Making a Personal Retreat at New Melleary

Coming to the monastery for a personal retreat provides an opportunity to step out of the ordinary routine into an environment where time and energy can be focused on God. But for those who are accustomed to making guided retreats, a number of questions arise: 

This information has been prepared to help answer those kinds of questions and give you some suggestions for making the most of your time at the monastery.

Why make a personal retreat?

Those who have been blessed with the opportunity to observe the Cistercian practices and values of the monks of New Melleray and the nuns at Mississippi Abbey know there is much about monastic spirituality that can be applied to our lives outside the monastery. Making a personal retreat at the monastery provides an opportunity to follow the monastic schedule with its emphasis on prayer, study and reflection. We leave the monastery feeling spiritually refreshed, taking with us a deeper understanding of how we can follow the monastic way as we live in the world.

It is our hope that this little booklet will help you structure your personal retreat in such a way as to experience some of the richness and grace of the monastery.

A Little About New Melleray

In July 1849, shortly after the acquisition of 1,000 acres of rolling prairie and woodland southwest of Dubuque, and one cow and calf from one Cornelius Duggan for $14.00, Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick, Abbot of Mount Melleray, Ireland, presided at a cornerstone laying ceremony. He pointed with his cane where the location was to be, and three brawny Irish brothers slapped down a big chunk of oak. Thus the building project that was to become New Melleray got underway.

150 years later, in July 1999, the monks of New Melleray celebrated their sesquicentennial anniversary. In their mission statement, the monks describe themselves as “Christians professing the Rule of St. Benedict in the spirit of the Founders of Citeaux as handed on in the tradition of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance within a community wholly oriented to a contemplative life of prayer.” As you make your retreat at New Melleray, you will have a chance to learn more about the monks, their life, the Rule of Saint Benedict, and a life oriented to contemplative prayer.

The Rule of Saint Benedict

As you look through this booklet, you’ll note certain references to the Rule of Saint Benedict, a set of guidelines and principles for monastic life. Written by Saint Benedict in the 6th century, the Rule of Saint Benedict, or RB, is still used as the basis for the lifestyle followed by Cistercian monks and nuns as well as their Benedictine brothers and sisters. 

Saint Benedict wrote his “little rule for beginners” as he called it at a time in history when life was barbaric and uncivilized. (Benedict, for instance, cautions his monks to remove their knives before going to bed lest they accidentally cut themselves during the night!) Nonetheless, much of the Rule is yet relevant for those of us living in the 21st century. For Cistercians, the Rule of Saint Benedict has a status second only to scripture. It is used as the primary focus of study for novices during their initial formation period. Monks and nuns make their professions according to the Rule, have frequent public readings of the Rule, and refer to it frequently for guidance in making decisions. 

In addition, there is much in the Rule that speaks to non-monastic people as well. No doubt this is because Benedict based his Rule on the teachings of Christ and the wisdom of the Scriptures. In the Prologue, for example, Benedict says “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and performance of good works, let us set out on this way with the Gospel for our guide that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom” (RB: Prologue: 19-21).

If you would like a copy of the Rule for your own, you’ll find it available in New Melleray’s Gift Shop. Copies are also available in the Guest Library located on the second floor of the Abbey’s Guesthouse.


Making your Reservation at the Monastery

Cistercian monks and nuns are committed to the Benedictine tradition of extending hospitality to guests and visitors. New Melleray’s Guesthouse has 20 rooms (including 4 for double occupancy), each with a private bathroom and shower. Rooms are comfortably but simply furnished with bed, desk and reading chair. The dining room is located downstairs and meals are served three times a day to retreatants and guests. While the monastery does not require payment, it is customary to leave a free will offering of $80.00 per night.

The Guesthouse may be full on weekends but usually has rooms during the week. It is advisable to make your reservation well in advance. You may e-mail the Guest Master or call 563.588.2319, ex 100 to check on room availability.

What to Do Before You Get Here

Because we recommend that you follow the monastic schedule for praying the liturgy of the hours during your personal retreat, one of the best ways to prepare is to make sure you are well rested when you arrive. Try to get to bed a little earlier the night before you come and if possible rise an hour earlier than usual.

What to Bring Along

You won’t need to bring bed linens or towels, but you will want to pack your own toiletries and an alarm clock. Be sure to bring a Bible and whatever other spiritual reading you plan to do. (If you have a copy of the Grail translation of the Psalms published by Paulist Press, bring it along with you to use when praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Otherwise, Psalm books may be purchased in the Gift Shop.) If you are accustomed to putting your thoughts and reflections into writing, you’ll want to bring along your personal journal or a notebook.

There are plenty of opportunities for walking through those areas of the monastery grounds that are outside of the enclosure, so bring comfortable walking shoes and clothing that’s suitable for the season.

