I cared about my work. How could I not? I spent thousands of hours a year at the office. I wasn’t going to waste it being bored and miserable.
I often compared my life to my parents’. My father got a job when he was nineteen and worked for the same company for thirty-eight years. He spent thirty-eight years waiting to retire, and now, he sat around the house, sick and exhausted, wishing that it was 1981 again. No—I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to spend my life waiting and regretting. I wanted to be proud of what I did.
And so I cared about my work. I valued innovation and maintained a commitment to generating new ideas and solutions, and I tried, whenever possible, to demonstrate flexibility, creativity, and initiative. I attended numerous development workshops and networking events for young professionals.
I also fostered a friendly and inclusive work environment. I kept a spreadsheet of my coworkers’ birthdays and anniversaries, and organized our office’s Oscar pool. Twice a month, I went with several of my coworkers to a nearby bar to play trivia.
And I was happy. Of course, like everyone, I sometimes felt stressed or anxious, but in the end, I was living in a way that satisfied me.
I was the assistant director of content development and digital strategy.
It was time for my annual performance review. My manager called me into the conference room. We went over my core competencies and discussed my 360-degree feedback. She praised my resourcefulness, results, and commitment to ongoing professional development.
“My only concern,” she said, “is the last competency: ‘Develops Self and Others.’”
I told her about the birthday spreadsheet and the Oscar pool.
“Yes, that’s ‘others,’” she said. “But what about ‘self’?” She pushed a piece of paper across the tables. It listed the competencies and how to evaluate them. My manager pointed at the last bullet-point under “Develops Self and Others:” “Maintains a broad set of relationships in the workplace and beyond, and demonstrates an orientation toward stability and wellness.”
“You can’t neglect yourself,” she said. “That’s the fastest path to burnout. Do you have a wellness routine? Yoga? Meditation? Do you do anything for mindfulness?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
“It’s not that you’re ‘supposed to,’” she said. “Think ‘can,’ not ‘should.’ Ultimately, this is about your own health. Burnout is serious. It leads to all kinds of mental and physical health issues—depression, exhaustion, insomnia.”
I started to feel sick and empty. My blood seemed to be evaporating through my skin.
“The people who avoid burnout,” said my manager, “are the ones who’ve learned to practice wellness. Center yourself. Give yourself a safe place to go when burnout strikes.”
“What should—I mean, what can I do?”
She smiled. “That’s up to you.”
I was embarrassed, at first. But my manager was supportive. “Think of this,” she said, “as an opportunity.” By the time I left the conference room, I was almost grateful.
I walked quickly back to my desk and went to work. I had a lot to do.
My manager had given me a number of suggestions for developing a wellness routine—breathing exercises, mindfulness apps, meditation classes. “Start small,” she said. “A minute a day.” But I didn’t want to start small. I wanted to show that I was serious about orienting myself toward stability and wellness.
I got on Slack and asked my coworkers about their wellness routines. Several of them mentioned yoga. Susan in Communications had even gone on a ten-day retreat to Thailand.
A retreat sounded serious.
I found various yoga retreats online, all over the world. I could do yoga in the Guatemalan jungle or the Namibian desert, on the beaches of Bali or the banks of the Ganges. Each trip had its appeal. But there was a problem—the yoga. I had never done it before, but I knew how it would go: a beautiful landscape; the mountains and the trees; the cool air and the rising sun; the strong women bent into elegant poses—and me, barefoot, in tight shorts, tipping over, sweating, grunting.
No—there had to be a way to do the retreat without the yoga. I googled “retreat” and “spiritual retreat” and “mindfulness retreat” and other similar phrases. I found the Abbaye du Nom du Père.
The abbey was, according to its website, one of the spiritual centers of Europe. Built on the site of St. Aldo’s hut, the Abbaye du Nom du Père had been home to a community of Aldonian monks for more than eleven hundred years. Through manual labor and the practice of Aldonian prayer and meditation, the brothers devoted themselves to each other and to the glory of God.
Attached to the abbey was a small guesthouse, which welcomed pilgrims and visitors of all faiths who wished to learn the discipline of St. Aldo. I clicked through to the photo gallery—monks hoeing the dark soil; the high walls of the abbey and the forest stretching out beneath it; stone deer carved above the door of the church; the thin mattress of the guesthouse bed.
