The San Juan Islands, a magical grouping of islands located roughly two hours north of Seattle by car and then a ferry ride, are a destination for tourists seeking whales, locals seeking escape, and others seeking contemplation. For me, it was the latter.
Our Lady of The Rock Monastery, established in the early 1970’s, sits amidst 300 acres of dense forest and rolling meadows. A Benedictine community of nuns and one priest, Our Lady of the Rock is a contemplative community where the nuns and visitors are expected to partake in the simplicity of their mantra, Ora et Labora or, “ Prayer and Work”.
The nuns, which you mostly see during services and when they are on the farm doing chores, dress in traditional habits. Hospitality is a key ingredient to the nuns’ life, so, when I emailed Mother Hildegard seeking out contemplation and a long hard work day, she wrote back quickly.
I was looking forward to meeting Mother Hildegard who had become somewhat of a unique pen pal over the past few months since my first inquiry, but I arrived to find out she was vacationing – in Hawaii of all places.
I boarded a midday ferry bound for Shaw Island,
one of the least populated islands in the San Juans and home of Bill Gates’ island home. His father also has a home on Shaw. The ferry ride, per normal, was magical.
Lots of guitar playing wanderers, surely on their way to Orcas Island and Doe Bay, sat around me, strumming and talking.
As I listened to Grateful Dead covers I stared out to the water, hoping for a glimpse of an orca or perhaps one of the many dolphins in the area. No such luck on this day.
I arrived, exited the ferry onto Shaw, and passed through “downtown” in a matter of 14 seconds. It’s easy to pass through a town with ONE store and a post office. Oh, and the bulletin board where locals leave notes and other misplaced items for friends and fellow islanders to pick up.
Using Mother Hildegard’s very well scribed directions, I made my way past crystal clear bays and rolling hills towards the Monastery. I must admit, I was a bit nervous. Had I packed correctly? What happens if they serve me a piece of sacrificial lamb? What about Communion? I later found that all these concerns would quickly be put to bed and on the early side at that.
I drove in, past an incredible gate adorned with the Benedictine Cross.
I made my way up to the first house and parked, said my hellos to two dairy cows.
that walked by and was soon greeted by an energetic Marijke, who I later learned was one of the resident Interns responsible for hosting me, feeding me, and assigning me chores passed down from the Mothers.
Marijke was wonderful from the start. She told me that she had arrived the previous March and was nearing her one year commitment as a non-paid intern. She’s a jack-of-all-trades type of gal who also was searching for a break from her life in the Netherlands.
Marijke took me to my room, which was as I expected – warm, cozy, simple and adorned with religions elements.
I got comfortable and then quickly heard the ringing bells which is the call to all to attend Vespers.
Vespers is essentially a late afternoon service which is preceded by the Vesper Bell which is rung 20 minutes and 5 minutes before service. I made my way down the dirt road that leads to the church. On my way I past some turkeys and the chickens.
I was then greeted by a rather tucked away Virgin Mary as I walked past open fields and the setting sun in the distance.
The service was amazing. The nuns or Mothers live in a house adjacent to the church that has a beautiful divider.
Similarly, inside, the nuns performed the service behind a traditional iron gate divider. I learned that at some Monasteries, you never even see the nuns, only hear them.
The service was entirely in Latin and it involved a lot of Gregorian chanting and prayer. I will leave it at that because it’s so hard to describe and if you go, I would rather you witness it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
I walked back, Marijke ahead of me. I watched her make her way down a narrow footpath to the sheep pen. The light was amazing and though at the time I knew not what she was up to, I knew we would join back up for supper.
After Vespers, Marijke made “supper”, the last meal of the day which I thought would be dinner, but here, “dinner” is lunch. Beet soup, fresh bread, and greens – everything off the land – was served along with some really great conversation. After dinner (I mean “supper”), around 8:30 pm, Marijke had to milk the cows, so I returned to my room to contemplate until morning and a new day.
I awoke at 5:30 am in an effort to be on time for Lauds and Prime, the morning service. It’s incredibly dark so they provide you with a flashlight. Mine, as well as all I found, was slowly dying, so my phone aided me in the long and dark walk towards the church. This time the moon was out and helped, as were, Jupiter, Mars and Venus.
I was prompt, in fact, early. The Mother’s dog started barking as I grew closer to the church.
He got louder and more angry the closer I got until I could hear one of the Mothers calling after him. Thankfully, so I thought, the wall that separated the church from the residence kept me safe. For the moment.
