March 08, 2009


It didn't take me long to get settled at Southern Monastery. It was different than the monastery I go to at home -- Trappist instead of Benedictine -- and much larger and more formal. But all monastic life is based on the rule of Saint Benedict, so the routine was comfortably familiar. Besides, I'm the type person who makes myself at home anywhere. I dumped my suitcase at the foot of my bed, put my laptop and journal on the desk, and put my toothbrush in the bathroom. I discovered that the coffee machine in the dining hall was filled with hot water, so I bought a mug in the bookstore (I refuse to drink tea out of a paper cup) and made myself raspberry tea.

I'd been at the monastery for about an hour when I decided to read the list of rules on the desk in my room. I'd already broken four of them. One rule was that retreatants observe silence in the retreat house, even in the dining room. That explained why the building seemed so awfully quiet.

When the bell rang for Vespers, I slipped through the door into the church. The church smelled different than the chapel at my monastery: apparently the monks here don't go as crazy with the incense as they do back home. And they had no votive candles, which I really missed. I love lighting candles. The prayer schedule was similar, except that they called Sext "midday prayer." Perhaps they thought the name was too suggestive.

The monks were wearing cream-coloured robes, rather than the black robes I'm used to. I counted forty of them. I'd guess the average age to be about 85. At least. The first section of wooden choir stalls seemed reserved for the monks, but the God-love-you Woman from the front desk was sitting in the next section, so I clattered up the wooden steps to sit near her. The raised wooden stalls seemed formal compared to the simple wooden benches I'm used to, but it was handy to have the desk-like compartment for the binders of psalms and the songbooks and all the confusing papers of prayers. The monks across from me began the familiar chant, and the monks to my left responded, and I felt right at home.

From inside the choir stall

What's missing in the photo are the monks, of course. I only took photos in the church when it was empty. I didn't want to be disrespectful.


Lorianne said...

Thank you for these empty-church photos. I'm always careful to preserve the private sanctity of sacred spaces: it just seems tacky (to me) to go around snapping pictures when people are trying to pray.

When I was a student at Boston College, I'd sometimes go to a chapel on campus between classes to meditate in one of the pews. One day, some folks who were visiting campus stopped in the chapel & started taking pictures while talking loudly. I couldn't believe they didn't notice (or didn't care?) that they were intruding on my silence: it was as if they were so intent on chatting & taking pictures, they didn't notice someone was actually "using" the chapel for its intended purpose as a sacred place.

I've always remembered how angry that made me feel, so I've always tried NOT to be like those people.

Songbird said...

These pictures are gorgeous, I love the blue quality of the light.

kathy a. said...

the light is incredible!

which other rules did you break?

jo(e) said...

The first four rules I broke: I had food in my room. I used my cell phone. I talked to a woman I saw in the hallway. And I didn't lock my door.

Anonymous said...

it's a beautiful space. very austere. I've always liked it.

Jennifer said...

Beautiful church, beautiful picture. Thank you.

kathy a. said...

minor infractions, surely.

Leslie F. Miller said...

I envy your ability to pack up and go and be at home anywhere. That is what I miss most about me.