Three days among the Trappist fathers and brothers of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, convinced me that monastic life is both less weird and more difficult than I had previously imagined. It was like discovering that monks are not space aliens, but are instead an elite unit of Navy Seals. (The photo is Abbot John O'Connor, whose life spanned the Civil War and World War II, 1864–1945.)
I described Spencer and some of my personal experiences on retreat there in a previous post. The first evening at supper in the retreat house, ten retreatants, all men, ate together. I looked around the small dining room and saw a typical distribution of American males, young and old, fat and thin—just guys. Except for the silence, and a lecture on the Gospel of Matthew piped in while we ate, it could have been anywhere. After dinner, we might have headed to a sports bar. I knew we were missing the Steelers-Broncos game on Monday Night Football.
The following morning, we attended Lauds together at 6 a.m. It was our first chance to sit at the rear of the nave in the abbey church, looking past the choir monks toward the main altar (as in the above photo from the abbey Web site). Mass follows Lauds, and during the Benedictus I knew that the priest traveling with me would be going to the sacristy to vest, so that he could concelebrate Mass. Then, as the Benedictus began, not one but eight of my nine fellow retreatants went to vest. All but one of these American guys was a priest! I had had no idea.
If these priests on retreat were just guys, I started thinking that the monks were super-guys. I talked Wednesday morning with one of two friends from Beverly who accompanied me. We shared impressions from two days of sitting at the back of the nave for Lauds, Mass, and Vespers. (For the offices of Vigils and Compline, we sat in side chapels off the main altar.)
I commented on the diversity of the monks. It was another experience of seeing "just guys," maybe with shorter hair and longer shirts than most, but guys all the same. One could see the age range: everything from just out of school to doddering on a cane. One could see the ethnic and racial mix: an African American priest, several Asian brothers, what looked like a Nordic youth.
I commented to my friend that I suspected the 1947 memoir The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton (left) had led to a huge increase of vocations to monastic life following World War II. He agreed, adding, “And I bet the war had a lot to do with it too.” I immediately thought, Yeah, all those GIs looking for something to do with their lives, but my friend added a different spin. He said, “I bet some of those returning soldiers had some pretty heavy things on their consciences.”
Whether or not this was true, it got me thinking seriously of monks as soldiers. This sense was confirmed by my experience of Vigils, the longest office of the day, lasting usually from 3:30 a.m. sharp (monks are prompt) to about 4:10.
I set my alarm each morning for 2:50 so that I could arrive in the side chapel by 3:00 and say a rosary before the office began. I was the first to arrive in the church, even before the sacristan could be heard shuffling about in sandals, lighting the few lamps used for Vigils, ribboning the lectionaries, and so on. In these twenty minutes before the first brothers began padding almost inaudibly down the stairs from their dormitory into the choir, I realized something about night, about monks, about courage.
God made the night. He separated the darkness from the light, calling the dark times “night.” Night is dark, mysterious, and even in this abbey church before Vigils, a bit terrifying. The silence here in Spencer, in high grazing country fifteen miles from the hum of truck tires on the Mass Pike, is intense. The faint humming sound I hear is some combination of breeze off the abbey walls and the current of my own cardiovascular system. There is something to be sought here, perhaps something to be found, maybe even something to be feared. Yes, it does put "the fear of God" into a man.
Anyone, monk or man, grunt or Navy Seal, who enters this darkness every night and makes it his own personal patrol is moving in a realm most mortals would prefer to sleep through. I don't wonder that the monks of St. Joseph Abbey pray side by side, virtually shoulder to shoulder, in long uniforms that keep them warm and probably comfort them. This is hard man's work they are doing. And like the men and women of our armed forces, they are doing it for you and me.