The dog continued to bark and the Mothers could not contain him. Before I knew it, I could tell he was making his way around the back of the church towards me. The Doppler effect of his collar rattling ever closer was quite worrisome. Before long, I could tell he was a matter of fifty feet away and though I could not hear him, I dashed inside the church. He soon arrived, barking, his heavy breath just outside the door. My heart was racing and I could only view this moment as a perfect metaphor for the church saving me from the hounds. Had the door been locked, this post would have been written by Susan, after my funeral service.
After Lauds, I made my way back to my room because it was still very dark. At 8, the bells rang again. I had been resting in bed.
I got up and headed back to the church, this time for Terce and Mass. The sun was climbing slowly into the sky.
A soft fog laid atop the field.
And I never thought I would witness and more beautiful Turkey house as I did that morning. The turkeys however seemed totally nonplussed, especially as we neared Thanksgiving.
After mass, which again was amazing, I had a breakfast of coffee, fresh cows milk, bread with peanut butter and then Marijke and I started our day on the farm. First chore was to head to the barn and make make the pigs’ food.
The barn was beautiful, two stories tall and appropriately adorned.
And the barn came with the obligatory barn cat who had quite the life.
We made up some food for the little pigs that consisted of unused food, old vegetables from the garden and stale bread. Mixed with water, I could tell they were going to very much enjoy this.
It was great to work in the clean air and work for my supper, literally.
Later on, Marijke and I worked together to move some compost. Above the compost there was a sign, I will leave it to you to decipher.
Marijke had jokingly suggested that as a treat for getting so much accomplished that she was going to take me to the “meat pit”. So, we jumped on the four runner and with a bit of concern, we headed over.
A meat pit, at least at a monastery, is where all the parts of the animals they slaughter go to compost.
I learned that bald eagles have figured this out and are frequent visitors to the meat pit. Needless to say, it was not a pleasant place and the smell, well…
Of course, right after the meat pit experience, we sat down for dinner. This meal, the largest of all the meals, is prepared by one of the Mothers and left for us while we work. It was made up of all sorts of greens and other vegetables like potatoes. There was a meat dish that I obviously did not eat, but it looked wonderful. Marijke had no problem eating it. Again, every bit of food was grown or raised on the farm. Pretty amazing.
After supper I was done for the day so I drove over to visit the local library, which is a must see if you go to Shaw. Quite a collection.
Then, I took a walk along the water at the University of Washington refuge, a short drive from the monastery. I saw harbor seals feeding in the distance and enjoyed a two mile walk.
Of course, seals were fishing in the water.
And the views of the surrounding islands were amazing. This is just another piece of Heaven up in the San Juans
I rested a bit, took it in and then headed back to my car.
I returned to the monastery after pulling off the road to greet the bulls.
It was time for Vespers and I was to meet Marijke there. Saturday night Vespers are special. In the middle of the service, one nun turns off all the lights so the natural light and the light of the candles is all that is illuminating the service. It was an amazing sight to witness.
We walked back together and took in the light that again was filing the fields.
On this day, she promissed me a trip to meet the sheep, something I had desperately wanting have heard them and seen their furry heads off in the distance.
So, we stopped it, said hello and have them their supper.
We said our goodbyes and headed back from dinner.
Marijke informed me that we were in for a treat. With a sinister grin on her face, she told me that tonight’s menu would be made up of, once again, beet soup, bread, water.
I could have cared less. It was delicious, the company was wonderful and the simpleness of the meal reaffirmed why I was there.
After dinner I walked the farm a bit, noticed a bald eagle swooping down, likely for some small prey in the field. I took in as I walked around, both the charm and the purpose of this place.
I was up early the next morning, made my way to Lauds, again through the darkness. This time, the walk was much easier.
I walked around the farm after Lauds, said my goodbyes, real goodbyes, to the Turkeys (who were destined for the dinner tables of homeless shelters) and to the pigs and cows. I then walked to the fence and was cautiously greeted by one of the bulls.
I spoke with him softly and rubbed his head and scratched all his itchy parts. Marijke told me before I departed that my interaction was very rare, in fact, the bull never comes close to any of the humans. An act of God? My calming voice? Who knows. What I do know is that this is a very special place, one to be visited, but for the right reasons.
I said my goodbyes to Marijke and then watched her wheel barrel some hay to a distant animal. I drove past the same beautiful bay which had a magnificent reflection and ended up back in modern times, at the ferry stop.
I had some time before the ferry, so I walked around the marina a bit, which is as adorable as you likely are imagining.
Shaw is not a tourist location. It’s a magical place where what matters in life comes to the forefront of your mind quickly. It’s a place where all are welcome and expected to abide by an empowering philosophy. So, leave your smart phones at home and prepare to open your eyes. I promise, you won’t regret it. Personally, I plan to make a habit of going a few times a year. 🙂