Soliloquy in an International Cloister

Watch your step as Brother Lawrence takes you inside the monastery walls of a five hundred year-old international order. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish you had ignored your hormones and joined the monastery.

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Location: Rome, Italy

19 April 2009

A day in the life - Morning prayers

At exactly 6:30, a bell in chapel rings to signal that it is time for prayers to begin. Until a few years ago, the signal was provided by an old, wind-up chiming clock that somehow managed to be always either fast or slow. A few years ago, however, the old, charming clock was retired and replaced by an electric clock that regularly synchronizes itself with an atomic clock somewhere in the world. I’m not kidding! No more excusing my late arrival by claiming that the clock is fast. Little by little, all our excuses are being eliminated.

You may have seen movies or heard a CD of monks chanting their prayers in beautiful harmonies. Yeah, that’s not us. Most of the time, we merely say (or better, mumble) our prayers. When we do sing, well, it's just best not to talk about it. At prayer, the brothers can be divided into three groups—the downhill brothers, the uphill brothers and the neutral brothers. The downhill brothers continually pick up speed as the prayer proceeds while the uphill brothers attempt to apply the brakes. Who prevails depends on how many supporters each group can muster from among the neutral brothers. At times, the uphill group and downhill group can be separated by several words. I’m pretty sure this is not what David had in mind when he wrote the psalms.

This temporal tug-of-war lasts for about 15 minutes, until we finish the first part of our morning prayer routine. This is followed by half an hour of silent meditation. We are allowed to do our meditation wherever we think the atmosphere is most conducive. Many stay in the chapel, some walk in the courtyard or corridors and others go to their rooms. I have a suspicion that not all of those who go to their rooms are actually spending the time in meditation. Maybe it’s the fact that when they return 30 minutes later, their damp hair is neatly combed and they are no longer wearing pajamas under their habits. Until several years ago, everyone was expected to stay in the chapel for the meditation period, but the rules were eventually loosened because the snoring in the chapel was keeping some of us awake!

After the meditation period, we celebrate mass. At precisely 7:15 our atomic-synchronized Swiss clock chimes, which is a rather rude way to be awaken from one’s “meditation”. The chime causes a Pavlovian reaction among the priest-brothers, who jump up and run to the sacristy to get vested for the mass. Not being a priest myself, I can remain in chapel, but I have witnessed the action in the sacristy a few times. It looks like the backstage at a Wal-Mart fashion show. Twenty or thirty priests are trying to force their way to the closet where the albs and stoles are kept. Each grabs the necessary items and squeezes his way back to the chapel, throwing on his alb and stole along the way. They come back into the chapel willy-nilly with their albs twisted around their bodies in odd ways and with stoles hanging lopsidedly around their necks. Such grace! Such solemnity! I cry.

(to be continued)

09 April 2009

A day in the life - Rising

My day in the monastery, whenever I am there, typically begins at 5:45 a.m. with a shower and associated ablutions so I can arrive for prayers at 6:30, fresh as a bedewed rose. Okay, I am lying about the rose thing. I am about as fresh as that leaf of lettuce that fell behind your kitchen counter last week. I am not a morning person, and while rising before dawn has become easier with the passing of the years, it still feels unnatural. Surely God meant the sun to be our alarm clock, no? Community prayers are an important part of the day, however, and skipping them would scandalize some of the younger brothers so guilt trumps my desire to stay in my celibate bed each morning.

Judging by the looks of many of the other brothers, I am not the only one who is not a morning person. A few of them tumble into chapel with seconds to spare, complete with pillow-tousled hair and sleep in their eyes. Occasionally, one can spy pajamas under a brother’s habit. On the other hand, there are those brothers who have been in chapel since before 6:00—bright-eyed, perfectly groomed, in attitudes of smug prayerfulness. Oh, how I hate them!

The reader might be asking himself or herself why, if so many brothers dislike this early hour, we don’t move prayers to a later hour. Actually, when I first moved to this monastery in 1988, prayers started at 6:15. After battling for almost 20 years, we normal brothers finally won a 15 minute concession from the "Aurorists". Somehow, whenever the topic came up in a house chapter, the early risers managed to grab the high moral ground and to convince the majority that rising later than 6:00 will insure one’s eternal damnation. Frankly, however, I am suspicious of these people. The Psalmist wisely said, “God gives to his beloved while they slumber.” I ask myself, why will the consciences of these brothers not allow them to sleep to a normal hour?

(To be continued)

05 April 2009

Does this qualify for the Mile High Club?

Me: Flying from Frankfurt to San Francisco, we were so far north that the sun went below the horizon. Somewhere over Canada, we witnessed the sun rise again. So I had two sunrises and two sunsets in one day.

Confrere: On one of my flights last December, I had two Immaculate Conceptions.