Musings + Essays

A Humble Thing.

By: Jen Shoop

There is a Trappist monastery outside of Aspen, Colorado that we used to visit for Lauds (morning prayer) and Sunday Mass a couple of times a summer during my childhood. The service was at 7:30 A.M. and the monastery was a good thirty minute drive away, which meant that my four siblings and I filed out of our condo with unkempt hair and bleary eyes in terse silence, begrudging my parents the early-hour excursion. I remember gazing out the window at the sharp peaks of the Rockies, heavy-lidded and surly in my preadolescence, aware — even at that horrifically self-involved, bad-tempered age — that I was in the presence of majesty.

There was a dirt-and-gravel road leading up to the monastery, and fields that the monks worked themselves lining it, and a sparse room with a couple of rough-hewn shelves showcasing the brothers’ handiwork, for purchase, just inside the main entrance.

The chapel was a humble thing. Wood beams, unadorned benches. Intentions said aloud, volunteered soberly by members of the congregation, in turn, and usually on a first-name basis (“for Jim,” “for Judy again”) suggestive of the close-knit-ness of this remote prayer community. It was always a wonder to me that no one talked over another during this bit, that somehow, despite the free-for-all format, only one voice pierced the silence at a time. And what silence it was. Pin-drop silence. A deep, abiding, roaring silence that seemed to fill the chapel and reverberate against the acres of unpeopled, mountainous land in which we were ensconced. A silence that felt designed to torment a twelve-year-old, whose stomach might be grumbling from the lack of breakfast or whose compulsion to laugh at inopportune moments made Mass here, in this hushed sanctuary, a test of will.

And yet, despite my immaturity, I was often awed into contemplativeness observing the solemnity of the monks, who would enter with a chant at 7:30 a.m. on the dot. I would study their faces, so often an unlikely combination of the serene and the serious. I would wonder whether they laughed in between services — and about what? Was there gentle ribbing? Good-nature sparring? Did they have personal tastes — did Brother Joseph like Red Vines and Brother Matthew like M&Ms, for example? — or were those indulgences too worldly? Had they been forgone with the taking of vows? In short, I puzzled over their humanity. And in doing so, I grasped, for a minute, in a twelve-year-old-way, the meaninglessness of most of my daily, very material concerns. Because who cares about Red Vines? Their evident commitment, their solemnity had a weight that made such predilections seem absurdly petty, even to me, a twelve-year-old who hadn’t the faintest idea where the stress accents belonged in the day-to-day living of my life. (In other words, whether I got the purple shoes I wanted bore an emotional weight commensurate with whether I got along with my siblings.)

Lost somewhere in these musings, with the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows and the faint outline of the sublime Rockies behind them and the monks’ voices lifted in song and the fresh-cool mountain air around us and the plainness of the wood bench beneath me, I would feel something stir. Though there is a passage in the Bible that says, “Wherever two or more are gathered in My name, I am present,” it was always a lot easier to feel God there, in that small and unadorned chapel in the middle of nowhere.

A few years ago, my parents and I returned to that monastery of my youth for 7:30 a.m. Lauds and Mass, this time with my husband at my side. The ride out was decidedly more chipper. But as we drew closer to the chapel, I felt that same sense of hushed reverence I’d experienced as a child settle over me. This go around, with an accrued twenty years of experience, heartache, and points of comparison to reflect upon since my last visit, Mass felt achingly beautiful in its simplicity, and I found myself blinking back tears.

I have attended Mass for most of the Sundays of my life, in places as disparate as the Vatican and Corning, New York and in venues as varied as grand Cathedrals and parish gyms. I have heard Mass in Italian, and French, and Spanish, and once, by accident, in Ukrainian. But there, in that beautiful little chapel at daybreak, I thought the exact same thing I’d thought at the age of twelve: that it was easier to feel God here than anywhere else in the world.

A few months ago, my brother-in-law mentioned that he occasionally pulls up a picture we took after hiking, as a family, up by Independence Pass outside Aspen, on that same trip I visited the monastery as an adult.

“Sometimes I just need to get back to that place,” he said, taking in a deep breath. “It was so peaceful.”

I pocketed this practice of his. In lieu of a photograph of the actual chapel, I started pulling up a picture I had taken from the monastery parking lot (seen above), returning to it with urgency in moments of stress and transition–moments where I need, desperately, to put things in perspective and to put myself in the presence of greater things. Amidst all of the upheavals in my life right now, I have leaned on it especially heavily in the past few weeks, returning to the soul-filling swell of peace and quietude it afforded me.

I thought I might share this practice in the event that you are navigating rough waters and need a quick pick-me-up or escape from the details of whatever is happening in your neck of the woods. Or maybe you might just piggyback on my own photo of that monastery in Aspen because, well, there’s more than enough splendor in it to go around.

Post Scripts.

+Dying (!) over these velvet pointed-toe flats — SO chic and such a good price. Wish they hadn’t sold out in my size.

+Love this corduroy jumper in the dark blue floral for mini. I have a few similar jumpers for mini that I like to layer over the super-soft knit polos from CPC kids.\

+Women and letter-writing go together

+Ordering these for micro.

+This door knocker is PERFECTION. Such a cool way to personalize your front door.

+I recently saw someone use this as a technology organizer — she used each slot for a different device: laptop, iPad, Kindle. Chic.

+This snail basket!

+An email hygiene tip worth trying.

+I like using these lidded cups for snacks for mini.

+Love this dramatically oversized white top. (Looks like it’d be perfect for pregnancy, too — pair with leggings!)

+This darling fox-print onesie is currently $4!

+Trying hard to keep up with this daily practice.

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8 thoughts on “A Humble Thing.

  1. Along the same lines as the other comment, this is one of those good posts that make me think “WHEN is she going to write that book?!?!” I felt like I was in the monastery with you. I have a hard time these days placing myself in the book I’m reading, I feel that they don’t pull me along on the ride with them, but you’re able to do that in a single blog post. In short, I love the sentiment but your writing steals the show!

    1. !!! JC — thank you for the generous compliment. It’s on my radar — a goal of mine. Until then, I’ll keep sharing in snippets 🙂 xx

  2. Argh my comment got eaten, but I love this post and can feel the peaceful monastery vibes just reading it. Houses of worship, even ones that are not of my own faith, are some of my favorite places to hang out when I’m feeling stressed, anxious, or sad. Something about being surrounded by the piety of others I find deeply comforting. I was in SF this weekend for a wedding I was kind of dreading for a few reasons (chief among them, I was attending alone and didn’t know many other people besides the bride and groom. Hello, anxiety!) I ended up hanging out in Grace Cathedral and walking their labyrinth on the floor and it brought me a lot of comfort.

    1. Ah, thank you Anna! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. It was such a thorough delight to write. I sat for the better part of the afternoon, putting myself in the presence of its memory, trying to capture its every contour, and it brought such joy.

      So glad you were able to find some sanctuary visiting the cathedral! Smart idea.


  3. I’ve (sadly!) never been to Colorado, but there are definitely places I have visited that have me feeling the same humbled sense of awe. I love this post.

    I recently got a v. v. similar oversized poplin oxford, from Everlane, and I LOVE IT! So chic with slim black pants and any sort of statement footwear.


  4. This is one of your posts that I think, “I wish I could write like her!” Gorgeous. And for whatever reason, it also had me reflecting on a few childhood memories and the moments I never want to forget. Thank you.

    I love those flats! And the magazine sorter is a great idea for neatly storing devices. Right now, each has its own home throughout my space, which doesn’t feel very efficient but works because I’ve ingrained their locations in my memory, helping me not to lose things! Whatever works, I guess 😉 xo

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