When You Have Less Than a Day at an Abbey

“God speaks in silence, but we must know how to listen. This is why monasteries are oases in which God speaks to humanity.” —Pope Benedict XVI

The Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado
The Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado (photo: Register Files)

And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.
Van Morrison

Wide-eyed and wonderful, Katharine was awed by the rocky terrain as we made our way north from Denver to Virginia Dale.

“Look at how high those mountains are,” she said.

“Actually, we’re hardly in the foothills yet,” I replied. “The mountains are even higher than this – see those snowy peaks over there?”

I pointed off to the west and explained that the mountaintops were so high and cold that the snow never melts there. Kath was quiet as she looked out the window. She’d spent virtually all of her 11 years in flat Indiana, although she’d seen some serious undulations in Illinois and Wisconsin. But this was her first visit to Colorado, and there was a lot to process.

“I wonder if hills are like mountains for small animals,” she reflected after a few minutes. It’s all in the perspective, and animals loom large in her world.

By the time we got to the Abbey of St. Walburga, it was early evening of a Friday. We pulled off Highway 287 onto the Abbey’s dirt road and made our way to the main building.

“There’s the outdoor Stations of the Cross,” I noted as we crawled along. “And there’s the old guesthouse that we stayed in before you were born.” I could see Kath nodding in the back seat. “I remember visiting here before the Abbey was built and there was nothing around but an old cabin.”

She was unimpressed. “Where’s the cows?” That’s what she was interested in – not my reminiscences. She’d heard that the sisters were farmers, and she wanted to see livestock up close and personal.

We didn’t have to wait long. As we rounded a bend, a dozen cows were grazing along the roadside. One crossed right in front of us and gave us a long look. Kath was delighted.

“The sisters have llamas as well,” I told her.

“Really?” she asked. “I can’t wait!”

When we got up to the Abbey building itself, we parked and headed to the front door. I rang the bell to announce our arrival and started to open the door.

“We shouldn’t,” Kath objected.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her as we entered. “The sisters know we’re coming, and they told us to go right in for dinner.”

There were a handful of retreatants in the guest refectory and a half-dozen diaconal candidates in a room off to themselves. We smiled and nodded to our fellow guests; they responded in kind. There were murmurs of conversation among those not observing silence. Instinctively, visitors to St. Walburga’s, or any Abbey, naturally adopt a decorum of quiet and calm.

After we ate, Sr. Elizabeth greeted us and showed us to our quarters. “Be aware that there are bobcats and mountain lions around,” she said. “They usually come out at dusk and dawn, so it’s best to go for walks during the day.” I asked about the rattlesnake information brochures mixed in with the prayer cards on a literature rack. “We haven’t seen any rattlers this year,” Sr. Elizabeth replied. “There are bull snakes in the high grass, but they’re not poisonous.”

Kath’s eyebrows went up – there’s animals, and then there’s animals. We resolved to stick to the roads for daytime walks only.

“Let’s go see the chapel,” I told Kath after settling in our rooms. She agreed. We went in, blessed ourselves with holy water, and knelt in a pew. Kath gazed at the clay crucifix above the altar, and the tapestries on the wall.

“They’re telling the story of Mary’s life,” I whispered.

She knew that already. “There’s the Annunciation,” she replied, pointing to one side. “And Mary at the Cross,” pointing to the other.

We went for a short walk after that, and encountered a horse and llama pair in a corral just outside the chapel. Kath clambered up on a mossy rock to get a better view. “That one’s name is Vinny,” she declared, indicating the llama, “and the horse is Lou.” I recognized the names from an old Jungle Jam episode she’d heard countless times growing up – a family favorite. Kath was making herself at home.

At nightfall, we joined the sisters for compline in the chapel. As the sisters took their places in choir, a number of them smiled at me in recognition.

“Do you know all the sisters?” Kath asked quietly.

I shook my head. “Only some.”

The Abbey’s original foundation was near my childhood home in Boulder, so some of the older sisters have been seeing me come around for decades. Plus, Nancy and I visited with our first six kids many years ago, so I was glad that the sisters were finally meeting our seventh – that they’d know Katharine now and be praying for her as they do all her siblings.

The nuns commenced their antiphonal chanting accompanied by a harp. We followed along in our booklets, adding our voices from time to time. Afterwards we stood near the back of the chapel for the Salve Regina and a blessing from Mother Maria-Michael. Then Kath and I discussed our plans for the next day and retired to our rooms for the night.

We awoke early, shared a simple breakfast, and then joined the sisters and other retreatants for Mass. During the intercessions, the abbess specifically mentioned me and my family – and singled out Katharine for a special intention. I glanced down and caught Kath’s grin.

Following the dismissal, we decided to make the Stations of the Cross, so we drove back near the main gate and parked at the base of a steep hill. The stations were arrayed along a trail that ascended the hill, and when we reached the final station, Kath climbed up the highest rock to look out over the Abbey’s valley. She decided we’d conquered a mountain. In effect, she had.

Later, with Mother’s permission, we skirted the posted cloister boundaries and moseyed over to the farm buildings. There we were met by Sr. Maria Gertrude and Sr. Maria-Walburga who gave us a mini-tour and introduced Kath to a variety of critters: cows, of course, but also turkeys, chickens, cats, and even a baby water buffalo – Maggie by name. It shied away from us after a few moments, but not before sampling my hand with its grainy tongue. “You can wash your hand when you get back to the building,” said Sr. Maria-Walburga. I wasn’t worried – in fact, I felt privileged.

After lunch, it was time to pack up and get moving. When we checked in the day before, we’d totally skipped the guest guide in our rooms, but we referred to it now for checking-out procedures. It’s then that we discovered that Abbey guests were asked not to climb on the rocks around the property – and Kath been climbing up a storm since we arrived! She was mortified, so I consoled her. “My mistake – it’s not your fault,” I said. “Besides, I’m pretty sure the sisters will overlook it, and next time we’ll know better.”

Before we left, we visited Sr. Pauline in the gift shop – a rosary for mom, some holy cards for her favorite teacher – and we said our goodbyes. As we drove away, Kath looked back at the Abbey in silence.

“What was your favorite part of our visit?” I asked. Meeting the sisters? Praying with them? The stillness and solitude?

“The animals,” she replied, “and the mountains.”

It’s all in the perspective.