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Sabbatical Reflections

We All Do Crazy Things

You would be amazed how different you become when you are in a space that is removed from all the clutter of your everyday life.

Someone asked me ‘where do you live?’

I told her that I was living in a monastery for three months.  She said, ‘Well, I suppose we all do crazy things from time to time.’

And that gives you some measure of the suspicion with which regular people might regard the very word ‘monastery.’

So where am I coming from? And more importantly, AM I just the tiniest bit crazy?         

I will never be able to speak for anyone else. But I know that for personal reasons, in my mid-thirties, taking time out of the “regular world” is something I needed to do. I had to step away from the functioning automaton I had become and take respite somewhere I could see myself as a whole person, the spiritual being. And I was lucky in that Holy Hill was just fifteen miles from where I live in Sligo. But I use ‘the regular world’ in inverted commas because, at this point, I do not see any irregularity about monastic life. I do not see it as being incompatible with the timetabled structures we follow as human beings.

At any rate, my needing to take some time out coincided with Sr. Ceil in Holy Hill setting up a program whereby younger people were invited to take part in community life for three months.  This offered participants the opportunity to explore their faith through reading and discussion groups and generally balancing out their week, dividing time spent alone and with others.  It offered a balance of leisure and work—and as I’m big into the concept of leisure—I decided that it was ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ time. And so I made the three-month commitment.

The first time I saw my hermitage down the field, maybe three hundred yards away from the main building, I was enchanted. Stone exterior, wooden interior, like a cabin. The message was all about simplicity. This was a self-contained space where I could make my own coffee, cook, read, light a fire, run a bath, think, dream, absorb nature, sleep, pray. . .or not.  How I needed this simplicity!

You would be amazed how different you become when you are in a space that is removed from all the clutter of your everyday life. For me, it was literally a case of not having all my baggage with me.  This space was not mine to worry about, to think about redecorating or rearranging or putting up shelves. It was simply a place for me to be. I found myself writing more, sleeping the sleep of the just, and for the first time in my life, really, really enjoying what the birds were getting up to outside my window. That was the entry point to God.

If I did not have the opportunity to enjoy so much quality time by myself I would not have been able to immerse myself in the delight that creation can bring. I saw everything as being infused with personality, from the geographical place to the people and creatures in it.  I watched the clouds swathe the noble mountain in the morning, the sunset pinking up the monastery windows in the evening, the frost crisping the stubby grass into short upright arrows in the winter mornings.  Climbing that same mountain helped me appreciate the grandeur from another perspective and come to the realisation that chocolate tastes its very best when shared with three other exhausted but exhilarated individuals on top of snowy Irish slopes! I got to walk in the pouring miserable rain and realise that with the miracle of top to toe raingear it was actually exuberant to be out. Life goes on in all weathers.

Holy Hill gave me—and continues to give me—an inner metronome that helps me keep a sense of balance between the things that sell themselves as being important and the things that actually are. Immersion in a hermitage, in community chores, prayers, social time and quiet time is something that seemed to restore this balance over the months I spent there, like a stone gradually sharpening a knife. Of all the things I saw imbued with life and personality while in the monastery, the most important of these was the life of my very own soul, and its inseparable connection to my God.

Just ‘being’ can help restore the ability, the meaning and the enthusiasm for ‘doing.’

Crazy?  No. I don’t think so. But I might have been if I hadn’t taken the time to do something this sensible with my life.

                                                                        Clare Lynch

Finding One’s Own Home in God

Holy Hill—a mystical place where all are welcome, where every journey is respected, and every individual is recognized as manifesting the face of God.

Holy Hill is one of those unique places you sometimes find at just the right time. For me, seeking a place and space to review my life and to take stock, Holy Hill provided the perfect setting. Either in my little hermitage or in the chapel, on my walks or in the library, silence and stillness spoke loudly to me. My weeks at Holy Hill gave me the opportunity to really slow down, still my anxious mind, and find my own home in myself and to seek the mysterious presence of God.

The hermitage gave me autonomy and provided a place to live, eat, pray and rest. Preparing simple meals for myself using homegrown vegetables and other healthy ingredient was all part of the experience of simplicity and groundedness.

The mixed community of hermits created the spirit of the place. Here were real individuals, alive and open, creative and hopeful in their life task of seeking God in contemplation and prayer for the world. I experienced the results of the profoundly deep sense they have of being intimately loved by God—an experience that made all the difference to them.

One of the experiences I valued was the opportunity to talk to one of the sisters in the community, to reflect on my inner journey in the presence of another. She was incredibly real, gentle, wise and profound in her response to my soul’s longings. And I felt safe.

On Sunday after Mass the community and retreatants came together for a shared meal. This was a great opportunity to get to know one’s fellow retreatants and the bigger community, an experience of table-fellowship for fellow travelers.

Many paths cross at Holy Hill. People searching for the divine have plenty in common! All our roots, wherever we are, are planted in sacred soil. This seems to be part of the message of Holy Hill—a mystical place where all are welcome, where every journey is respected, and every individual is recognized as manifesting the face of God.

                                                            John Dunne 

Breathing In the Silence

My friends told me I would be back in a week.

You can only breathe out for so long, and then you have to breathe in. In order to continue to be creative in your life, you have to take time for renewal.  In September 2006 I decided to take a sabbatical from my work in hospice and spend a month at Holy Hill.  I didn’t know what to expect. My friends told me I would be back in a week.

As I drove up the road to Holy Hill, I saw that the hermitages were situated at the base of the Ox Mountains. The scenery was breathtaking, and as I drove in I had a view of the ocean in the distance.

On arriving, I was warmly received and shown to my hermitage. It consisted of a kitchen cum sitting room, a bathroom and a bedroom. It was stocked with basic foods, all of which were healthy—a challenge to my sweet tooth. I like my creature comforts and was glad that I could turn the heating on or off at my discretion. My hermitage looked out onto a courtyard with a rock fountain surrounded by an elliptical heather garden.

Living in such a beautiful setting helped me to meditate. I was surrounded by nature and lovingly tended gardens.  Many an hour I sat at Mary’s garden where there is a beautiful bronze statue of Mary carrying a water jug and a young Jesus playing with his dog.

I also spent time in the library that has over 6000 books. I loved the cosy wood and stone rooms and exquisite views out of each window.  The chapel, like the library, is always open.  On fine sunny days, I headed for Dunmoran Strand, which is only 3.5 kilometres away.  In the afternoons, I joined the community for some light manual labor in the vegetable garden.

The silence that pervaded Holy Hill invaded my bones and gave me the opportunity to listen to my inner stirrings and to God. I am grateful to my congregation for giving me the luxury of living as a hermit for one month.            

                                                            Sr. Helen Culhane RSM

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