Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A Night at the Monastery

very fine snow, mild, temps minus 3

A Night at the Monastery. Sounds like a Marx Brothers film. Or, maybe even, a murder mystery! Michael and I spent last night at Saint-Benoit-du-lac, the Benedictine Abbey on the shores of Lac Memphremagog. We've been there often. It's fairly close to our home and a magical place, even for heathens like us. Hard to sit in the austere, simple, but still spectacular church and not feel at peace. such a quiet, tranquil place.

The monastery is famous for its cheese (having won many awards especially for their blue cheese) and their Gregorian chants. Now, being a heathen, I didn't know what they were except that they're a form of religious singing. Very old.

I'd been to mass at the monastery and heard the chants - and bought the CD of the monks, and I knew they're world famous for their choir. But I hadn't really quite grasped what was so special about it.

We arrived at about 11am. Sat through the euchariste mass. some chants.

then, over the course of 24 hours we went to every service,(about a thousand of them) and finally, I understood. Or, really, I didn't understand but I suddenly 'knew'. In my body. What had been vaguely uninteresting, dare I admit, boring, suddenly became deeply, achingly beautiful. peaceful. healing parts of myself I didn't know were damaged.

The most moving mass, for me, was Compline - the last service at night. There were few people in the pews - Michael and me, a couple others. And the black robed monks at the front of the very simple church. The lights were dimmed - then turned out completely. Except for two small lights at the front. And then they started to sing. No accompaniment. Just their voices. sometimes all together, sometimes what sounded like a call and response.

I have a deep and personal faith, but have not felt the need to go to any church. I pray in our field, and infront of the fireplace, and in bed. I've never felt that being in a church amplified my prayers, or made meditation easier or clearer. Others do, and that is wonderful for them. But it simply hadn't been my personal experience. Though I'm fascinated by religion.

But sitting in the darkened church, listening to the monks, was divine.

Add to that that they'd given Michael and me rare access to their lives. We were allowed behind doors normally locked. And, as a woman, it is rare to be actually allowed to sleep in the monastery. Michael and I were given a wonderful suite of rooms. And then, despite a vow of silence they spoke openly to us. About community life, about their choices. We spent most of our time with Brother Charles - a charming, funny, vibrant monk - who is actually their archivist. We were given a tour of their cheese factory, and it had been arranged for us to tour their cider house, but we ran out of time today. But Father Abbott gave us an hour of his time too, and we had a fabulous (at least from our pov) conversation. Mostly about the monastic life, and what makes life in St Benoit different than other abbeys.

The book I'll begin writing in March is a murder set in a Quebec monastery - though not St. Benoit. It's too identifiable, and so way too constricting for me. But the brothers have made it clear they'd be happy to help with insight into life in a monastery. To allow their lives and choices to act as a springboard and inspiration.

The book, obviously, won't romanticize or glorify, that life. But I hope it will be true to their choices. Both Michael and I were deeply impressed by what seemed their genuine humility. And certainly their kindness to strangers.

Then we headed home today - back into the world which last night seemed not to exist anymore, so complete was the sense of the abbey as a universe unto itself. Another world. Not ideal. Certainly not everyone's choice. Not an easy life. But a life unlike the one we left, and returned to. One that offered peace and quiet.

What an amazing job I have - when this is work.


Jenny said...

But if you are a heathen, who are you praying to? Glad the monks were a blessing to you.

danielle-momo said...

Quelle chance vous avez eu Michael et vous de vivre cette expérience.

Mais juste à la façon dont vous en parlez, je suis persuadée que vous en ferez très bon usage.
Vous avez une façon extraordinaire de vous imprégner de ce qui vous entoure pour mieux le partager. C'est à la fois une qualité et un grand talent.

Pour notre plus grand bonheur.
Merci et Joyeux Noel !

Brenda B. said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing experience with us.

Wishing you and Michael a Merry Christmas,

Brenda B. in Maine

Ann Lurie said...

Were you there for the Eclipse on the morning of the winter solstice?
What prayers were healing?
Bless you

Joy (Joylyn Banayat) said...

Louise, thank you so much for sharing your experience at the monastery! For much of my adult life I wanted to be a Benedictine nun, and even spent 3 months as an Aspirant at an abbey (outside the U.S.). The Gregorian chants at the five daily offices were so rich, so profound...such an incredible blessing. While I didn't end up staying there and am now living a completely different life, there are parts of my life in community I miss so much my heart aches sometimes. I am really looking forward to seeing how you present the challenges and dichotomies of monastic life in your next book!!

A very Merry Christmas to you and Michael, and a million blessings in the new year.

All the best,
Joy (still in Kabul where Christmas isn't the same with no snow)

Nina said...

Ah, don't we all wish for a profound sense of community as the monastic life provides. I'll be awaiting that book!

Tall Pines Pottery said...

Wow, thank you for the wonderful account of your time. And I agree with you, God is everywhere, we just have to stop and quit being in overdrive to find that all consuming peace. Happy Christmas from northern Wisconsin, USA

lil Gluckstern said...

Such peace in such troubled times. This is your gift, to bring us that. Now we have two books to look for.

Louise Penny Author said...

Dear all -

Thank you. I feel you were there with us. merci, mille fois.

A special note to Joy - I'd love to send you a Vive Gamache mug in Kabul but need your address. Joy in Kabul doesn't seem likely to reach you - but certainly something worth praying for. I wonder if you can write to me through my website, and send your address.

It's interesting that so many of you responded to the very thing I was thinking about today, when reflecting on that day in the monastery - issues of community. And how precious it is to feel we belong. I hope to do those feelings, that yearning, justice in the next book.

Joy said...

Oh, Louise, that would be incredible. Thank you so much!! I will send my address to you through your website! Merry Christmas! Joy

Diane said...

What you experienced in the monastery is something that we all yearn for even when we fight against it or don't realize it is what we are looking for. God sometimes gives us peace when we least expect it...

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