I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t even spiritual. I’d never thought much about God: if he did exist, I figured, he would probably be happy with me, because I tried my best and never hurt anyone. And yet, something about the abbey called to me. As I looked at the pictures of the clean black robes and the candles of the chapel and the blooming earth, I began to understand the monks. They had devoted their lives to a purpose. They were living and working, all at once. They were, in their own way, like me.
And so I went to the Abbaye du Nom du Père to learn the discipline of St. Aldo.
I reserved the guesthouse for the last week of June. The abbey was a few hours east of Paris.
My flight landed at dawn. I rented a car at de Gaulle and drove toward the rising sun. After a few hours, I stopped at a service station, filled my tank, and bought a ham sandwich.
I kept going east, and the land around me grew higher and greener. I got off the highway and followed a two-lane road to the south, winding through forests and fields and a little village where a black stream turned an old stone mill.
The road rose toward a mountain. My GPS told me to make a right, and I steered my car through a narrow opening between two pines. It was a dirt path, bumpy and steep, thick with trees on both sides. My rental car bounced and groaned. Several times, it started to slide backward. I pushed the gas hard: the car jerked, and its bumper scraped the dirt.
The path twisted around the mountain. I circled it once, twice, and then, a hundred feet above me, at the edge of the tree line, I saw it—the bell tower of the abbey.
I parked on the edge of the path and walked to the walls of the abbey, rolling my suitcase behind me. Someone was standing at the gate—a man in a black robe. As I got closer, I saw that he was a stocky guy with a big black beard and a shaved head. When he saw me, he smiled. He had a strong handshake, and his eyes were almost black but also somehow very bright. I liked him immediately.
He greeted me by my name and introduced himself as Brother Jean. Because he spoke English, he was in charge of my stay at the abbey. “Brother Rene speaks better,” he said, “but this year he has taken a vow of silence.”
Brother Jean led me to a low stone building—the guesthouse. It looked just like it had online: white walls, black crucifix, thin mattress, wood table and chair. On the table was a schedule of the meals and office, a bible, and another book, light blue with a white deer on its cover.
“The Discipline of St. Aldo,” said Brother Jean. “In English.”
My retreat, he explained, would be self-directed. I would take my meals with the monks, and I was welcome to attend the offices with them, but other than that, I was free to walk the grounds, pray, and practice the discipline.
I flipped through the blue book. It was short—forty or fifty pages. “Is there anything I should know?” I said. “Any tips, I mean? I’ve never meditated before.”
He shook his head. “It’s very simple. ‘Self-directed’—this is not the right word. ‘God-directed,’ maybe.”
When he had gone, I lay on the bed. I hadn’t slept on the plane, and though I could feel the wooden slats through the thin mattress, I knew I would sleep well tonight.
The schedule said it was an hour until dinner, so I picked up The Discipline of St. Aldo. The first chapter described the life of the saint. Aldo, said the book, was a wealthy nobleman who owned a large estate. He enjoyed all the good things of the world: a faithful wife, two strong sons, and hundreds of acres of fruitful land. He drank wine and hunted and was very happy.
One day, Aldo was hunting at the foot of the mountain. He was drinking from a stream when he saw, at the edge of the meadow, an enormous white stag. Aldo jumped onto his horse, leaped the stream, and chased the stag across the meadow and into the forest. The stag was fast, but so was Aldo. The sun set, and still he chased the white stag through the dark woods.
The stag led him up the mountain, higher and higher, until finally, they came to a clearing. The white stag shone in the moonlight. It stopped, turned, and charged. Aldo raised his spear, but he was too late: the stag’s antler pierced his heart. He fell to the ground, and the white stag disappeared into the night.
Aldo lay dying. Blood poured from his breast. He stared up at the bright moon and, with gasping breaths, prayed: “Save me, O Lord! I will dedicate myself to you—only spare my life! In the name of the Father, save me!”
Suddenly, a golden cross appeared before him. Aldo reached for it with both hands. The cross grew larger and brighter, and Aldo knew that his prayer had been answered.
When he woke, it was morning. His horse was gone, and his breast was still bleeding, but he felt strong. He thanked God and rose and walked down the mountain.
