, I grab my laptop and think about locking it in my car.

I take a deep breath. There's a reason the doors are like this. I am supposed to feel safe here. Not safe because of locks, but because of trust in my fellow human beings. I put the laptop on the desk, hide it halfheartedly under a towel, and go.


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