I had the pleasure of meeting Becket while I was doing some personal soul-searching at St. Joseph Abbey. At the time he was a professing monk who had not taken his final vows. He has since left the monastery to become the personal assistant of the writer Anne Rice. In a recent conversation has given me permission to reprint his story as he is posting it on Facebook. I hope you find these installments as fascinating as I do. I will be posting these installments on Monday. Irvin
Christmas was a beautiful time in the monastery. But it took some getting used to.
In my youth, my family enjoyed the religious aspect of Christmas, but we never celebrated the holiday with the devotion of people in a religious order.
In the monastery, the lives of monks revolved around prayer and work. Both prayer and work were profoundly shaped by the passing seasons. So we monks shaped our lives around the phases of the moon and the falling of the leaves.
In the late fall, the season of Advent began four weeks before Christmas. The word Advent comes from a Latin word, which means “Coming…” The season of advent was a time to prepare for the Son of God “coming” into the world as a baby in Bethlehem.
We monks prepared for the “coming” of Christ in different ways.
Brother Martin spent time preparing a special meal that the monks would enjoy together on Christmas night. Father Peter spent time preparing Brandy Alexanders that we would serve to friends and benefactors who’d come for special visits. Father Matthew and Father Sean would spent time practicing the pipe organ for the new Advent and Christmas music liturgy.
Junior monks like me spent the Advent Season preparing for Christmas by spending each day decorating the abbey.
It began with finding the Christmas tree. The monastery was situated on 1,200 acres of woodland. The junior monks would go out into the woods to hunt for the abbey Christmas tree. There were countless to choose from. The Novice Master would accompany us. We would pack a basket of wine, cheese, and crackers. The wine would keep us warm and the cheese would keep us sober. We would find a tree that would fit perfectly in the abbey common room, where the monks congregated after dinner to talk about the routine of our lives in the silence of God.
The tree always had a wide skirt. The branches were good and strong. The roots were deep. We were thankful to God for the gift of the tree – because the tree had a deeper meaning for us, than just merely seasonal decoration in our monastic home.
We junior monks would share the work of cutting down the good tree. If the vocations had been abundant that year, there could be five of us wielding the ax in turns. If vocations had been slow, I would fell the tree with one other brother.
We would work together to carry the tree back to the abbey.
We’d set it up in the abbey common room, in the corner, where many of us used to sit. We’d have to sacrifice our favorite seats for a month. But the effect was worth the sacrifice.
The good smell of fresh pine suffused the common room by the first day. The scent would stay in the room long after the Christmas season passed.
The older monks would then take out our collection of Christmas ornaments. Some ornaments would be decades old. Other ornaments were as old as the turn of the century. Some belonged to a few brothers. Others had been donated. Some of us junior monks would make our own ornaments, leaving our mark on forthcoming Christmas seasons.
We would wrap the tree in multicolored lights and then hang the hodgepodge of ornaments. We would listen to carols, and sometimes those of us who sang in the schola cantorum would sing along. We could sing motets. We could chant. Christmas chants were beautiful in Latin.
We’d either top the tree with a star or with an antique angel ornament.
Once the Christmas tree was finished, the junior monks would decorate the trees lining the front walkway, leading from the cloister to the church.
At the base of each tree was an electrical outlet. We’d wrap up the trunk with a string of white lights. Then we’d wrap each branch in many strings of white lights. The abbot wanted us to make the lights look like “luminous berries” on the bough.
We would wrap the trees in such a way so that the white lights look like bright white berries.
The church bell would chime and draw us to our monastic prayer services.
The sun would have already set by the beginning of Vespers.
Our abbot would lead the whole community of brothers down the walkway, from the cloister to the church. We’d walk in silence, hearing only the shuffling of our feet in formation.
We’d pass between the “luminous berries.” The twelve trees were beautiful in the nighttime. We’d be surrounded in their gentle light. It could feel like an enchanted grove.
Our evening prayer service would be a period of praying and watching the waning daylight in the windows dim to darkness. Yet the light of the trees still shone.
During Advent, in our liturgy of hours, we would chant about biblical heroes like John the Baptist and the Angel Gabriel.
But once we were three weeks into the Advent Season, on December 17th, we would begin chanting what we called the “O Antiphons.”
These antiphons always began with an “O”: “O Tree of Jesse”, we’d chant. “O Star of David,” we’d chant. “O Israel,” we’d chant, and so on.
We chanted the O Antiphons until December 24th, when it became proper to change our prayer, from coming, to receiving.
The O Antiphons were a summons: We monks were summoning the higher power we believed in. We were begging God to come again and bring with Him a Kingdom of peace and justice and goodness and love.
By December 24th, we stopped summoning. We began full on worshiping the King we believed came to us in complete poverty, and spent his first night on earth, lying in a box where sheep and cows ate their supper.
As monks, we could relate to that poor child. We had no possession. We had no money. We didn’t even have heating in the abbey church.
We had only our work and our prayer. Our work was our prayer while our prayer was our work. And our working prayer / praying work sincerely sought to be like the baby who grew into the carpenter who’d died on a tree.
You see: The lights we wrapped during Advent were for Christmas. It wasn’t right to view them merely as electric lights wrapped around branches, simulating luminous berries. It wasn’t right to simply view the tree in the common room as a merely commonplace Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree lights, the lights around the walkway trees, they were spiritual lights guiding us toward our true goal, which wasn’t wine and cheese and Christmas trees, or luminous berries and O Antiphons.
Rather, the lights of the trees were like the nail marks on the Cross: The lights were reminders of the good things to come.
In the end, the Advent Season was not only about our belief that God was “coming” closer to us. We believed that we were coming closer to Christmas, we were coming closer to a higher power who loved us very much, for we believed that the true meaning of Christmas was the Divine Face becoming human while our human faces became divine.
We saw the divine image in Brother Gabriel who loved looking at the Christmas lights, and in the smile of Brother Martin when his Christmas turkey came out right. We saw the divine image in Brother Simon when he wrapped a tree particularly well, and in Father Sean as he sublimely played Bach’s Wachet Auf on the pipe organ.
Yes: Our work was our prayer while our prayer was our work.
And through both we could glimpse the divine image in one another during Christmas time, not because we did anything important in the history of the world, but because we did the small things that helped one another feel appreciated, needed, and loved.