Aldo kept his promise. He renounced wine and hunting and abandoned his wife and sons. He returned to the clearing on the mountain and built for himself a wooden hut. For the rest of his life, he dedicated himself to God, praying and meditating for days at a time. Soon, others heard of his holiness and came to him from across Europe, and Aldo taught them. Until the day of his death, the wound in his breast continued to bleed—a reminder of his vow.
The book went on to describe how Aldo’s followers built the abbey on the site of his hut and collected his teachings into the Discipline. My eyes got heavy, and I found myself reading the same sentence over and over. I shut the book and closed my eyes—a quick nap before dinner.
As I drifted toward sleep, I thought about St. Aldo and the white stag. To be pierced through the heart—terrible. The skin on the left side of my chest tingled.
I heard the bell ring for dinner, but each toll was fainter and further than the last, and soon I was asleep.
I woke up to a knock. “Good morning,” said Brother Jean. He held a bowl of porridge and an apple. “We missed you at breakfast.”
“I overslept, I guess.” I took the food. “Thanks.”
He nodded at the blue book on my bed. “Up late studying?”
I told him I’d read about the life of the saint. “I don’t quite know what to do with it. All that stuff about God, I mean. I’m not Catholic. I’m not even religious, really. Will I still be able to learn the discipline?”
He assured me that all kinds of people, Catholic and otherwise, had studied at the abbey. “The discipline is about opening yourself and finding the presence of another. St. Aldo called it ‘the Father,’ but it has many names.” Brother Jean smiled. “Do you understand? It has been a long time since I spoke English.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, “but I don’t think your English is the problem.”
He left, and I sat at the table, ate my porridge, and read the book. The rest of the chapters were spiritual exercises. The goal of the discipline, said the book, was to help you conquer yourself and be guided by God’s light within you. The exercises allowed you to be still and silent, and so to enter into the presence of God.
The first exercise was to contemplate the image of God. “Form in your mind’s eye the physical manifestation of God,” said the Discipline. “Direct all your thoughts on this object. Bend your entire being, body and soul, toward it.”
I scooped up the last bits of porridge and went to work. I sat on the bed and recited the preparatory prayer: “O Father, guide all my thoughts and intentions toward you.” I closed my eyes and picture the image of God. The first thing that came into my head was the white stag. I saw it as if in the distance, lean and tall, crowned by antlers. But no—that wasn’t right. I should have been imagining Jesus or a man with a big white beard. I tried, but I couldn’t. The white stag was still there. The more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it.
I opened my eyes and stared at the crucifix on the wall. I wanted to fix it in my memory—the shiny black wood, the pained face, the thin arms and legs. But when I shut my eyes again, the white stag was still there.
Maybe this was fine. Brother Jean said that there were many names for God. Maybe this was mine. I focused on the white stag. I tried to really see it. I pictured its long legs, its white fur, its antlers—were they white too? And what about its hooves? How white was a white stag? The book hadn’t said. Maybe it was just an albino, but that would mean the eyes were red. Did they know about albinism in Aldo’s time?
My ankle itched. I scratched it.
All morning, I bent myself, body and soul, toward God, but nothing came—nothing but thoughts and questions and itches. I couldn’t get out of my own way. After a while, my leg fell asleep, so I lay on the bed and ate my apple and wondered what I was doing wrong.
The bell rang for lunch. I wasn’t very hungry, but I went anyway. I wanted to see the monks. This would help me, I felt—to be around others who had felt the presence of God.
It was warm and sunny. I crossed the yard and entered the refectory. The monks sat at two long tables. I found Brother Jean gulping down a thin brown soup. His face and beard were damp with sweat. He told me he’d been working in the garden.
Another monk brought me my own bowl of soup, and Brother Jean talked about the garden. He asked me for the English names of various plants and flowers, and I answered as best I could. He nodded and repeated the English names slowly and seriously, turning and rolling them in his mouth, tasting them like wine: “Clover. Clover. Yes, very good.”
But I was only half-listening. I watched the monks eat and slurp their soup. I had, I realized, expected them to be something entirely different from me—another species, a little more like an angel than a human. But there they were, eating food, drinking water. They had stomachs and mouths, eyebrows and noses, glasses and gold teeth.
In the afternoon, I put the Discipline in my pocket and walked outside the walls of the abbey. I went into the forest and sat on a big log that lay in a shift of sunlight.
The second exercise was contemplative prayer. It was easy enough: repeat the same prayer, over and over. “Through repetition,” said the book, “you open yourself to God and begin to know him beyond thoughts and words. Allow the prayer to manifest itself in you, to overcome your own thoughts, to draw you toward God’s presence.”