We recommend bringing something you can do during the “work” period of your retreat. Please note that we’re not suggesting you bring office work, school projects or job-related tasks. 

Finally, just as important as what to bring is what not to bring. Portable radios, CD players, etc. are best left at home. The same is true of lap top computers, unless you have figured out a way for it to enhance in your prayer life.

Settling In

What to Expect When You Get to the Monastery

Upon arrival you’ll need to stop at the front office in order to get your room assignment. If there is no one there, it is probably because the monks are at prayer in the church. You are welcome to attend (it’s OK to come in late) or simply have a seat outside the office until the Guestmaster returns. If the monks are not at prayer and there is no one in the front office, most likely the Guestmaster has had to step away momentarily and will return shortly and tell you how to find your room. In addition he’ll point out where the dining room is located, as well as the “snack room” where coffee and tea making supplies can always be found.

It is important to remember that while the monks at New Melleray extend a centuries-old tradition of hospitality to guests and visitors, they are nevertheless a cloistered community. They have graciously made the Guesthouse and the outside grounds in front of it open to the public. In turn, they depend on visitors, guests and retreatants to respect their need for privacy by making a point not to intrude beyond the boundaries of the monastic enclosure. You will always be able to identify these areas by observing the “monastic enclosure” signs that you will see posted at various places.

Sometimes the transition from a busy, hectic lifestyle to the peaceful serenity of the monastery can be quite an adjustment. We’ve grown accustomed to a backdrop of noisy clatter surrounding us at home and at work. It’s no wonder the absence of noise is one of the first things we notice about the monastery. But monks and nuns know silence can be an entry point into prayer, and that’s why their monasteries are quiet places full of peace and tranquility. In such an environment, prayer often seems to come more naturally. As you settle into your room, you may want to give yourself some time simply to get used to what it feels like to be surrounded by peace and quiet.

It’s also worth noting that silence doesn’t happen automatically when there are other people around. For that reason, it’s up to you to do your part to help keep things quiet. Refrain from talking in your room or hallway, the library and the area immediately around and inside the church. This is especially important in the evening after Compline when the monastic Grand Silence begins. (Traditionally monks and nuns do not speak to each other from the end of Compline until after morning Lauds.)

Please note that smoking is prohibited in your room and throughout the rest of the monastery. If you must smoke, please step outside into the parking lot.

Solitude and Silence

One of the advantages of making a personal retreat at the monastery is that without a retreat director and fellow retreatants there is a greater opportunity for solitude and silence. It’s worth noting that the Gospels frequently mention times when Jesus went off by himself to pray. (“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:35; “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” Luke 6:12; “And after he dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” Matthew 14:23.) Despite his busy schedule, the Lord wasn’t simply going off by himself in order to get away from the crowds and take a break. Jesus knew that solitude can lead to a deeper encounter with God, and throughout the ages contemplative monks have sought to follow the same path. 

Visitors to a monastery sometimes wonder why monks and nuns have chosen to live a lifestyle that places such value on being alone. In fact, the word “monk” actually comes from the Greek word Monos meaning “one alone”. The monks and nuns are separated from ordinary society: the bustle of business, the chaos of the streets, and the blare of the media. In place of the mad rush and noise of modern life, the monastery is a place where the monks and nuns can be “one alone” even though they live, work and pray together as a community. 

Solitude and silence is what enables monks and nuns to be “one alone,” even in the midst of community, in order to devote themselves to inner prayer. It was, after all, Jesus who taught us to pray this way. (“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5.) Jesus tells us that during times of solitude God, who sees in secret, comes to us, dwells in our hearts, and reveals Himself to us. Inner prayer enables us to quiet our minds and hearts in order to be attentive to the presence of God within us. This explains why solitude and silence is so important in the lives of monks and nuns. In the privacy of their own rooms, or elsewhere in the monastery where they can be alone, monks and nuns can enter into their own inner stillness and pray from the quiet of their hearts.

Making a personal retreat at the monastery provides an opportunity for you also to become “one alone” in order to seek God in solitude. The solitude you will be experiencing during your personal retreat can be a special grace. It provides an opportunity for you to move beyond everyday realities and concerns to journey into that deeper place within you where you are free to concentrate on God’s presence in your life.

Monastic Practices


For monks and nuns who have been reminded by Saint Benedict to “cherish Christ above all,” daily Mass is an essential part of each day. During the week at New Melleray, Mass is at 8:00 a.m., immediately following Lauds. Sunday Mass is at 9:00 a.m. and begins with the entire monastic community processing into the church.

* The official stance of the Catholic Church with regard to the Eucharist limits reception of Communion to Catholics.

