When I woke up early my first morning at the monastery and looked out the window, I was surprised to see the green grass covered with drifts of snow. The first snow of the season. It was just a dusting, really, and I knew it would melt as soon as the day grew warm, but I liked the way the white contrasted with the green grass, the dark pine trees, and the hardwood trees that still held leaves of gold and yellow and orange. I dressed quickly, grabbed my camera, and slipped out the front door for an early morning walk. I can’t sleep when the outside world is so beautiful.
The air was frosty. I hurriedly pulled the mittens and hat from my camera bag and zipped up the winter coat I’d thrown on. I passed a monk on his morning walk, and he gave me a smile. Down the hill, I could see the prior, walking his dog. Monastic days begin early, with vigils in the chapel at 4:45 am. I’ve attended vigils, which take place down below the chapel in the crypt, but most of the time, if I wake up and hear the bells ringing for vigils, I like to snuggle in my warm bed and think about the monks singing in the dawn.
Big clouds hung over the monastery buildings as I tramped down the hill, past the bright red sumac trees and the cemetery for oblates, past the huge old tree on the edge of the road and the fenced pasture where sheep turned to stare at me. By the time I reached the chapel, I’d pulled my hood up against the wind. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped gratefully into the warm air of the chapel, with its familiar musty smell of incense and melting wax.
No monks were in sight. I’d arrived after lauds and before mass, but I climbed down the long stone staircase to my favourite place at the monastery, the crypt where visitors come to light votive candles and place them in front of a 14th century stone statue of a young woman holding a baby. I love the candles. I tended to them, picking up a couple of the empty glass jars and carrying them over to the storage room, where I slid them back into a cardboard box. I carried a full box of candles out and refilled the supply on the wooden table near the entrance to the crypt. Then I slid some money into the donation box and carried my candles over to the middle of the room, where the statue stood.
Sitting cross-legged on the stone floor, I lit my candles with a wooden taper. I pushed them across the stone to mix them in with the other candles. More than a hundred little flames flickered in the dim crypt, each little flame rising from a pool of melting wax contained by a glass jar. I stared at the candles and felt the frazzled energy of mid-semester anxiety draining out of me. I could feel myself sinking below the thoughts and distractions of every day life, sinking into the peace that the monastery offers.