Saturday, May 5, 2012

Whispers in the Evening Vespers--Compline

 As soon as we entered the grounds of the monastery, I could feel the pull of life outside slipping away.  Silence is a living thing at the Abbey, even outside the hours of the Great Silence of the night hours.  There is something about it that demands at once both attention and quiet. 

Even so, I am always surprised at how long it takes me to get back into the rhythms of monastic life, how long it takes me to slow my pace.  I am taken aback by the measured way in which the prayers are prayed and the long, silences between them.  I love it, but even as I love it, it is so unfamiliar that it takes a conscious effort of will to slow my breath, slow my speech, drink in the stillness of the beautiful church between chants.  It’s only early May and already the Abbey church is hot and sticky in the evening.  It’s warm enough that there were trickles of sweat between my shoulder blades and running down my face, stinging my eyes and tempting me to fan myself with the laminated card that holds Zachariah’s song and Mary’s.  I held out as long as I could, but succumbed toward the end—then felt immediately guilty because even that  small sound startled my heart, and probably the others around me as well.  I’ll have to offer that sweat up for the poor souls in Purgatory.

They prayed for the repose of Father Malachy’s soul at Vespers.  Steve photographed him for the Hands of Servants project and he is a friend of one of our Irish priests.  When I heard his name, the image of him holding onto his cane, worn, knobby hands resting one on the other came to mind.  He was kind to us with a twinkle in his eyes.  I shall miss him even though we could not have passed more than ten minutes together over the past two years.

He fell, they say, always dangerous for a man of his age, rallied a bit, then died in the infirmary in the company of his brothers who will now lay him to rest with the others within the cloister.  When I was here for the profession of vows of another monk-friend in January, he commented that he now knew where he would be buried.  Somewhere not far from Malachy, I suppose, though it should be many years and there will be others who precede him; the cemetery is not large. 

After Vespers was dinner, simple fare.  We eat such rich and complicated food so often, it takes coming to a place like this to eat plainly again to remember how good food tastes without adornment.  Tonight was soup, sweet Vidalia onions in vegetable broth, and salad if we wished: lettuce, tomatoes, olives, onions, chickpeas, beets, sunflower seeds, and dressings in packets.  And cheese and bread. 

I made a sandwich of a slice of cheddar and soft, wheat bread, dressed only with butter.  The sweetness of the bread and butter offset the vaguely earthy, aromatic taste of the broth and it was so very good.  Why do I never just serve simple soup and bread for dinner?  I used to, back when we were first married and poor.  Scraps from the week’s meals went into a pot on the stove and soup was ready by the weekend.  Life has gotten so busy these days that I cook less often than I used to, heat up ready-made meals and eat out more than I should.  If life has gotten too busy for me to make even leftovers soup, it has gotten too busy.

We eat together in silence, robbing the social act of eating of the verbal discourse that usually binds us.  Over the next two days we will learn how to share not only the meal but also ourselves in that silence, to communicate with a nod or a glance, to offer small kindnesses, like refilling a glass, without asking or being asked.   It has already started.  When I brought a sliver of apple pie to end my meal, my groom managed to remind me, pointing at my pie and gesticulating, that there was cheese for it at the salad bar.  He never indulges himself, but he remembered that my motto is apple pie without some cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.

Not much is left over from the meals.  I think we are mindful of the gift that is given us in this place and the hospitality of these men and we are respectful and grateful in ways that we might not be elsewhere.  There’s a pan for scraps at the bussing station, but not much goes in.  I even ate the dry outer edges of the piecrust—something I might leave behind at home but could not here.  I made myself pay attention to the taste and feel of it and I washed it down with cold lemonade.

Between supper and compline, we met as a group for the first time.  James, who is leading the retreat, embodies the great stillness of this place.  Even his manner of speaking is slow—not the languid slowness of the lazy, or the drawn out speech of the native Southerner, or the dissociated ramblings of the unprepared and inattentive, but the considered speech of a man who takes the time to drink in the moment.  He encouraged us to slow ourselves down, to take the time to find God in each other and ourselves and in the images we will take, and then to recreate this place for ourselves wherever we find ourselves when we leave.  A monastery, it seems, is not just a place but also a state of being. 

Compline sent us to bed with the Abbot’s blessing; we filed by him on our way back to the retreat house and he sprinkled us with holy water.   The chants of the monks were still fresh on the ear as the Great Silence began.  I should be in bed, for the chapel bell will rouse me at 3:45 to be ready for Vigils at 4.  Shaking the circadian patterns of daily life is harder than entering into silence and here I sit, writing, rather than sleeping. 

It is still light outside—perhaps it is the child in me that refuses to go to sleep before the sun does.  I’m not sure that is what Jesus meant when he said we must become like little children to enter the kingdom, but at present it is the best I can do.  After all, if James is right, God is in the computer just as He is in the church.  If I am quiet and attentive, I will encounter Him.

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