Liturgy of the Hours

In his Rule, Saint Benedict, quoting Psalm 118, says “Seven times a day have I praised you.” Accordingly, in Cistercian monasteries all throughout the world the entire day is scheduled around the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. Here at New Melleray the monks gather together at the following times for the Liturgy of the Hours:

* These are known as “The Little Hours” and always begin with a hymn. 

You are encouraged to join the monks as they pray. Refer to the Psalm schedule for the week that you should have received from the Guestmaster upon your arrival. (You may also purchase a copy of the Psalm translation used at the monastery from the Gift Shop.) If this is your first visit to the monastery, notice that the monks sit in rows opposite each other and take turns reciting or chanting the verses of each Psalm.

It is worth noting that the Divine Office, considered the official prayer of the Church, is not intended to take the place of private prayer or devotion. Rather monks and nuns pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church as a whole and especially for those who can’t (or won’t) pray, as well as for those who are ill or otherwise unable to pray for themselves.

The Liturgy of the Hours consists primarily of the Psalms, with additional passages and readings from other Spiritual sources included. Visitors sometime ask why the Psalms take precedence over other prayers. Thomas Merton reminds us that the Psalms “are the song of the whole church, the very expression of her deepest inner life and there are no songs which better express her soul, her desires, her longing, her sorrows and her joys.” 

It is also important to remember that the Psalms were the prayers that Jesus used all throughout his life, and in fact his last words were taken directly from the first line of Psalm 21 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”). And so it makes a lot of sense to follow his example and make those same prayers our prayers.

While you’re at the monastery, we encourage you to try praying the entire Liturgy of the Hours, beginning early in the morning with Vigils, and ending peacefully in the evening with Compline. Most likely you’ll soon come to appreciate the rhythm and balance that comes from organizing your entire day around prayer.

Personal Prayer

In addition to praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a community, monks and nuns set aside time each day for private prayer, and are free to follow whatever practice they find most spiritually enriching. For some this includes the Rosary and other Marian devotions, as well as the Stations of the Cross and similar practices. Others are drawn to Centering Prayer, and sitting meditation practices including some that come from Eastern Traditions such as Buddhism. 

A personal retreat provides you with an opportunity to renew your attachment to familiar prayer practices as well as to experiment with other forms you may find yourself drawn to. New Melleray’s Church is open to you at all hours of the day and night. In addition you are welcome to use the guest chapel located directly below the main church.

Lectio Divina/Sacred Reading

The ancient monastic tradition of Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading can be an important element in your personal retreat because it can help you become more aware of the Wisdom contained in a specific Scriptural passages.

Whether you’re skimming through e-mail messages, perusing the newspaper, or trying to keep up with the many magazine articles and books that have caught your eye, chances are you’re used to reading things quickly and often rather superficially. Lectio is something entirely different. Its fruits are to be found by slowing down and concentrating on a specific Scriptural passage that is read slowly and prayerfully in order to be open to what God’s word is saying here and now.

A personal retreat is an ideal time for making Lectio part of the day’s agenda even if you’ve never tried it before or are just beginning. While there are no detailed procedures or methods involved in doing Lectio, it can be helpful for beginners to keep the following general guidelines in mind:

Other Spiritual Reading

Monks and nuns typically spend a fair amount of time reading and studying. Their scriptoriums, or libraries, are stimulating places full of a variety of books and magazines on all aspects of the spiritual life. Even though guests and retreatants do not have access to New Melleray’s scriptorium (which is located inside the monastic enclosure), there is a guest library available on the second floor of the Guesthouse.

If you have brought along your own selection of books, you’ll find one of the advantages of making a personal retreat is the time you’ll have available for catching up on your spiritual reading.

“Manual” Labor

Among the many misconceptions people have about monks and nuns is the notion that they have somehow managed to escape the reality of having to work to earn a living, In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, since monastic communities have no outside sources of funding, it’s up to the monks and nuns who live there to support themselves. (At New Melleray, for example, the monks work at and rely on Trappist Caskets, using lumber from their own timber supply.)

More significantly, however, monks and nuns view work as an essential part of their spiritual lives. Saint Benedict devoted an entire chapter of his Rule to “the Daily Manual Labor,” and those of us who live outside the monastery would do well to pay attention to what he has to say on the subject. His point (which he originally made more than a thousand years ago) is that we must find a balance between the time we spend working and the time we need to devote to other forms of spiritual growth. 

Monks and nuns have learned to create that balance by structuring their lives in such a way that work is never allowed to take precedence over prayer. The monastic schedule for the day includes two separate work periods one in the morning and one in the afternoon. While monks believe that the work we do can become a prayer in itself, unlike many of us, they do not allow it to become the primary focus of their day.

