Visiting St. John’s Abbey for the first time years ago just before noon, one of the Benedictine monks invited the guest to join the monks for mid-day prayer.
St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota
Moments after declining the offer, I changed my mind. Risking the embarrassment of unfamiliarity with the Benedictine rite, I quietly made my way up the right side aisle toward the Chancel choir loft where the monks were gathering.
Interior of St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota
Anxious and wanting to be as invisible as possible, I slid up the steps of the choir loft like a cockroach and found a suitable hiding place, the seat in the far corner of the top row (far right in the photograph).
I felt a tug on my left shirt sleeve. “I don’t think you want to sit there,” said the kindly Benedictine Brother with a twinkling eye, “unless you want to be the Abbot!”
Any early childhood protestant prejudice that monasteries are places where people of lesser faith go to hide came tumbling down! There is no hiding place in a Benedictine monastery. No one is a cockroach.
During a crisis years later, I returned to St. john’s for spiritual guidance and took a more lowly place in the choir loft.
Dennis Aubrey’s “Lessons in Stone” took me back three years ago.
I’m sitting in a small room with a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. It’s the first of six private meetings over a three day silent retreat.
“What brings you here?” asks the spiritual guide. “My step-daughter is dying of cancer.” “What is her name?” “Katherine.” How old is Katherine?” “Thirty-three. She was diagnosed four years ago with Leiomyosarcoma, a rare incurable sarcoma, and is now in her last months in hospice care.”
“So what troubles you? Are you afraid for the state of her soul?” “No,” I respond quickly. “Not at all. It’s not about that. God is Love. I don’t believe in hell.”
“Hmmm,” said the monk. “I see. Interesting. Our tradition says that there is a hell, but that the likelihood is that there’s nobody in it.”
The centerpiece of the tympanum that captured the attention of the little Danish boy in Dennis’ “Lessons in Stone” is the scene of God’s hand reaching to pull Saint Foy toward heaven.
You don’t have to believe in hell as an eternal state to cry out for release from its torments here and now, or to pray for a peace that passes all understanding.
The early morning is cool and sunny. The walking trail has been shaded by huge oaks, elms, and ash trees, the path shimmering with light and shadow. I come out of the shadows and suddenly it is there: Purple Martin Place, 76 Purple Martin houses on poles reaching for the sky, each one labeled with a number. “ In my father’s house are many mansions” and a host of chirping Purple Martins flying out across the large open field.I remember the Benedictine morning mass at St. John’s Abbey where I had retreated on the hard walk to the end of my 33-year-old step-daughter Katherine’s terminal cancer. RIP.
From their Purple Martin Mansions
The Purple Martins swoon and swoop
O’er the green grass field shimmering
In early morning light cooled by the breeze
A Purple Martin chorus chants its antiphons
En masse above the green grass field,
A purple Benedictine chorus sings praise
To the morning on their way to breakfast.
– June 1, 2011
Two Views from the Edge commenters found themselves singing the hymn “Morning Has Broken” after reading the poem. Click to hear and watch a magnificent instrumental and photographic rendering of the hymn. Here’s the first stanza: