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After five days out of (or out in) the real world …

… I returned to discover that the hottest news during my absence was a peahen getting loose in a California liquor store and wrecking the place.

Or maybe it was some story about one political liar lying about another political liar Comey and Trump. Or North Korea testing more missiles. But the peahen story was definitely more relevant. (Though will somebody please tell the “journalist” who covered that one that even in this day of trans-anything, “female peacock” is still not an actual thing?)

In other vital news of the day, J.R.R. Tolkein has just come out with another new book, despite being dead these many years. And it has a very touching backstory for hardcore Tolkein fans and hopeless romantics, of which I am neither.

I also found a pair of amusing knitting links awaiting me upon my return. Not girly sort of knitting links, either. But one about WWII spies communicating through knitted knots. And another about an Australian man making funny hats. (Yes, he’s crocheting his funny hats, not knitting them, but if we can have “female peacocks,” then surely we can have knitted crocheted hats.)

Anyhow, H/T to male knitter JB for those two.


Are you getting the idea that I’m returning to the real world (or from the real world; I’m not sure) somewhat reluctantly?

Maybe so, maybe so. I did have a wonderful time at the monastery and its iconography workshop, although oddly enough the biggest drawback for me was too much socializing — something you probably tend not to associate with monasteries. My hermity self took a while to adjust to communal meals three times a day. But I liked the nuns very much. They were a small group, nearly all of whom had raised families, had careers, or owned businesses before joining (or founding) the monastery in the last 20 years. They were bright, educated, and highly aware of doings in the outside world despite being officially “enclosed.” The abbess — as well as the priest who shared a number of meals with us — had a dry, barbed sense of humor. Mother Abbess had a surprisingly cynical worldview for a nun, at the same time she and all the rest were kind, caring, and accommodating.

A few days before heading to the monastery, I had run across reviews for a new book, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World. This was interesting to me because Dreher is basically advocating gulching — just an explicitly Christian form, based loosely on the monastic principles established by St. Benedict. Intriguing idea.

I have a library hold on it. But when the subject of intentional communities arose during one of those chatty meals and I mentioned the book, it turned out the monastery already had a copy, and Mother Abbess loaned it to me. (I spent a few hours skimming it and posted my first impressions this morning at Claire’s Cabal. I expect to have more later after getting the library copy and giving it a more thorough read.)

I also enjoyed the meals for another reason: the foooooooooood. Oh my goodness. Although the nuns call it “simple fare” — and it is — I’ve never so much enjoyed simple meals in my life. I found myself scarfing down normally boring foods like fruit salads, chilled asparagus, and mixed vegetables as if they were gourmet delights. Which to my mind, they were. The mother (they were all mothers, not sisters; something about how things work in the eastern monastic tradition) in charge of the kitchen was an absolute whiz with seasonings and unusual flavor combos. The fare included large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, some meats, and a very modest inclusion of carbs. I ate and ate and ate and found myself feeling healthier and more energetic as the week went on.


Icon painting was hungry work, as others in the class agreed. We student iconographers arrived at lunch famished and ready to attack the buffet table in full force.

I’ll try to have another post later on the specifics of icon painting (with pictures). But basically it required about 32 class-hours for each of us to produce a completed work, only about 9″x12″ small. We didn’t get into some of the deeper aspects of icon creation. For instance we didn’t (alas) get to mix our own egg tempera. The teacher only showed us how the mixing was done after a couple of us prodded him. (There’s very good reason for beginning students with limited time not to mix their own tempera; it was still a disappointment.)

In fact, I’d almost say that this first foray was a lot like paint-by-the-numbers.

Or would be if paint-by-the-numbers involved building up multiple paint layers, applying gold leaf (my favorite part), sealing with egg emulsion, using a ruling pen and a scribing stylus, writing in Greek, learning the theological meaning of each step of the work, and hand varnishing with a mix of beeswax and lavender oil. (Literally hand varnishing, too. We rubbed the varnish on with our fingertips. I thought I’d never get that sticky stuff off my skin, but it sure did smell nice. Thirty hours later, my icon is still redolent of lavender.)

Parts of the work were fun, fast, and relatively easy; about two days of the four and a half were OTOH hard. Really hard. But we learned a lot.

‘Nuff for now. More later.


  1. coloradohermit
    coloradohermit June 10, 2017 3:10 pm

    Welcome back! I cant wait to hear all about it and see the lavender redolent outcome.

  2. Comrade X
    Comrade X June 11, 2017 12:11 am

    Sounds like a great escape to me!

  3. M
    M June 11, 2017 4:24 am

    “Zen and The Art of Knitting” has a quirky, relaxing, laughing way about it. Little Vignettes of other lives.

