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Embracing The Sounds Of Silence In A Swiss Abbey

Guests come to the Hauterive Abbey, outside of Fribourg, to get away from it all, take a few days to reflect, and keep quiet. Very very quiet.

Cistercian monks
Cistercian monks
Sylvia Revello

FRIBOURG — Upon arriving at Hauterive Abbey, guests receive a timetable on a small sheet of green paper. Days are organized around prayer — from the vigil, at 4:15 a.m., to the Compline, or Night Prayer, at 7:50 p.m — and through it all, one clear rule applies: silence.

A little intimidated, I enter the stone walls of the church adjoining Hauterive Abbey, in a hilly area outside of Fribourg, in western Switzerland. The first notes from the organ announce the service and the start of a three-day religious retreat.

The idea of a retreat is to take time for oneself, to get away from the frenzy of everyday life. And it's something more and more people are doing — in all kinds of ways — be it a yoga, meditation or even fitness retreat. In its original sense, though, a retreat — by definition a special period of time for withdrawal and deep study — is religious in nature. It is to revitalize oneself through prayer, to receive God's Word.

Monastic life is restrictive in the extreme. But paradoxically, it also provides quite a bit of freedom.

"Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little," Jesus told his disciples.

Freedom to think

The majestic Hauterive Abbey lies nestled between a bend in the Sarine River and an abrupt cliff. Built in the 12th century, it's one of the oldest Cistercian institutions in Romandy, the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Hauterive Abbey Photo: Own Work

Through its long history, the abbey has known both prosperous periods and decay. And in 1848, in the aftermath of the Sonderbund War, it ceased functioning altogether. The monks didn't return until nearly a century later, in 1939. Now, 22 of them are living here according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the pillars of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders.

Monastic life is restrictive in the extreme. But paradoxically, it also provides quite a bit of freedom. Outside of the services, with singing in French and Latin, guests are free to use their time as they please.

The retreat isn't about altering reality. It's about how we look upon it.

The first morning, I am struck by a strange feeling of emptiness. Alone with myself, away from the daily tumult, the minutes suddenly feel too long. Thoughts I might normally push to the back of mind suddenly take over. But as I sit on the river bank — in the shade of the trees and with no other sound than nature to accompany my reflections — I realize for first time in a long time that I can actually take the time.

"As God did on the seventh day of creation, sometimes we need to take a break. In the Old Testament, Moses crossed the desert to serve God. That moment for rest is marked by the Sabbat," explains the abbot in charge of the community. "A retreat isn't a flight," he adds, in a calm voice. "He who escapes so as not to face reality will find his daily life unchanged when he returns."

The miracle of faith

The retreat, I'm coming to realize, isn't about altering reality. It's about how we look upon it. And as I enter the church for the vespers, I remember this sentence: Silence is the condition of listening.

To be silent inside these stone walls almost feels natural. In the shadowy light, with your eyes half closed, you immerse yourself in the solemnity of the place. But when the evening comes, around the dinner table, the silence sometimes becomes oppressive. Guests gesture to ask for the salt, all the while carefully avoiding the embarrassed looks of the others who came here to find some peace and quiet. Afterward, in the park, we greet each other with a little waving.

Gardens inside the Abbey Photo: Hauterive Abbey's Facebook page

There are a lot of retreaters this weekend, it seems to me. But there are always this many people, the abbot explains. "Some come here to prepare for an event, others to make a decision," he says. "Others still because they're hurting in some way. But the need isn't necessarily clear."

Some, but not all, are believers. Hauterive Abbey welcomes everybody, as long as they respect the location. There is no judgment here, except for the judging we all do to ourselves. As a volunteer takes us to the heart of the cloister, the piety and the devotion become intimidating.

I can't help admiring the miracle of faith, how it pushes people to give their lives to God. Unlike Carthusian monks, Cistercians keep a link to the exterior world. Their door remains open. And anybody is free to retain what they want from this salutary break.

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