If only I could return to the days when God was my guardian, when his fire blazed above me and guided me through the dark – to the days when I was in blossom and God was a hedge around me.
Heaven’s Coast, Mark Doty
I am sitting in my kitchen having breakfast. Sunlight shines on the paper box on the table. It’s only a cheese box but beautifully designed and suitable for putting little keepsakes in, the way an imaginative child might. The picture of L’ Abbaye d’Oka graces the lid, mustard coloured, advertising the 125th anniversary of this cheese, which belongs, no longer to the monks who first made it, but to Quebec’s Agropur company .
Inside the box is a wrapped small wheel of cheese which I can now buy at big chain supermarkets like Loblaws or FreshCo. I slice a thick wedge and lay it on top of my warm toast; I put it in my mouth, tasting the tangy semi-soft cheese, savouring each mouthful, followed by a sip of café au lait from my favourite blue and white bowl, reminiscent of the colour of azulejos.
But the box containing the wheel of cheese is much more than a disposal, biodegradable item to place in my recycling bin. The mass produced box, showing an abbey which no longer exists, is a tangible sacramental which awakens my memory of the Abbaye Cistercienne d’Oka, known in the beginning of its foundation as La Trappe of Oka or the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac; and which we, who went there, simply called Oka.
Throughout most of my adult life I had journeyed to Oka, the home of French Trappist monks whose founders had come from the Abbaye de Bellefontaine, in France, in 1881. There I made many retreats over the years until the monks sold the monastery and moved to a more remote part of Quebec.
The first time I went to Oka was in the late 1970’s with Joy, Janet, and Vladimir, the group of friends who introduced me to the Cistercian monastic life close to the Ontario-Quebec border. The drive along the Trans-Canada highway 401 east of Toronto became highway 40 as we entered Quebec towards the easy-to-miss exit to the small town of Hudson from where we took a small ferry across the Ottawa River and into the small town of Oka. The monastery was only a few miles up the road.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and the colours on the trees were vibrant reds and yellows; and the moment I saw the abbey, I was like a joyful child approaching Disneyland. For me, discovering the monks was a profound connection to a spiritual world I had imagined and craved for but, until then, had only read about, especially through the writings of Thomas Merton, the most prolific and influential monk-writer of our times. I had been inspired by his autobiographical The Seven Storey Mountain, and had already devoured some of his other books before I set foot in the monastery: Contemplative Prayer, The Silent Life, The Wisdom of the Desert, Contemplation in a Word of Action.
In those days, Oka cheese was served in abundance at the guest-house and I would eat big slices of it with my toast and coffee in the morning, but the cheese was still available at lunch and dinner, so guests could have cheese all day long.
After that first visit, I returned many times over the decades, not because of the cheese but because at Oka I had found a spiritual home. It has been a place where I had been touched by grace.
I often went alone, seeking the solitude and peace I so desired (and still do), walked the fields and the nearby forest and sometimes met with Father Benedict, who would take me to the monks’ private fields and orchards, where he would be gracious to me with his words of wisdom and holy guidance. I would meet with him each time I visited and, every time, his presence alone filled me with healing.
I would also get up in the darkness of night and quietly make my way to be with the monks in the dark womb of the church, lit only by candlelight, for four am Vigils; I followed their ancient monastic timetable of prayer throughout the day, listened to the bell announcing Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers. It’s a daily monastic rhythm that ends with Compline, in the semi-dark church at nightfall, with the chanting of the Salve Regina, still in Latin, and the blessing of the Abbott as the monks, double-filed, processed past him with a bow and then disappeared into their private enclosure while the retreatants went back to the guest house for the Grand Silence and sleep.
Other times, I returned to Oka with a friend. When we arrived at the abbey, the rule of silence prevailed, and we ceased to talk to each other, except in sign language during meals or happenstance meetings along a corridor, when our eyes did most of the talking; and if we needed to relay a more complex message, we would slide little notes to each other under our doors.
With Alan (how young we were that summer, and how was I to know then that I would lose my best friend by his early 30’s), we joined the monks in the fields and picked strawberries and vegetables. Once, the monks left us alone to pick weeds in their private cloister. There was such joy in our youth, barely in our twenties and in love with the monastic way but, strangely, never enough to want to join. The lure of the world was too strong, and our visits to the monastery were only breaks from everyday life and a time to rejuvenate the soul.
Later, with Jim, during my university years, we learned of John Lennon’s death on our way back to civilization, as no news of the outside world had come to break the silence and peace of our retreat during the cold early December of 1980.
And with Richard, attending the funeral of a monk, Père Denis Cyr, who laid on top of a simple wooden catafalque in the nave of the church between the choir-stalls, embodying peace. His brother monks passed by him during the Offices of the day, touched him with their fingers as they glided by to their seats, kept vigil with him, and went on with their liturgical life without a hint of sadness. At Compline, a young monk played classical guitar to the chanting of the Salve Regina while the light of a candle in front of the statue of the Virgin flickered. The following morning, Le Dernier Adieu, we processed to the cemetery behind the church and there was much peace as we later went back to the routine of the monastic day.
Over the years, whenever I experienced a spiritual crisis or a moment of loss, like when my father died, I would take the train to Montreal and then a commuter train to Deux-Montagnes, ending in a long taxi ride to the guest house entrance. It may seem like a very cumbersome way to get there, but it was worth it. Once I arrived, I always felt safe, at home.
Interestingly enough, in the early 1980’s, it was easier to travel to Oka. I could take a bus from Montreal’s Henri-Bourassa Metro station that would stop along the way in small towns like Ste-Dorothée, St-Eustache, St-Joseph du Lac, and be dropped off in front of the abbey’s gate. But then bus service stopped and, coincidentally, so did my visits for a while.
When I finally returned, in the 2000’s, the church and the guest house had been renovated but still felt like a welcoming haven for my weary soul. I continued to visit more frequently until the last time, in 2007. By then I already knew that the monks would be leaving soon for their new monastery in Saint Jean de Matha. The reasons for their move had to do with the decline in the size of the monks’ population, and also because the region of Oka had become more urban over the years, disturbing the silence and solitude needed for their monastic life.
On that last visit, on the last day of the retreat, November 1, Feast of All Saints, Fr. Bruno invited me to participate in the celebration of the Mass by asking me to carry the chalice in procession during the offertory. I walked up the nave, passing all the monks in their choir stalls with trembling reverence, honoured for being made to feel one of them for a few moments. I remained with the monks around the altar facing the congregation until the end of Mass. Afterwards, I thanked Fr. Bruno for such a gift. “You can be a little brother for a while,” he said with a smile that made me feel that I belonged to this community of monks I had known for so many years.
Oka is where I walked with God and where I felt God’s embrace. It’s were some of my closest friends shared that walk of grace with me and, at the end of each visit, when it was time for me to go, I would sit in the silence of the church to say goodbye to God, and feel such a pull, like a magnet, enticing me to stay until the taxi arrived to take me away.
I still eat Oka cheese very often and, sometimes, the taste of it in my mouth brings back the comfort of the silent presence of God I experienced at Oka. It’s a silence I miss, now that it’s gone.