God shops at Costco! He has the same tupperware cereal containers here at Berryville that I am using at home. It’s a sign . . . I am forgiven.
I have never actually witnessed the movement of wind through trees until this weekend. I first heard something on Friday night. It was as if someone was moving through the brush. I caught a sense that something was happening, but turned towards the source and only then was I treated to the full breathy, expansive fullness of the sound. Yesterday, the same experience, however, I wondered why I’ve never felt that before. Such a common phenomenon . . . On my way back from Compline, I felt the same thrill. Why was this such a new thing?
This morning I have been restless since 3 am. I was sorely tempted to go to Vigils at 3:30 am but rolled over instead. I tossed and turned but not at all unpleasantly until the clock glowed 6:30am. With that, I realized it was time to emerge from my cocoon. I stripped the bed — this was our last day at Holy Cross Abbey — as requested in the ‘dear friends’ note on the desk, balling up the sheets and shoving them into the pillow case. I pulled off my pseudo-pajamas — running shorts and a t-shirt — and traded them for a white pants skirt and a black polo. I took one more minute to brush my teeth and grab a sweatshirt, even summers in Berryville are chilly, and headed off for Lauds.
The chapel is about a half-mile from the retreat house. The road is paved, but the adventurous may take shortcuts through the unfenced fields. Leaving the premises, a modest yellow brick building that houses 16 rooms, kitchen, dining room, foyer, library, and chapel, I am greeted by two cats. There are several that inhabit the grounds, but are not allowed inside. The fat yellow tabby that is queen of the brood is nowhere to be found. Instead her lord and maiden have come to greet me and are glad for the gentle touch of my hand. They, too, appear to have been roused recently from sleep, but are not at all unhappy about it. In fact, we all seem quite content and pleased with ourselves to be up before most of the others. There is no hum in the air, no buzz of activity as I round the garden of zinnias and sunflowers — the bees and butterflies have not yet woken. There is a slight chill in the air and I am glad that I have worn the West Loudoun Vikings hoodie I purchased on Friday.
The road winds past the pasture. There are cows grazing, but nowhere near the number that were parked on this plot of land last evening. Lupe was so entranced by them she took pictures of every one of them that would come to the fence. They were as curious about us as we were delighted to meet them. Most were black with tags in either or both of their ears. We assumed they were beef cows, but again someone who reads this will confirm or deny the fact. Today, none of them are even close to the pathway. Having satisfied whatever curiosity they had, they have moved on. So have I.
The next patch of road is a straight stretch that passes the monastery gift shop. This is my favorite part of the walk. It is bordered by the cow pasture on one side and farmland on the other. I love the wire fences, the random trees, the abandoned stumps, the hay ricks, etc. I wonder if I came for a week would I see a whirlwind of activity? Would I be waving to farmers on tractors? Would there be threshers and irrigation machines? There must be some activity on these lands.
Regardless, I am content to walk on the road between the fields. As I approach the trees that have entertained me morning, noon, and night, there is no sound. Perhaps they will not talk to me today. I am not unhappy but curious about where the sound is made and why I have only been allowed to hear it so richly in my 52nd year. I pass the copse and move on to the gift shop corner.
There is a sign as I round the corner that points the route to the retreat house, the chapel, and announces my arrival at the gift shop. The sign is gray — painted wood with black calligraphy. I wonder, do the monks create and maintain all of these signs? There must be a hundred of them on the property. If they do this is there anything they don’t do? Do they mow? Do they weed? Do they mop? Do they sort socks? Do they clean bathrooms?
These thoughts preoccupy me as I head towards the Cool Spring mansion house. It was once a residence, but now serves as a meeting place and houses Brother James’ collection of prehistoric arrowheads and civil war artifacts found on the property. How can they maintain all of his? Their numbers are dwindling. This summer they lost Father Mark to complications after surgery and Brother Michael to a massive stroke. I will count them again this morning, hoping that overnight their ranks will have swollen to accommodate several hearty-looking thirty-somethings. There were four of them in a back pew last night — maybe they were the four new recruits reporting to duty. I will look for them.
I am thinking this as I mount the stairs to the chapel. I am alone. None of my fellow retreatants are visible on the path behind me. I will have the monks to myself. I am happy. I take my seat in the first pew behind the velvet cord that announces the separation between the monks’ worship quarters and the cheap seats. I am not put off by this restriction. To pass beyond that rope is to swear fealty to a life of unlimited otherness and I know that I am not ready for that. It is 6:50 am and the chapel is dark. I am alone.
A bell tolls and a monk appears in a walker. I wonder if, he too, rose at 3:30 am for Vigils or if like me, his first appearance before God is now. This thought is designed to make me feel better, but I know the truth. He was here even though he had to physically struggle to do so. I am humbled by this fact. This is a good sign. I am in their realm — humility is one of the virtues they preach. The work on me is already starting and the office has yet to begin.
More monks file in — there are four on the left, one in the front pew (Brother Vincent from the gift shop) who has a cold, four on the right plus one young man in street clothes. One of the new recruits, perhaps? None of the others from last night are with him. I can’t help myself; I contemplate the recruiting statistics — one out of four. Not bad, but at this rate the place will be in ruins before long. We need more troops, God.
Finally, my fellow retreatants appear. There are now four of us behind the cord. More bells. No more monks. Lauds is to begin.
The abbot has signaled that it is time to start. The cantor begins. His voice is strong and beautiful. His colleagues join him and the sound surges towards the middle of the chapel. Facing each other in two pews, their voices entwine naturally and lift us all. The music hangs in the rafters — yes, there are rafters. The crucifix and statue of the blessed Virgin Mary seem to glow. The light is sparse and I realize belatedly no one has turned on the lights in our section. In fact, we’ve been sitting in the dark all weekend. I never noticed until now.
The service continues and I wonder how long these rituals will continue. I pray they will last forever. Everyone should have the opportunity to worship like this. The simplicity of the words, the purity of the emotion, and the basic adequacy of the surroundings amount to a glorious experience. The service is over quickly. We are out of the chapel by 7:20 am. I do not feel cheated. I have received more than I ever expected and am grateful that I pushed myself out of bed. I remember reading that Thomas Merton observed privately these liturgical offices for many years before being claimed by the Cistercians. The rhythm and discipline of it are appealing. Starting one’s day with a heart full of gratitude is the most attractive part.
I am the leader of the pack. I pull ahead of my fellow worshippers so as to avoid conversation. The path from the retreat house to the chapel and back is open for quiet talk. I want none of it this morning. I am actively engaged in worry about the size of this monastic community. We need these men and we need all that they bring to our world.
Then I felt it.
The hair on the back of my neck rose as I drew parallel with the stand of trees on the corner of the path. There was movement and my body sensed it. I turned to the trees and I could hear them. I could hear them brushing gently against one another — the breeze was light. I heard their trunks creaking and I could see the leaves clapping each other as if to provide applause for the sudden rush of wind. Suddenly, I was a part of it. I could feel the air on my cheeks, my bare legs. It was a beautiful moment . . . one that I’ve waited 52 11/12 years to experience.
But then again what should I expect? When have I ever really stopped to see, feel, and hear the magnificence I witnessed this Sunday morning? I am reminded of this quote from Haruki Murakami.
It doesn’t matter how old I get, but as long as I continue to live I’ll always discover something new about myself. No matter how long you stand there examining yourself naked before a mirror, you’ll never see reflected what’s inside.
Daniel, I thank you for all you’ve taught me about myself this weekend. The retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey is in good hands — your hands. I wish you well, my new friend.
This is the final in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Sunday, August 15, 2010.