A few days in the abbey, no better waste of time

  • January 3, 2012

Just before Christmas, I spent several days at the Benedictine monastery near Sherbrooke, Que.

Beforehand, and while travelling there, I wondered what exactly I was doing. The week before Christmas is a lively time in the city. There were plenty of concerts, gatherings, light shows, treats, sales. There were things to do to prepare for Christmas. That’s where the action would be. Where did I think I was going, and for what?

With non-refundable travel tickets, it was difficult to back out. A day’s journey, by several modes of transportation, taking me to a place I’d never been. I felt like a pilgrim.

It was a strange contrast, the quiet and order of the monastery, compared to the city’s swirl of activity. Stepping out in the city was like stepping right into a spinning, whirling top, in a mash of people, overloading the senses. Here, stepping alone out of the taxi into the dark, cold night was like losing all familiar reference points. A lighted, arched doorway was all I could see. Both frightening and intriguing.

I was ushered directly into Vespers in the vast abbey chapel, where 30 black-robed monks stood in quiet formation. Thirty unaccompanied voices were raised as one in the chapel’s stillness, singing ancient Gregorian chant in a language the world has forgotten. At that moment, still carrying the commerce and bustle of the place I’d just come from, I saw the strangeness of the place I’d just arrived in. Why were these men spending their lives in this way? To whom were they singing, and did anyone hear? Weren’t they throwing away their lives, which could better be spent raising children, building bridges, designing smartphone apps, buying and selling, getting and spending…

Surprisingly, surrounding me in the pews were women and men of all ages, some quite young. Had their parents coerced them into coming? Were they frustrated at having to spend their time here? During my time at the abbey, I realized these young people were here by their own volition, choosing to attend liturgies, not always able to keep silence (intermittent whispering and hidden laughter occurred), but participating willingly.

Later, I arranged to speak with one of the monks. He was chatty and likeable, talking about people he’d met over his forty-some years here, asking about my work and telling me I was blessed to do it.

Finally, I came to the point: “How do we know God’s will?”

He laughed: “I don’t know,” he said. “God is a big mystery.”

He told me his own experiences, how a vow of poverty led to looking after monastic finances, a vow of obedience led to having others obey him; how the story of his life unfolded through decades spent in this place, among these people, in this way. “You mean you know God’s will in the doing of it?” I suggested. He said, “Pray to the Holy Spirit. Pray to abandon yourself to God.” At home, I may not have managed it. Here, with little else to do but pray, surrounded by the prayers of the living and the dead, it came surprisingly easily.

How odd to seek self-abandonment when we’re mostly told to get in control of our lives. How dangerous, to let go into the darkness of faith.

Prayer takes us into dangerous waters; but it also takes us through them, to places we’d never otherwise go. In the doing, as my monk-friend suggested, we learn God’s will for us — which we can’t if we merely follow our own strategic planning, without immersing ourselves in prayer. The Abbey is now in its centenary year, founded 1912. Its birth came out of tragedy: in 1901, when Benedictine monks were driven out of France, the monks from Saint-Wandrille abbey decided to establish a new foundation in Quebec. They sent five men. The fledgling community was almost destroyed when its dynamic leader, Dom Vannier, drowned in the lake just two years after their arrival. Eventually the parent community was allowed to return to France; the Canadian monastery became independent.

Having survived so much and more during these hundred years, the Abbey’s monks continue to sing the Psalms daily, wasting their lives praying, working, receiving guests. Thomas Merton, writing in an American Cistercian monastery during the Second World War, wondered if such pockets of prayer kept humanity from blowing itself up.

Today Canada is sustained by several contemplative monasteries, including three Benedictine ones. I wonder if it’s the voice of prayer raised in the Abbey, in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25), in the hearts of all who cry out to God, that anchors our world and gives it hope amidst doubt, stress and confusion.

And helps us to hear, deep in the veiled and lidded nooks of our heart (where we usually prefer not to go), these eternally spoken, completely personal and intimate words: “You are loved.”

I can’t think of a better waste of time.