Friday, October 21, 2011

nature, grace and glory

Haifa says to me,
"From now on
you are you!"
(Mahmoud Darwish)
thursday, 20 oct, on the train bound for london

I thought today I was going to have a morning off, spend time reading and maybe even getting to a gym, trotting up to the open market for some Welsh cakes and tea for breakfast... but it was not to be. Just as I was settling in to bed late last night, my host here, Brigid, called to say that what she had been hoping for had come through: she had secured a spot for me on the BBC's Sunday radio program, "Good Morning Sunday." I feared we were going to be driving there, three hours or so by car, but to my delight we are on the train instead, expensive but so comfortable and I can read and write on the train all the way to Paddington Station, my third or fourth favorite place on earth.

The next day, three events: first singing for 180 eighth form young people (12 year olds) at a private school. The best part of that was that Brigid's 11 year old son Joseph wanted me to walk with him to school, and we had a great talk about India and France and Los Angeles, music and the bishop of Wales. I told a few people that young people in large groups scare me, but it went well. I did "Awakening" and then a couple of singalongs (including "With My Own Two Hands") and the time flew by quickly. Afterward a rather conservative looking teacher came up to me--you can't tell a book by its cover--and asked me, "Wasn't that a Jack Johnson song?" Then we started heading north, and Brigid took me for lunch at Llantaranam Abbey. It's the site of an 11th century Cistercian monastery. Many years after that was demolished a lord built a beautiful mansion on the grounds, and in 1947 turned it over to the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Annecy, a French congregation of sisters founded by a Jesuit in the 17th century, suppressed and then revived in the 19th. Many of the sisters there were retired, but several are still very active. One, Sr Brita, is a higly accomplished artist, though she is away now in Ireland doing more study on Celtic spirituality so I didn't get to meet her. Another, Sr Alice, runs the nearby Ty-Creoso Centre (nearest I can tell that's pronounced "tea croysoh"), which means, "House of Welcome." While I ate with Sr Alice and Sr Maria Goretti, the superior, Sr Alice asked me good penetrating questions about my life and work, and about the Camaldolese in general. Again, I had probably already judged the book by its cover and was taken aback by how insightful she was and how broad her thinking was. She was talking about the future of religious life and the mystery of individual vocations within it. There were several aphorisms of their re-founder, Jean Pierre Medaille, SJ, that they had all memorized as young sisters, and she kept saying one of them to me over and over again: "Be what God wants you to be­­, in nature, grace and glory, for time and eternity." I sang for the sisters in the parlor after lunch, and then one of the sisters gave us an historical tour of the buildings and the site. Then as we went to Ty Croeso to say goodbye to Sr Alice she gave us a tour of that marvelous facility too, and they both loaded me down with literature, post cards and blessings.

We then headed up farther north to a little city called Abergavenny (accent on the first syllable, if that helps...). There is another ancient priory there of which all that remains is the stunning 12th century church, with its choir and high altar. On the site of the cloister itself there is now a large meeting room that is used for various groups. (When we arrived a meeting was going on for education in sustainable living.) It is now of course an Anglican church, but they had the idea some years ago to honor the Benedictine background of the place by holding "monastic days." Basically the idea is that as many people as could would pray all the liturgical hours together and follow a monastic schedule for the day. And, since I was a monk... they replaced the normal evening activity for an evening with me.

I tried to hint to Brigid that there was a good chance that I would not be the kind of monk they were looking for. There is a long storied tradition of rather classic English Benedictine monasticism here in Britain that was hugely influential on the English church, especially on the Anglican church which adopted many monastic elements as popular liturgical elements. The classic distinction between cathedral and monastic that still abides in Roman Catholicism does not abide in the same way in the Anglican tradition. For example, the tradition of evensong. One thing I find interesting is that in several places the choir sits in the choir stalls. Now that sounds right except that the "choir" (the place, the stalls) functions in ancient churches as the place where monks (or canons) would sing the liturgy, between the high altar and the congregation, who in ancient times would be pretty much observers of the liturgy. In some of the Anglican liturgies that I have attended, the "choir" sits there, meaning the trained singers, which still puts them behind the presiding minister during the liturgy of the Word, and between the congregation and the presider at the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist. I am sort of fascinated by ritual as ideology in action, and the meaning conveyed by choreography, and I am not sure I understand what Lucien Deiss used to call the "ministerial function" of that choreography. I will have to ask someone. But at any rate, ai was afraid that my particular life style and liturgical sensibilties, not to mention the music that I was singing would not be in keeping with this style of "monastic." I kept hearing Sr Alice's words in my head: "Be what God wants you to be­­, in nature, grace and glory, for time and eternity"­­-- and in Abergevenny.

We got there just before Vespers. Two priests led it, with a handful of lay people in the choir stalls as well. One of the priests, with a beautiful clear voice, sang the Gregorian antiphons before each psalm, and then the two priests sang the psalms, right out of the Benedictine breviary. None of the other congregants sang, and I mumbled along, not quite sure what to do. And I actually was a bit tired by then and was sort of lulled into a deep quiet by the beauty of their voices and the place. The evening event was in the priory center two hours later. I wanted to make sure I was speaking to this particular crowd, and I thought I might have to come up with a whole new program, so as to go "from the kown to the unknown." So I spent some time preparing/rehearsing more mainstream pieces. But again there was actually quite a mix of a crowd, a few folks from the monastic day, as well as one of the priests, but it had also been advertised in several other places (containing three different starting times!), including enthusiastic and kind words by the local bishop and an article in the local paper, all of which had mentioned my particular approach to these things, so in the end I felt a little better and resorted to pretty much the program I had been using.

Then the long drive back down to Cardiff, the late night phone call informing me of this BBC gig, and here we are, about to pull into Paddington Station.

"Be what God wants you to be­­, in nature, grace and glory, for time and eternity."

(I'm heading to Dorset today for a weekend retreat. Will try to post once more before I leave for Israel about the BBC yesterday.)