St. Joseph Abbey is a Benedictine monastery about 40 miles north of New Orleans, on the more sylvan side of Lake Pontchartrain. I’ve written about St. Joseph Abbey in this space before, it’s a place that’s loaded with meaning for my family. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a silent retreat there. The theme was: “Be Not Afraid — Finding God’s Peace Amidst Life’s Uncertainties.”

It sounded like just the thing for the very uncertain times we’re in.

And I definitely felt recharged, and more relaxed, at the end of the weekend. Here are a few observations about the experience, and why I think it worked for me:

  • Silence — I was not daunted by the prospect of remaining silent for two days. I was actually a bit relieved that I wouldn’t feel obliged to make small talk, something that tends to fill me with anxiety. Keeping silence gelled nicely, too, with the face masks we all wore. Also, it’s not like my vocal cords went unused. Community, out-loud, prayers from a booklet punctuated each day, and I read at one of the Masses held during the weekend.
  • Walking Meditation — the weekend’s agenda was very loose, and allowed ample free time for walking, thinking, and reading. Those days marked the first spell of cool weather we’ve had since the summer, so walking around the peaceful grounds was delightful. Also, I’m currently reading David Copperfield, and I did feel downright Dickensian as I visited my parents’ graveside, often throughout the weekend. They are buried at the Abbey cemetery, which is just behind the retreat house.
  • The Communion of Saints — bear with me on this one. I truly felt, at the close of my time there, that I had spent the weekend with my parents. I was particularly struck with this idea of “communing” when I first arrived, near sunset on Friday. Their headstones face west, and as the sun was sinking, I had a clear memory of sitting on the back stoop of our house with my father. The rear of the house where I grew up faced west, and once, many years ago, I had stopped to watch a particularly picturesque sunset. My father asked what I was up to, and when I told him, he replied something like “that sounds like a good idea,” and we both watched the sunset in silence together. It was not something we were in the habit of doing, nor did we make much of it moving forward. But it still remains an indelible moment for me, of just “being in wonder” with another human. Particularly a human like my father, who was many things, but Zen was not one of them.

There are a lot of other reasons why I felt closer to my parents — spending time in a place that meant a great deal to both of them, and feeling like they are well-situated in their eternal rest, to name a few. To tie this up, I’ll say that attending a retreat at the Abbey had been an idea in my mind for quite some time, and I’m glad making it reality was such a positive experience. One I’m definitely game for trying again.

The Abbey Church
A prominent tree in the cemetery that my father referred to as “Lady Oak”
The moon and Lady Oak

Double Cardinal Sighting

The cemetery at Saint Joseph Abbey, May 11, 2019.

I’ve written in this space before about red birds, and the meaning that is often attributed to them. Depending on which Internet rabbit hole you travel down, there are a slew of different meanings. But the meaning I mean to be about here is: the belief that when you see a cardinal, or red bird, it’s a sign from a loved one who’s passed on, letting you know their spirit is still with you.

The last cardinal I saw was in March, and I wrote about it in the post titled “Cardinal Sighting.” I saw two more, possibly three, just this past Saturday. But the circumstance in which I saw them feels almost too unbelievable. If this blog were fiction, I might feel that the scene I’m about to describe is a touch too forced.

I was part of a quorum of my siblings that visited our parents’ graves, a sort of “day-before-Mother’s-Day” gathering. Two of my nieces were also with us. We said a few prayers together, and then wandered the grounds a bit. Saint Joseph Abbey is a remarkable place. It just exudes this specific sort of peacefulness.

Looking up, I saw two cardinals in flight. One seemed to be pursuing the other. I might have even seen a third one, or it could have been one of the two performing an acrobatic loop. While seeing birds flying about in a wooded place is not unusual, there was no mistaking their color. They were definitely red.

I couldn’t help but think of the Gospel passage (Matthew 18, verse 20): “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Now, I’m not saying my parents are God (the “I” from that passage). But it was my parents who steered the whole lot of us gathered there to the Believing persuasion.

And if a third cardinal was indeed flitting about, my paternal grandfather also has his eternal rest at that cemetery.

Just sayin’.

Deo Gratias


So, I spent this past Saturday evening at a monastery. No, I’m not considering a change in lifestyle. I was there for a fundraiser, and the amount of food and drink available felt decidedly un-monastic.

Saint Joseph Abbey and Seminary College is about forty miles north of New Orleans. It’s been around since 1889, when a group of Benedictine Monks from Saint Meinrad Abbey in Indiana came down to Southern Louisiana to establish a monastery. In addition to the monastic life, the Abbey also houses Seminarians from across the Gulf South as they begin their journey to the priesthood or religious life.

I’ve known the place since I was very small. My father used to take us on picnics there, on the Bogue Falaya River, which runs along the outer perimeter of the Abbey. He eventually bought some land in the woods nearby, that became his personal retreat, The Point.

My Dad attended high school at the Abbey, back when they offered secondary education. He loved it, and he never lost his affinity for the place—I think that’s the reason he bought property nearby. He wanted to write a book about the Abbey and his time there. That’s what he was working on when he died.

The Abbey Cemetery is one of the most beautiful in Southern Louisiana, in my opinion. It’s different from the cemeteries New Orleans is famous for, because it doesn’t have the abundance of above-ground tombs. I’ve known the Cemetery since I was small, too—my paternal grandfather is buried there (he died many years before I was born). My Mom and Dad are also there now. The writer Walker Percy is just a few plots away from them.

There’s something else about the Abbey, which has left a distinct impression on me from a very young age: the murals by Benedictine artist Dom Gregory de Wit. I’ve always known the ones from the Abbey church, but I just got to see the ones in the Monks’ Refectory for the first time.

My Godfather (who was with us at this fundraiser) pointed out an interesting fact: de Wit liked to put some sort of anachronistic element in his paintings. This is from a mural of the Last Supper from the Monks’ Refectory:


Can you pick out the anachronism? (It’s sorta center frame)

Finally, the fundraiser is called Deo Gratias (thanks be to God). They have it every year, but this year, it took on special meaning. The Abbey was inundated when the Bogue Falaya flooded earlier this year, in March. (Yes, five months before the flooding that devastated the Baton Rouge area. This has been a terrible year for floods, and not just in Louisiana). The damage to the Abbey was worse than what it suffered during Katrina.

The recovery is well under way, but there is still a long way to go. That’s why I was really glad to take part in Deo Gratias (thanks be to my sister for her generosity). There is something truly transcendent about the Abbey—in its peacefulness, its solitude, and its reverence. It has stood for generations, and I need to believe that it will be there for generations to come.