    Interesting about the Monastery.

  4. Shel
    Shel June 11, 2017 7:57 pm

    When I was at a Benedictine monastery for a couple of weeks in the ’90’s, they told me that during dinner for the monks one of them would read from a book. The one they were currently reading was about a potential change to the patent law system, which was very relevant at the time.

    I couldn’t find your posting of your monastic experience at the Cabal site. What category is it under? You talked about the nuns. Was it a monastery or a convent or both?

  5. Claire
    Claire June 11, 2017 8:42 pm

    Shel — It was a monastery. Nuns only. I’m not sure what you’re thinking, but I know some people believe if it’s where monks live, it’s a monastery, and if it’s a place nuns live, it’s a convent. But that’s not right. Convent refers to the residence of sisters, usually who do some work “in the world.” A monastery can be for either monks or nuns whose work is the traditional enclosed “ora et labora.”

    And I haven’t (yet) written about the experience at the Cabal. What I did write about at the Cabal was my preliminary take on Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedictine Option, which is in the arts & literature board.

    Your monks were reading about patent law? LOL. Not quite what I think about when it comes to lectio divina. At this monastery, lunch was supposed to be “silent, with readings.” But it never was.

  6. Shel
    Shel June 12, 2017 7:07 am

    I spent time at St. Meinrad Archabbey (there is at least one much larger Abbey but the Archabbey is older). Not many miles away there’s a place where nuns live; I had always figured it was a convent but now I know it’s a monastery I had been using the lay definition of a convent such as #2 in

    My Father friend told me that recently they had a function where the nuns came over and visited St. Meinrad. He looked at the floor, smiled, shook his head, and said “We’ve never done that before.”

    As a guest, whom their rules require to be treated like Christ – even though I assured them I was someone different – I didn’t eat with the monks. As I recall somewhere in the 500’s the order was founded. Somewhere in the 900’s they relaxed the rules to allow more talking as well as, I believe, eliminating the requirement of getting up in the middle of the night to pray. The Trappists, known as O.B.S.O. (Latin for order Benedictine strict observance) kept the old rules. One of the guests told me it’s possible to travel Europe staying at Benedictine monasteries. He and another man, who talked a lot, were being led by a monk to an entrance. The monk told the man multiple times that he would not be allowed to speak once inside. The yapping continued as they approached the entrance. The monk grabbed the man by the lapels, pinned him against the wall, and said, “You may not talk now. I will TELL you when you may talk.”

    If I ever go to Italy I’m going to Monte Cassino for sure. The Father told me that the U.S. gave no money earmarked to rebuild the monastery, which we bombed to rubble. The German paratroop commander, who was a lay Benedictine, had scrupulously avoided looking out the window when eating dinner at the monastery. Sometime prior to the bombing the monks walked peacefully down the mountain.

  7. Claire
    Claire June 12, 2017 8:03 am

    “As a guest, whom their rules require to be treated like Christ – even though I assured them I was someone different – I didn’t eat with the monks.”

    Great stories, Shel. I especially love the one about the monk and the yapper.

    I would have liked eating solo, or at least silent. And definitely my idea of a retreat is one with very little talking. That would be bliss. OTOH, I loved that the nuns wore traditional garb, and that the church was so beautiful, unusual, and full of incense and candles.

    Two weeks in a monastery … what an experience. Even if you were “somebody different.” 😉

  8. Shel
    Shel June 12, 2017 9:23 am

    The first week I was at the guest house, which really was a simple motel. Over the weekend a large party of lay people came in, so I was able to stay in the monastery itself for the next few days. On one of the monk’s doors was a sign that said: “I asked Christ how much he loved me. He spread his arms and said ‘I love you this much.’ And then he died.”

    I was even luckier in that on the weekend between the two weeks was the Feast of St. Meinrad, their big holiday. I was able to go to the mass. In that, and others, about 8 or 9 monks would stand in a circle and sing a capella. On the previous Friday evening, a group from a university sang renaissance songs, including Ave Maria. During the mass one of the songs sung by the monks absolutely smoked the Ave Maria I heard a few days before. I will always kick myself for not asking my friend later what it was. Nobody can tell me now that I haven’t seen a real Catholic ceremony. Fortunately for me, BTW, the monks at St. Meinrad aren’t Trappists.

  9. Claire
    Claire June 12, 2017 1:01 pm

    It matters mostly that you just provided a link that leads to endless information for anyone who wants to know more about the Trappists beyond “Oh yeah, wasn’t Thomas Merton one of those guys?” Thanks.

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