The Sweet Sounds of Silence

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Find rejuvenation at Québec City’s monastery-turned-retreat.

By Kristina Smith

I ascend the steps to the gleaming glass and steel lobby and open the door, and the first thing that strikes me is the sound. Silence.

Staff at the front desk greet guests in low voices. And no one is chattering away on their mobile phone. Probably because, as I soon learn, you are encouraged to leave them at reception to fully experience the benefits of disconnection.

I am in heaven.

In contrast to boisterous streets just outside in Vieux-Québec, the oldest part of Québec City, the inside of what was once a cloistered monastery feels contemplative and respectful. It is an almost unimaginable blending of old and new, and it works, beautifully.

I quickly discover that the story of Le Monastère des Augustines is as remarkable as the place itself.
In 1639, three sisters from the Augustinian order were sent by King Louis XIII to “New France” to establish North America’s first hospital north of Mexico. “Neither hunger, nor cold, nor isolation would prevent them from establishing a haven here to heal the bodies of an entire people” reads the mission statement etched in the lobby’s glass.

20 years ago, confronted with declining numbers, the aging Sisters chose to pass on their heritage of healing by giving the monastery to the public in the form of a trust. Financial contributions by three levels of government made the transformation to a sustainable wellness retreat possible. The Sisters also made a substantial financial contribution, along with donating the building, more than 40,000 fascinating artifacts (housed in the on-site museum), and one of the most well-preserved written archives in North America.

Le Monastère is actually a non-profit organization designed to financially uphold its social mission and the legacy of these pioneering women – to give support and respite to those who care for others. Explains Marie-Eve Perron, Manager of Tourism Development at the monastery (whose passion and dedication are obvious and contagious), “All profits are reinvested in building a healthier society.”

It is a National Historic site and has won many architectural awards for blending modern, airy, glass and white walls with centuries-old wooden beams and floors, rough stone and religious artifacts. The property has been awarded 5 Green Keys, the highest level in Canada recognizing hotels that strive toward living green and reducing their carbon footprint through sustainable solutions.

After admiring the creaking wooden staircase dating back to 1757, I peek into one of the quaint “authentic rooms” (one of 33 on the floor, 28 being singles for solo wellness seekers) inspired by the nuns’ original cells, right down to the low doorways, replica beds, handmade quilts, and shared bathroom down the hall. A simple presence, much like the nuns themselves, the last of whom still reside in an adjoining wing.

My room, on the “contemporary” fourth floor, is also designed with peace and contemplation in mind (no televisions or telephones) but with modern desks, sliding wardrobe doors and ensuite bathrooms. The bedding and towels are made of comfortable, natural fibres and I fall in love with the soft-as-butter bathrobe.

Quiet corridors lined with photographs and artifacts lead to rooms where yoga, meditation, creativity, and wellness classes occur as part of the daily program, that also includes guided walks, qi gong, and discussions promoting balance and inner peace. Workshops and conferences on different topics, ranging from indoor gardening to healing, take place all year long as well. Combining modern-day holistic healing with age-old traditions that span religions, cultures, and beliefs is just another example of the wonderful magic that exists here.

I peruse the list and decide to join the Awakening Series my first morning. Gentle stretching that includes breathing movement and meditation both wake me up and ground my spirit. As I rise from my mat for a posture, I spot three of the sisters walking slowly in the front garden just outside the window, a surprise I find both spiritual and surprisingly touching.

That same emotion comes over me when I listen to the Sisters (with an average age of 84) sing the vespers in the adjoining church. They thank us for praying with them, and I am only sorry that my French is too lacking to respond properly.

I join a Relaxation Series session before dinner for therapeutic yoga in the deep stone vault, an intense experience. During postures, the teacher advises we deepen into gratitude for being here, for our life paths, for being in the energy of 400 years of women dedicated to healing. It’s impossible to not just FEEL here.

The onsite restaurant specializes in whole-food ingredients and plenty of local and organic produce, always with vegan and vegetarian choices. Like everything here, there are options, and nothing is dogmatic.

An intense use of herbs and oils make salt and pepper unnecessary, and no sugar is used in cooking. They offer a selection of organic, biodynamic and local wines and beers at dinnertime with a menu built around the regional harvest.

In fact, the menu is so dictated by what the local producers have that even clients hosting events here don’t know until about two weeks out what will be served.

Breakfast features a buffet of breads, nuts, honey, and fruits plus proteins and main dishes like omelettes, smoothie bowls or waffles. It is also taken in silence.

Like giving up your mobile device (the front desk will relay phone messages and provides alarm clocks), Perron says that guests are most apprehensive about the silent breakfast.

“It is a tool we like to give our guests,” she says. “We propose practices and experiences and people can decide if it works for their life.”

Perron explains that the Sisters’ vision of a best life is one being a combination of moments of action and moments of contemplation, so they take all meals in silence. (Similarly, she noted that after much debate prior to opening, it was decided that complimentary Wi-Fi would be available throughout Le Monastère. But, they request that device use is limited in public areas).

I quite enjoyed the silent breakfasts, feeling much more connected to my body as well as gratitude for the food. Rather than rushing through the experience, I took time to really savour it and tried to bring that practice home with me (though I admit, it’s usually limited to my morning coffee).

In addition to the daily programs and holistic treatments like massage, Signature programs deliver lectures and workshops with experts, either with accommodations or as part of
a package.

I thoroughly enjoyed a session with wellness specialist Krystine St-Laurent, founder of an Ayurvedic line of herbal oils on medicinal herbs, self-massage, and aromatherapy. To illustrate for us that what goes on the skin, goes in the skin, Krystine noted that if you put your feet in a bath of garlic water, after 20 minutes your breath will smell like garlic. I was convinced.

She reviewed many of the virtues of the medicinal herbs used by the Augustinian Sisters and the ways they are beneficial for body and spirit, and we tasted apothecary herbal teas inspired by the Sisters’ own recipes. One such recipe led to the development of Le Monastère’s signature “1639” essential oil, a blend of cedar, cardamom, and citrus that was used to help patients breathe (as well as cover up hospital smells).

This commitment to heritage, where decisions are still made in concert with the Sisters’ values of compassion and respect, combined with the commitment to sustainability is commendable and inspiring.

In 2016, Le Monastère was named the world’s number one travel experience for a physical and mental reboot by National Geographic Traveler Magazine.

I could not agree more.

On my last morning, I treated myself to a one-hour deep tissue massage which enhanced my already blissed-out state. I absolutely felt I was radiating love and energy.

The simplicity, serenity, and silence are so profound, you cannot help but feel rejuvenated by your experience here. Trust me, you have never been anywhere quite like this.

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