The book offered some sample prayers, and I chose the shortest one: “O Father, come unto me.” I closed my eyes and listened for a moment to the murmurs of the forest. Were you supposed to say the prayer aloud or in your head? I reread the exercise, but it wasn’t clear. I whispered it for a minute or so, then tried it in my head, then did it aloud again.
“O Father, come unto me. O Father, come unto me.” I could feel the sun on my face and neck. “O Father, come unto me.” A drop of sweat ran slowly down my cheek and hung at the end of my chin. “O Father—” I wiped the drop and moved into the shade.
I repeated the prayer again and again. The words clotted into one long meaningless sound—ohfathercomuntame. But I didn’t overcome my thoughts. Beneath the sound of the prayer, my brain kept working—noticing, feeling, questioning. I heard the wind and the birds, and felt the hardness of the log, and smelled my own sweat, and wondered how long I’d been going.
Four minutes, it turned out. I checked my watch and started again, promising myself I’d do ten minutes this time—at least. I repeated the prayer again and again and again, and kept repeating it. Was this ten minutes? It had to be ten minutes.
I checked my watch. Three minutes.
I moved to different spots on the log. I did it with my eyes open and closed. Eventually, I went eight minutes. I had improved, at least.
I stood and stretched and put the book back in my pocket. There were two hours until dinner, so I set off into the forest. It felt good to walk: I was going somewhere, moving forward. The forest around the abbey was thick and green. I could almost smell it growing. It made me wish I were the sort of person who knew the names of trees and flowers.
I heard all the usual forest sounds—the calls of birds, the rustles of leaves, the twigs snapping under my feet. But there was something else, too. Not quite a sound, but a tense hum beneath the others sounds. It seemed like something was about to happen, to pierce through the other sounds of the forest.
It was here, in these woods, that St. Aldo had seen the white stag. Maybe I would see one too. I knew that this was unlikely—maybe impossible. I didn’t really believe the story, after all. Aldo wasn’t really stabbed through the heart: no one could survive that. No, the white stag was a metaphor for—well, for something. I was as likely to see a white stag here as I was in any other forest.
Still, when I came to a clearing, I found myself holding my breath.
I tried all the exercises in the book. On Tuesday, it was the lection divinia. Like the contemplative prayer, the lection divinia worked by repetition: you chose a passage from the bible at random and repeated it, again and again. Through inner listening, said the Discipline, you will hear the true voice of God speaking through his Word.
I opened the bible and pointed to a verse: “And two other rings of gold shalt thou make, and shalt put them on the two sides of the ephod underneath, toward the forepart thereof, above the curious girdle of the ephod.” I repeated it fifteen or twenty times and wished that I’d picked a shorter verse—then, at least, I could have closed my eyes.
What was an ephod?
I flipped ahead and found a shorter verse: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.” I closed my eyes and repeated it over and over, but I did not see God. Was I not pure in heart? Was this my problem?
And so on, for five days. When I prostrated myself before the cross, my back spasmed. When I contemplated the mystery of the trinity, I got confused. When I fasted for a day, I was distracted by my groaning stomach.
“How do you do it?” I asked Brother Jean one day at dinner.
He smiled. “Practice.”
“How long have you been a monk?”
Ten years ago, I had graduated from college and got my first job. “Do you ever worry about burnout?” I said.
“Burnout?” He didn’t know the word.
I told him why I was here. If I didn’t learn to center myself, I explained, I would have all kinds of serious mental and physical problems. I had to find something outside my work, something to keep me well. “It seems like burnout would be a big problem for monks,” I said. “You’re always at your job, 24/7.”
Brother Jean laughed.
In the afternoons, after a few hours of failing to meditate, I walked in the forest. I heard the tense hum and thought a lot about the white stag. In a way, St. Aldo was lucky: getting gored by a stag was much easier than learning to meditate.
Sometimes, as I recited a prayer or pictured the white stag, I felt something changing in me—a sort of lightness, a shiver rising along my spine. Was this it? I asked myself. Was I doing it? And then the feeling was gone.
Before bed, I went into the chapel and listened to the brothers perform the last office of the day. I leaned against a pillar and held a long white candle, and the brothers sang in Latin. Brother Jean offered to translate, but it was the end of the day, and I was tired.
