“I arrive at the abbey in time for compline, the last service of the day. As the nuns chant the Psalms, I look around the church and take my bearings. In place of pews, wooden benches stand along three walls together with a selection of zafus and zabutons. The monastery is Catholic, yet a Zen-like aesthetic is everywhere present, perhaps most pronounced in the center of the chapel, which remains empty. Into that center the day’s last light pours from clerestory windows high up in the ceiling. Along the chapel’s fourth wall, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal a single redwood tree beyond, a four-leader trunk whose girth must be close to thirty feet. On the concrete floor, a series of long cracks run the length of the building. Redwood roots, I learn from one of the sisters, pushing upward. The trees are lifting the entire monastery off the ground.
The sisters of Redwoods Abbey are Trappists, also known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a worldwide Catholic monastic order of men and women who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Cistercian reforms of the eleventh century. Those reforms brought a return to simplicity, contemplative prayer, and silence. At a time when Christianity was taking a centuries-long detour into logic and rationalism, Cistercian monks were turning their attention inward, to the heart, where Jesus said we would find the kingdom of God.
The sisters chant the Psalms here in this chapel and in between chants they listen. Words are spoken or sung, but they are borrowed from silence and to silence they return. ‘The monastic journey is learning how to listen,’ Sister Kathy, the abbess, tells me one day during my visit. 'I don’t think we ever stop learning how to listen.’ I experience it many times over the next five days — standing inside a circle of ancient redwoods across the Mattole River, sitting on a beach at nearby Needle Rock — but I find it first here among the sisters in their chapel of wood, steel, and concrete upheld by the roots of trees: a deep, welcoming silence.”
- Fred Bahnson, from “On the Road with Thomas Merton”