Monday, June 17, 2013

“A CONVERSATION WITH ST. BENEDICT AND MARY”

Chapel at St. Mary's Convent
Once a year I attend a silent retreat as an associate of St. Mary’s Convent, which is a gray stone building that houses an Anglican order of Sisters here on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee. For at least two days, we attempt to keep silence, even at mealtimes when people like me, who’re accustomed to the convivial meals in Cajun country, must be quiet. We can’t even say “pass the salt, please,” which could translate, in my southern lexicon, as unmannerly, but simply denotes respect for the deep silence. A smile goes a long way. A nod of the head takes on heavy import.
Most of all, during such retreats, we’re exhorted to listen, an almost forgotten practice that helps unblock the transformations that are always hovering on the doorstep of our busy lives.  The theme of “A Conversation with St. Benedict and Mary” claimed my attention because it involved the Order of St. Benedict, an order that resides at St. Joseph’s Abbey, Ramsey, Louisiana, just 28 miles down the road from my birthplace in Franklinton. During my childhood, several monks from that order were sent to minister to the congregation at the Roman Catholic Church directly behind my mother’s house, and she, a staunch Episcopalian, spent her last years attending this church. She also provided breakfasts for the priests who served the little mission behind us, sometimes cooking half of a dozen eggs for one Irish priest who had a voracious appetite. As a teenager, I made many trips to the Abbey to fish in the pond beside it and became familiar with Gregorian, or plainchants, being sung at Evensong by the priests and seminarians who lived there.
After I became an associate of St. Mary’s six years ago, I became more interested in the Benedictine Order because the Sisters follow The Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule and a fictitious abbey formed the setting for a mystery co-authored by me and Isabel Anders entitled Chant of Death. Interwoven in the book are explications of chants followed by the devoted monks, and during the writing of Chant, Isabel and I listened to contemporary CDs performed by monks from Santo Domingo–Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott, owners and publishers at Pinyon Publishing, also listened to chants while programming this book for publication. Susan even designed a cover that showcased an original chant she had composed while working on the book. In Chant of Death, Isabel and I explained that “the practice of chant, for the monks, was not only an act of worship, it was a spiritual exercise, a creation of unity that the singers themselves brought into being. Even the novices understood that the perpetuation of the traditional tones in sequence was a powerful sign to the world that God’s order prevails in the universe, that the Divine unity underlies all…”
The Rule of St. Benedict has been a guide for Benedictine monasteries and convents for 1500 years, but it also offers laypeople a plan for living a prayerful life. Adherents follow the rule of ora et labor (work and pray) daily. They vow to commit to stability, conversion, and obedience, and I’m particularly mindful of the “conversion” aspect, the idea that conversion is not a one-time experience, but that we remain open to conversion, walking constantly in God’s presence, opening our eyes and ears to convert to the way that God continues to lead us every day. Benedict believed that an open heart calls for a practice of prayer, work, study, hospitality, and renewal.
I often read and applaud the work of Esther de Waal, an Anglican who follows and writes about the Benedictine Rule. She emphasizes the role of poetry in Benedictine retreats in her book, Lost in Wonder, quoting from Roger Housdon: “[Poetry] dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind… surely that is exactly why it has such a vital role to play in any spiritual exploration…” Amen!

For me, this brief retreat based on St. Benedict and Mary held at St. Mary’s Conference Center underlined the necessity for cultivating a sense of awe in the middle of frenetic daily life and for delighting in ordinary objects, people, and occurrences… for taking time to renew our spirituality and, as the Benedictine monks and Sisters do, to practice our own form of chanting in thanksgiving for the gift of life.
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