Religion of Silence

by Molly Evans


A curving road led me from the expressway into a neighborhood where American flags adorned brown, brick houses and kids’ plastic cars were parked on front lawns. An RV claimed half of a driveway, looking spick-and-span for the Fourth of July weekend.

At the end of Lakeview Drive came a swooping turn right onto the gravelly terrain of Monastery Road. The GPS’ robot voice confirmed my arrival at Osage Forest of Peace.

More than 30 years ago, Osage Forest of Peace was the site of Osage Monastery, which was run by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, an order of nuns based in Clyde, Missouri, with several other monasteries established throughout the country.

In 1976, Sister Pascaline Coff was inspired by the work of an English monk living in South India, Father Bede Griffiths. He lived in an ashram called  Shantivanam—shanti meaning “peace” and vanam meaning “forest.”

Sister Pascaline wrote to Father Griffiths, and he invited her to visit Shantivanam, where she lived for a year. Sister Pascaline returned to her sisters enthusiastic about the practice of meditation and other aspects of Eastern culture and spirituality. In the summer of ‘79, a small group from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration relocated from their motherhouse in Clyde to the 40-plus acres of land they purchased for Osage Monastery in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, on which  the Forest of Peace resides today. Eventually, stress on the aging nuns forced Osage Monastery to change proprietors.

Robert Doenges, a Benedictine layman, purchased the facility and created a nonprofit to sustain the monastery after it stopped operating in 2008. Two years later, the Forest of Peace was re-founded by a board of directors as an interfaith,  interspiritual retreat center.

Although the Catholic monastery had fostered the East-West, Hindu-Christian dialogue for three decades, the re-founded Osage Forest of Peace accepts and caters to all religions, including Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and others, which are represented throughout the facility and grounds. Beyond various religions, the center is open to yoga sessions, women’s groups, and 12-step programs.

I was now in one of the most unusual, understated notches of the Bible Belt, tucked away deep in the green hills that I saw from the expressway. The trees, towering and thin, stenciled the forest floor with sun patches and shadows. I parked next to a few other vehicles, a purple van with a “Coexist” window sticker, and another with a license plate that read, “Y-Worry.” I could hear the roar of cicadas from inside my car. When I opened my door, the level of their chirping escalated. Leaves rustled as red and blue, orange and green lizards sprinted across the gravel and the dirt. My own feet contributed to the music, grinding in the gravel with each step.

Silence, meditation, and prayer form the skeleton of day-to-day life at the Forest. For the four live-in staff members, individual guests, or groups on retreat, each day begins with meditation followed by a meal. The structure of meditation and a communal meal three times a day lends itself to spiritual growth, particularly for beginners, like me.

On the broad porch of the largest cabin, JoAnn Huber, president of the board; Jane Comerford,  director of spiritual life; and Michael Touchstone, administrative director and maintenance man, sat talking.

JoAnn offered me a tour of the grounds. She walked with ease on the trails that she has traversed for 30 years, and she talked about the forest’s Benedictine history, interfaith transition, and recent development.

“It’s about silence here,” she said.

JoAnn showed me a few of the 14 cabins that house staff members, guests, and retreats of up to 20 people overnight. She showed me the Zen garden that had a tree with remnants of cloth inscribed with prayers tied to its branches. The garden was covered in the same white-gray gravel, but there was a rake that visitors could use to drag across in patterns to establish a rhythm to their meditation.

Next, we went to the newly dedicated labyrinth, an installation that Jane had wanted for a long time because of its direct link between nature and the spirit. It snaked around several trees, creating a spiritual pathway for those who walk it.

We finished the tour in time to slip off our shoes and enter the chapel inside the main cabin. The chapel opens up to two walls of windows that meet at an angle, pointing to the beauty outside. A coniferous tree stands in the middle. A large, sunken circle into the wood floor represents the Sundance circle; the Sundance is a ritual dance performed around the time of the summer solstice among the Great Plains tribes. Chairs are set up against the walls on the raised level. And in the lower level of the circle, black and brown cushions align its circumference. And in the center of the circle is a short, mesquite altar, a gift from Tucson, Arizona, with a candle on top. I picked a cushion to the right of the altar, as did three other women, including JoAnn. I noticed she sat on her heels, her legs folded in half, and I did the same out of self-consciousness. Not until I read the meditation program did I realize I’d have to sit like this for 20 minutes in silence. My swallows were hard, my legs were rushed with blood, my mosquito bites were agitated, and my whole body felt heavy. But I did it, and it was wonderful.

From the first clang of the gong to the final three, I managed to keep my eyes closed even though my mind was restless. You can think about a lot of stuff in 20 minutes. I felt bad not being able to close my mind as well as my eyes, but I figured it was just a beginner’s plight.

JoAnn said, “Even if it’s just to hear myself breathe… it’s restorative to me. The silence starts permeating you, kind of how ritual permeates you over time. You can’t really put a finger on the shift, but it’s there.”

Actually, JoAnn and Jane can’t put a finger on any place in Oklahoma like Osage Forest of Peace because of its unique blend of faith traditions, which are all rendered in meditation.

The purpose of practicing meditation, Jane said, is to sit consciously, even with racing thoughts. She used a metaphor from the late Father Griffiths’ teachings: She held up her right hand and said the five major religions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—represent the fingers on a hand. And those five fingers and five dominant religions, come from the same source, the palm.

“That’s what we’re focused on here, is that source. It’s not focused on denomination or religion, but on ‘what’s your experience of that source?’ ” Jane said. “And that’s what the meditation practice is about—being consciously sitting in that source, in that presence.

“Father Griffiths talked about the marriage of East and West, and you need both—the Western mind, which is more analytical and logical, and the Eastern mind that’s more intuitive,” Jane explained. “It’s the blending of their characteristics coming together in the individual person.”

Aspects of Eastern and Western culture blend well together, JoAnn said, and she gave examples of commonalities between two or more religions. Although beliefs do conflict among faith traditions, JoAnn admitted, the simplicity in practice of meditation and silence unifies religions at a higher level—a spiritual level.

“Sometimes when you come together in a place like this, and you have the experience of sharing silence together with people who you know are from different backgrounds than yourself. It is what opens the silence with people and being with people and watching people and seeing people move through the day just like you move through the day,” she said.

“People come here for healing. They come here for education. They come for rest. They come to deepen their relationship with God,” Jane said.

Visitors can stay at Osage Forest of Peace for an afternoon, night, or weekend. But some choose to live here for an entire month on a private retreat to immerse themselves fully in nature and the lifestyle. No matter how long someone stays, he or she usually returns, Jane said.

Afterwards, I explored the grounds by myself, and it was much hotter by 2 p.m. The heat and humidity intensified, but the feeling of the forest remained the same: quiet and contemplative. I walked to the labyrinth again, promising I’d come back to walk it with my best friend. I stopped by the cabins once more, staying the longest at the one dedicated to Father Bede Griffiths. I looked back one last time at the white peace pole, which reads, “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” Lastly, I waved to JoAnn, who was making her way to her purple van with the “Coexist” window sticker, before returning to the noise.

People come here for healing. They come here for education. They come for rest. They come to deepen their relationship with God.

I sat in my car before starting the ignition, listening to the muffled whir of the cicadas and remembering what JoAnn had said.

“The silence is magnificent.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, December 1, 2014.