|Bell tower at the Monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge; statues of the Madonna and Child, in the chapel, and St. Francis, in the guesthouse garden.|
Cambridge monastery offers unexpected sanctuary
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“A retreat allows a space where your attention is not demanded by other things,” said Jones. “You’re able to focus. When you’re given the space and permission to take the time you need, really interesting thoughts come to you. I would say it’s for anybody who needs to step back.”
As organ music fills the main chapel and worshipers enter a grand space with stone arches, marble floors, intricate stained glass windows, and iron gates, it is easy to step back and reflect. The monastery holds four prayer services throughout the day where guests can join the brothers. “The major purpose [of the retreats] is to invite people to come and pray in our rhythm,” said Maury. For many visitors, the most memorable moments come during services when the brothers join in traditional chants, their voices perfectly complementing each other’s in a way that is mesmerizing.
After evening prayers, overnight guests eat dinner with the monks in the monastery refectory. Since the monks rise early and go to bed early, dinner is light — typically soup, salad, and homemade whole wheat bread — and often vegetarian. Simple, healthful eating is part of the monastic lifestyle in which visitors take part. There are two “talking” meals each week, while the rest are either silent or feature music or a book read aloud. The “talking” meals provide a casual setting for wide-ranging discussions between the brothers and their guests.
“People are often surprised by the accessibility of the brothers and their lives,” said Maury. “We’re not aloof or so otherworldly that we’re unapproachable. People are often surprised, too, by their ability to be present with us, to take part in the experience of silence and the rhythm of prayer and intentional living that we have. You discover there’s something innate about that approach to living and being. It’s been there all along and somehow never had a chance to grow.”
While the monastery’s location is curious for a religious community that values quiet contemplation, it was intentionally built near a world-famous university. The Society recognizes college students are at a “critical stage of life formation” and believes it can provide guidance. The first SSJE monastery was built near Oxford University in England.
The Cambridge monastery sits on land purchased with donations from early benefactor and worshiper Isabella Stewart Gardner. Nearly a century ago when the Society settled by the Charles, the location was a surprisingly undesirable, industrial spot abutting an MBTA elevated car depot and Harvard University Press buildings. Construction on the main monastery buildings started during the Great Depression. Recently, the SSJE underwent a $13 million renovation, in part to better accommodate guests. After all, the monastery wants to be as welcoming as possible to anyone interested in visiting.
“The monastery is about the quality of relationships — your relationship to God and to other people,” said Jamie Coats, director of the Friends of SSJE. “We think about the services. We think about the food. We think about how the place is built. We think about the economics. All so you can have a place where you feel safe and truly think about the things that matter to you.”
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.