About four weeks ago I arrived at Bonnevaux. Bonnevaux is the International Retreat Centre of The World Community for Christian Meditation (The WCCM) and is located about 20 minutes south of Poitiers in the south-west of France. I am a part of the resident community for the retreat centre. I hope to write regular posts from Bonnevaux as time goes on.
The last four weeks have been quite a challenge. France is really the first foreign country, in the true sense of the word foreign, that I have lived in: different language, different culture. As well as this, I have been slowly adapting to the communal life around me, a life that is itself finding its way. Everything is quite new for everyone here.
Our daily life is based on a rhythm that has its roots in the monastic expression of a contemplative Christianity. Each day begins with an optional meditation at 6.30am, followed by morning prayer and meditaton at 7.20. Midday prayer and meditation is at 12:15pm, with evening prayer and meditation at 6. Then comes Compline (or night prayer) at 8:30, after which there is the option to stay in the chapel and meditate. All this prayer and meditation is in the chapel, a gorgeous little building around 150-200 years old (I think) – photos to come. Each meditation period is 30 minutes.
The cultivation of silence is an emphasis at Bonnevaux. The chapel is the silent heart of the community and unnecessary talking is discouraged. The silence that emerges during meditation is precious, sacred. Everything done in the chapel serves this emergence.
Also, we practice silence during breakfast and lunch; this means no talking as well as refraining from unnecessary noise.
All this may seem harsh. What is under this however, is the understanding that noise and speech can effect where attention is. The deeper into the contemplative heart of Christianity one goes, the more is the realisation that in a quiet heart we sense God and in a quiet heart is who we are. Practicing silence fosters our whole humanity home into the heart of the divine life and to our deepest reality. Times of silence provide the opportunity for attention to ground in this heart and, over time, remain there – no matter where we are, what we are doing, or where we are living.
The silence of Bonnevaux is an invitation into the transformation that the divine life does in our humanity during silence. In time, and with grace, we become free to be in a silent heart: in love, as love, growing in love.
Silence can also reveal what we do not want to see and feel: uncomfortable emotions, certain reactions, maybe pain and trauma we do not yet (or want to) understand. So silence can be tricky; we can all have different relationships with it.
One thing the silence here revealed to me was my expectations around silence at Bonnevaux. I spent my first weeks at breakfast and lunch quite agitated that people were not being quiet enough! There I sat in judgement and growing hardness as I wrestled with these expectations and the general experience of settling in. My personality creaked and groaned under the strain of all this newness and expectation.
With the help of those around me I was reminded that different people are in different places, and the experience during silence is for many different.
I also realised that I was really missing meditating by myself. To help with this, I now start the day with the first morning meditation alone in our Icon Chapel (separate to the main chapel). This has provided a bit of balance and has helped the personality soften during this time of newness.