Friday. My last day at the abbey. Tomorrow, I would wake before sunrise and drive back to Paris.
Practice—that was the key, according to Brother Jean. I just had to work at it. I could do that: I had faced challenges throughout my career, but I had put in the time and effort and mastered the necessary skills. I knew how to work.
After breakfast, I went back to the guesthouse. I sat on the floor and repeated the prayer: “O Father, come unto me.” I did it for longer than I ever had—twenty minutes, at least. It felt good. But was I supposed to feel good about it? Wasn’t that prideful? Or maybe that was how God manifested in you. The Discipline would be a much clearer book if it explained what it was like to be in God’s presence—how were you supposed to know?
I checked my watch. It had only been nine minutes.
I started again: “O Father, come unto me.” What was I looking for anyway? What did it mean to be “centered,” to experience “presence?” I had been to lots of trainings and conferences, but usually they had definite goals: improve your interpersonal skills, reduce workplace bias, learn a new software. But what was the takeaway here? What was this thing that was going to stop me from burning out?
“O Father, come unto me.” In three days, I would be back at work. My officemates would want to hear all about it, and my manager would ask about my orientation toward stability and wellness. And I would tell them that I felt better than I ever had, that I was very centered and mindful. But I would know the truth, and the burnout would come. How long would it be before I felt it? Was I already feeling it? Was that why I couldn’t meditate? Maybe my manager had caught the problem too late. Maybe I was already beyond help.
I stood up and left the guesthouse. Before I quite realized it, I was past the gates of the abbey and into the forest. I walked quickly and went farther than ever before. When the bell rang for lunch, it was high and faint. And still I kept going.
The hum grew tenser and tenser.
After a while, I came to a clearing. A stream ran through it. I bent down and drank, and the cold water hurt my teeth. And then, strangely, the sounds of the forest stopped. The chirping of the insects and the calls of the birds died away, and the silence roared. My eyes searched the edges of the clearing. The skin on the left side of my chest tingled. I held my breath.
The insects started to chirp again. The birds called to each other. The silence was over, and I was alone in the forest, as I always had been. I waited there on my knees for a few moments and then walked back to the abbey.
It was after dinner, and Brother Jean and I were at the top of the bell tower. It was, he told me, the best place to watch the sunset: I couldn’t leave the abbey without seeing it. So we stood side-by-side on a narrow ledge, the bell to our backs, and looked out at the valley.
“I failed,” I said. “I didn’t center myself. I didn’t feel any presence.”
Brother Jean shrugged. “God’s ways are mysterious. He plants seeds, and they take time to grow.”
“Maybe,” I said. I felt alone and tired, empty and frustrated.
Brother Jean was right about one thing: the bell tower had an incredible view. The forest spread about beneath—solid green, all the way to the horizon.
“The meditation—it works for you?” I asked. “You’ve felt God’s presence?”
Brother Jean nodded.
“So what is it like? I know you’ll say you can’t describe it in words. But just give me a hint.”
He thought for a moment. “Moses asks this question too. ‘Who are you?’ he says to God.”
“And what does God say?”
“‘I am He who is.’”
“Not at all.”
He laughed. It was loud and flowing and deep, and I couldn’t help laughing too. I liked him a lot, still. He had a good life—a life of prayer and flowers.
“It’s hard for me to explain,” he said. “Hard in French—impossible in English.”
“Do it in French then.” He looked at me. “Seriously,” I said. “I’ve tried everything else.”
“You won’t understand.”
“God’s ways are mysterious.”
And so he explained God to me in French. I couldn’t understand it, but I liked to listen to it anyway. His voice was like his laugh—loud and flowing and deep. As he spoke, he grew more animated. He pointed to the sky and then to the ground, and his eyes shone. For a week, I had been reading about God’s light in us, but only now did I know what this meant.
The sun had almost set now, and the forest beneath us was purple. The wind rose, and the tops of the trees billowed, and for a moment, I felt that we were suspended above a huge ocean, held over the dark, rolling waves.
The words poured out of Brother Jean, with all the beauty of a language I couldn’t understand. They meant nothing to me, and everything to him. They brought that light to his eyes and that laugh to his lips.
And I was happy then, though in a different way than ever before. I felt empty still, but no longer alone. There was someone who knew.