The few times in my life that I have watched the clock strike 4 am have more often been the result of a late night than an early morning. After two weeks as a vocationer at an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan, (www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org), I, unfortunately, don’t think I can make this claim any longer. Though I think getting Pizza Hut to deliver outside their delivery zone, after hours and breaking the Greater Silence to do it has better story making capacity, any.
St. Gregory’s Abbey is a community of men living under the Rule of St. Benedict in the Episcopal Church. Each July they sponsor a vocational program for individuals who are curious about monasticism and serious about faith. Seeing as how I recently found myself with a free July, I figured living a couple weeks as a monk would be more productive than haunting Salem coffee shops, so I hopped the Amtrak to Kalamazoo and arrived just in time for the Feast of St. Benedict – an auspicious beginning to my monastic tenure, which had a couple consequences for my first day as a member of the community:
1. I got to sleep in. Instead of the bell for Matins ringing at 3.50 am, Matins and Lauds were combined and held at 5.30. The other five offices (Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline + Matins and Lauds = 7) were similarly enjambed. Tea was a full hour instead of just a half of one and we didn’t have class.
2. I got to talk at dinner. Traditionally meals are taken without conversation. After being summoned to your place by a bell and a short prayer, everyone sits in his assigned seat, uses various improvised gestures to pass jugs of milk, Tobasco sauce, or the dense, dark “monk’s bread” that serves as a staple of each meal and listens as a brother reads aloud from a book selected by the Abbot. During my time at St. Gregory’s, we finished Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making and began Touched By God: Ten Monastic Journeys inspired by the BBC’s recent miniseries “The Monastery.” In addition to conversation, we got to enjoy some table plonk to celebrate the Holy Father’s life.
3. I didn’t have to work. For two hours in the morning between Mass and Sext and for two hours in the afternoon between None and Tea, the brothers work. This is not to say that they only “work” for four hours a day, however. A monk’s primary labor is prayer and he engages in this activity 7+ hours hours a day, 7 days a week. Those four hours designated as “work,” then, are for earthly labor: beer making, groundskeeping, office work. While I got out of work my first day, the rest of my days as a monk involved moving dirt to fill in around some newly poured side walks.
Many of my preconceptions of monastic life were true – it’s very quiet, the refectory menu is similar to that of a nursing home’s, the majority of religious are homosexual. There were surprises, too, though – I had conversations about the band Tool, Facebook shenanigans, and post-modern East European literature. Playing corn hole does wonders for humanizing the otherwise other-ed character of a monk. It quickly became apparent that each of the brothers had a story of life before entering the Order, and that while one gives up a lot to devote himself wholly to the worship of God, having a personality is not among the prohibitions.
While I don’t anticipate formally entering the novitiate anytime soon, there are some things I do plan to takeaway from my experience (and wearing a black cassock on a regular basis is not one of them):
- Ritualizing the day by reading the daily offices. I don’t think I can swing taking seven prayer breaks everyday, but reading morning and evening prayer from the BCP is surely doable.
- Don’t work so hard to fill the silence. Following Vespers each day for 30 mins we would sit in the choir and silently meditate. At first I considered this an intellectual exercise: how could I keep my mind busy with no outside stimulus? – free association gone wild. Then, I realized it was a time not to concern myself with what I was putting into the universe but simply to be aware of what was happening around me on a micro and macro level.
Tomorrow I meet the goats. . .