In keeping with the monastic approach of balancing work and prayer, we suggest you consider incorporating “labor” of some sort into your personal retreat. We are not encouraging you to bring along school, office, or job related projects that are at the top of your priority list. Instead we suggest you consider bringing a simple task you have been putting off. Perhaps the letter you’ve been intending to write to a friend or relative, or that item of clothing that’s hung in the back of your closet for months because of the buttons that are missing, or the check you’ve been meaning to write to your favorite charity but keep forgetting to do.

Your Retreat

Some people make short weekend retreats; others are able to arrange time during the week to come to the monastery. Many people comment that it often takes two or three days to settle into the rhythm of the day, to get used to early rising and going to bed, and to let the cares and worries of the world fade away. Whether your retreat is for a weekend or longer, you can make it a valuable experience both getting to know something of monastic practices and letting your own prayer life develop.

Making a retreat is not heavy labor; nonetheless, if you are not used to the schedule or the rhythm of the day, you may find yourself getting very tired. If you do feel sleepy, don’t worry about it. You may want to take a short nap after dinner in the early afternoon. (Many monks and nuns take a “meridian” [nap] at this time as well.)

On the other hand, a retreat at the monastery is not a time for “sleeping in,” or just escaping from the world. It does require effort on your part. If you are not used to an unstructured retreat, the schedule on the next page may be helpful.

If during your retreat you feel the need to talk to someone about your spiritual life, feel free to contact the Guestmaster. He will invite one of the monks, if one is available, to meet with you. You should not ask for such a meeting simply out of curiosity, but rather to address some aspect or issue in your spiritual or prayer life. It is also important to remember that the monks are not trained to offer psychological counseling.

A personal retreat is not a time for “busy-ness,” but rather a time for reflection. It is a time for listening for and to the word of God. It is a time to come in contact with our deepest selves, honestly and openly, before God. Sometimes this may lead to a desire for reconciliation with God, for an opportunity for atonement and forgiveness. If you would like to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, ask the Guestmaster when a priest may be available.

Before You Leave

After you have stripped your bed and left your linens outside your door, after saying good-bye to the Guestmaster, you may want to take a few moments to sit quietly in the back of the Chapel and ask yourself what this retreat has meant for you. The monks call this an examen and it is a good practice to consider using at the end of each day back home. Ask yourself whether you feel you were able to pray during your retreat. Did you feel any response from God? What does this retreat mean for you especially after you return home? Are there any changes you would like to make after you get back home? 

Lastly, should you feel a need to begin introducing into your life some of the monastic values and practices you have experienced during your retreat?

We hope that your visit to New Melleray will be pleasant and fruitful. God bless you.

Suggested Lectio Passages

You will want to choose one or more passages for yourself for Lectio Divina. These suggestions fit in nicely with the theme of “a time apart.”

  1. Wisdom 9, 6:17-20 
  2. 1 Corinthians 2, 12:4-11
  3. Exodus 15 
  4. Tobit 13
  5. Isaiah 55:6-11 
  6. Isaiah 58: 8 –11
  7. Lamentations 3:25-26 
  8. Matthew 6
  9. Philippians 4:8-9 
  10. Ephesians 3:18-19

Add other passages here that you have found to be of special importance for you.

Reflection Questions

The following questions may help you to focus on the significance of your retreat.

  1. What feelings does the monastery evoke in you? How does it enhance your prayer?
  2. What did you most want to receive from your retreat? Did you?
  3. What is your present way of making yourself available to the Scriptures? Would you like to become closer to God through the Scriptures? How has your reading of Scripture affected your relationship with God? Have the Scriptures been a way which helped you feel God’s presence?
  4. Do you feel that you are truly seeking God in your day-to-day living?
  5. What is your present devotional routine? Is it still adequate? Are you spending quality time in quiet prayer?
  6. How have you experienced silence during this retreat? What have you heard in the silence?
  7. How is the Holy Spirit working in you in what you have read during this retreat? What motion have you seen in your own spirit.
  8. What has been the most challenging aspect of this retreat for you? Why?
  9. What has been the most rewarding aspect of this retreat for you? Why?
  10. What can you do on an on-going basis to nurture your spiritual life?

Monastic Values and Practices at Home

A personal retreat at New Melleray provides an opportunity to nurture and deepen one’s spiritual life. And when it comes time to return home there is value in looking for ways to apply what was experienced in the monastic setting to one’s life outside the monastery. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Set aside regular time each day for personal prayer. Consider praying a part of the liturgy of the hours if it is convenient to your lifestyle.
  2. Continue the monastic practice of Lectio Divina as a way of listening to God’s word.
  3. Depending on your lifestyle and those who share your living space, try to look for opportunities to introduce some silence into your day.
  4. Keep up with your spiritual reading. 
  5. Pay attention to the things you do and say and be especially careful not to harm or hurt others through your words and actions.
  6. Be alert to the needs of your family members, co-workers and others whose paths you cross on a day to day basis in order to respond compassionately and unselfishly.