12 August 2014

A taste of Benedictine hospitality

Some people would think that the name "the Community of Solitude" is a bit of an oxymoron. How can you have a community of solitaries, or have solitude when you're a community? I must admit there have been times I have asked myself that too. I understand a little better now. 

The last week of July was the Convocation of the Community in Minnesota, USA. We were the guests of St John's Abbey, a Benedictine Community in Collegeville (home of the Liturgical Press - the joke in the community was that it had to be be a Benedictine abbey because it had two bookshops as well as the library!). The setting was beautiful, but the convocation even
The huge bell tower at St John's
more so. 16 members of our Community gathered, sharing the daily Office with the monks of St John's (singing the Office with over 120 monks in choir four times a day is something I will never forget), meeting, talking, praying, laughing together, going for walks, and just being together showed me how rich and how deep our COS community life is. We have a "virtual" community most of the time, sharing our lives through our prayer, email and skype, but seeing them face to face and sharing their hearts was a gift I treasure. 

Our solitude enriched our time together: we shared the "fruits of our solitude" at the dinner table, in our meetings together, and in our general chats. 

We each pray the Office ourselves, but sharing that prayer together made it immeasurably richer and deeper. I use the Breviary of the Order of St Helena in my private Office; the St John's one was different to what I am used to but doing it as a corporate community activity changed it in ways I didn't expect. 

The stained glass in the Abbey church
The pace St John's chant the psalms is a lot slower than I am used to, and it took a bit to get used to. However, I began to find that giving the psalms space like that allowed them to speak more deeply. I also appreciated the sermons of the monk-priests of St John's during the daily Mass: they were very short (no more than 5-10 minutes at the most) but they were profound in their meaning. 

Statue of St John in Abbey church baptistry
(courtesy Br Thomas Andrew COS Cam)
The best one came for me on the feast of Sts Joachin and Anne (parents of the Virgin Mary), when the priest reflected that he had had the same Gospel reading just two weeks' previously: the last time he preached to the Community! He then reflected that our monastic lives are like that: recircling around the same truths, coming closer and closer like a moth to a candleflame. We persevere, as he said, "in the good days, and bad days, and sometimes just days." That phrase captured everyone: choir is a very solemn, beautiful, formal place but there was a ripple of smiles as everyone there completely understood what he meant. Often it is just days, when we walk faithfully, but may not see too many results. It's like the light moving through the stained glass: it looks different at every time of day, but some days it stands out more than others. Some days the Office is full of light and life and joy: other days it's an act of sheer faith to keep going, keep praying, keep singing, keep hoping. 

The stained glass in the Abbey church, viewed from the monks' choir
This is completely huge - this photo cannot capture the size and majesty of it.
St Benedict with his Rule and the ravens
I found myself profoundly touched by the art around the Abbey. It felt like the fruits of the monks' contemplations was made physical, made visible, for us all to share. The fierce St John in the baptistry stood guard over the entrance into the church, but the gentle St Benedict in the Abbey university grounds invited us in to share with him in his hospitality, life, and love. He looked young, passionate, warm, and caring: inviting us to share the feast of his Rule and the richness of study and prayer and laughter. I liked his rolled-up sleeves: Ora te Labora: prayer and work (or to work is to pray).

One thing I found quite amazing was how much fun we had together. It started from the moment I was met at Minneapolis-St Paul Airport (after a 36 hour journey!) by two of my Brothers, and it didn't stop all the time we were together. There was a lot of "monastic humour": one of my personal favourites was when we were having a COS photo taken after Office one night. The person taking the photo couldn't figure out if it had been taken because the camera didn't make any noise: one of the Brothers piped up, "That's because it's a Cistercian camera!" 

Returning home, all 36 hours of it, was quite tough. I was glad to see my family again, but I had grown even closer to my monastic family than before and I miss the regular prayer in choir at St John's, shared with the St John's monks and my own Brothers and Sisters. But I return to my cell, and keep the faith quietly in the regular things - the "just days" of my life - and find in those things the courage I need to keep loving and praying, being faithful in the big stuff and the small daily things. 

I suspect there will be more "fruits of solitude" from my time at Convocation popping up. I had to make a start with the simple basic things, and I promised some of the photos!

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