Tag Archives: Vespers

THE LOVE OF BROTHERS

by Becket

In previous posts, I wrote about monastic chant, how it’s different from traditional music in both rhythm and melody. It’s almost mystical in modality and polyrhythm – yet also in its simplicity. In chant there is no point and counterpoint; there are no harmonies. There is one melody and all the monastic brothers must chant it in unison.

Chant could be a powerful uniting factor within the brotherhood – if the brothers allowed it to be so.

English: Choir stalls in the church Nice to se...

Choir Stalls

I remember, once, I got into a terrible argument with Brother Simon. We were in the bell tower right before prayer. We had been ringing the bells, summoning our other brother monks to come to the church to pray. It was our evening prayer service then, Vespers, at 5:30pm. I had said something terrible to him and he yelled back at me. I deserved it, and worse, although I didn’t think so at the time. Yet the bells kept on ringing.

As their clangor resounded across the acres of forest and solitude and silence that encompassed the monastery, my brother monks were lining up in the cloister. They were standing in two rows. Then they walked from the abbey to the church along the sidewalk. Together they entered through a side door, together they walked along the side of the church, together they came around to the back and dipped their fingers in the baptismal font, and together they blessed themselves. The only sound was the shuffling of their shoes that echoed as though in a cave. And all the while, Brother Simon and I were stewing in the bell tower because of our argument. But when it was time, we silenced the bells and we joined our brothers. Together we entered the monastic choir stalls, together we opened our books, and together we chanted our invocation to prayer.

Yes we stood side by side. I was angry then that Brother Simon was beside me. Perhaps he felt the same. Our place in choir was out of our hands. Brother Simon had entered the monastery a few weeks ahead of me, so he was technically my elder brother. By monastic rules, I had no other choice: I had to stand beside him in choir. “Why must I stand beside someone I loathe instead of love?” I asked myself. “Why couldn’t I be placed beside Brother Cyril?” Brother Cyril was also Brother Simon’s junior by a two weeks but he was my elder by a week, right in between Brother Simon and me. But that would not happen because the monastic choir director, Father Adam, set Brother Cyril on the other side of the church, in Choir One, while setting Brother Simon and me in Choir Two. I thought that being beside Brother Cyril would have been better. I didn’t realize that that would have been an easy solution to a hard problem.

And the problem wasn’t my argument with my brother. Rather it was the mountain of my pride – my need to be right.

So Brother Simon and I were stuck together, even though we had gotten into a terrible fight and did not like one another right then. Even our presence seemed to irritate one another. I remember I used to feel that way when I was nine years old, about one of my siblings, my brother or one of my sisters. And here I was again, now in my mid-20s feeling as helplessly angry as I had in my childhood.

But the purpose of monastic chant only works if the monks know how to sing together. As I wrote earlier, monastic chant is meant to be sung in unison. All the brothers must sing together, on the same note, in the same rhythm. Without unison, there is only disunity and discord.

So my brother monks and I started to chant the first psalm. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Boy, was I in the depths of my own solipsistic whimsy at that moment – which wasn’t deep at all but incredibly shallow. My problem wasn’t that Brother Simon had bothered me, or that I had bothered him. Rather, I needed to be taken out of my own depths, which wasn’t all that deep – I needed to be yanked from the war raging in the shallow end of my ego. And our chant – the prayer of our brotherhood – had begun to do that.

You see: to remain chanting in unison, I had to listen to the brother beside me – I had to hear his note, I had to hear his rhythm, and I had to match both and remain with his chanting.

So in doing that, I also heard Brother Simon chanting: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Hearing this gave the words of the psalm an entirely new meaning. Now it wasn’t merely me calling out to God from the depths of a difficult place; but my brother was doing the same.

Nevertheless, the interior war of my ego – my desire to be right – would try to dismiss the fact that my brother was feeling exactly the way I felt.

The monks finished chanting the psalm and we moved on to the next. With my brother monks I chanted, “God listens to the prayers of the humble of heart.” Yes, I chanted this but so did Brother Simon. He and I were chanting in unison, yet I did not feel united with him: I felt better than him while I was working out in my mind how I could win our argument. I wasn’t being humble, even though I was chanting to God about true humility in prayer.

It was right then that I began to change. And I don’t believe that I was changing myself, but that I was being changed from the inside out.

As Brother Simon and I chanted in unison, I began to see that the humility of our brotherhood was in the harmony of our togetherness. The profundity of monastic chant is that its unison is absolutely nothing without harmony – the harmony of friendship, the harmony of brotherliness, the harmony of children of God struggling to be better men.

We chanted psalm after psalm, and canticle after canticle. We stood beside one another, we sat beside one another, we listened together to the Scriptures being read, and we prayed together to God – which is the principle purpose of being in a religion. It’s not about being right in an argument. It’s about trusting together that no human eye can see, no human ear can hear, and no human heart can know what God has ready for those who love in sincerity of heart – love God and love one another.

After prayer, later that night, I had no choice: Despite how I felt, despite some silly fear of being wrong or changing or seeming weak, I had to go to Brother Simon, and I had to say simply, “I’m really sorry for hurting you.”

For me, the monastic choir stalls were a glimpse of what heaven might be like: It might not simply be eternal mercy and justice and peace: It might also be me standing beside a brother I’ve so often failed to love.

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 he 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

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A Monk’s Story 7

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. This one is a little special because I had the great priviledged of being advised and befriended by Father Thomas as well.       Irvin

THE YAT BROTHER & THE RETREAT HOUSE

by Becket

The monastery runs a small retreat house. The monk who ran the retreat house was Father Thomas.

Father Thomas was a true New Orleanean – he was a “Yat” in the finest sense.

A “Yat” is a dialect of New Orleans. And New Orleaneans who speak this dialect are called “Yats” because you’ll commonly hear them say, “Where y’at, dawlin’?”

Saying “Where y’at, dawlin’” is a common Yat greeting.

I always smiled whenever I went into New Orleans and heard two Yat friends greeting one another on the street with “Where y’at, dawlin’?”

Ah, I love New Orleans.

I loved Father Thomas like a brother. He was my monastic brother and he was my priestly father. He took me under his wing and he taught me much.

I used to help him give retreats in the retreat house.

When he first asked me to help him, I knew little about giving retreat conferences. As a teen, I worked in a spiritual youth program called “Search”. My job was to give one “talk” to my peers that weekend about my spiritual life.

But as a monk, and as a 20-something kid, I had to stand before all sorts of people once a week, wearing my black monastic habit, and speaking about a spiritual topic that might be pertinent to a retreatant’s life.

Retreatants would come from all over the country just to get away from the helter-skelter of their lives for a week. Some were in their 20s. A few were in their 30s. Most were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Some were in their 70s.

Retreatants came not to forget about finances, or paying bills, or fears of bad parenting. They came not to forget about their spouse or the struggles of their job.

No, they came to be better parents, betters spouses, better employees. They came to find out what God was calling them to do with their life. They came to better understand their relationship with God and with one another. They came to be better people and better children of God.

I truly loved giving conferences. Father Thomas invited me back almost every week.

Each year Father Thomas developed a new spiritual theme to talk about, and each year I gave a new talk on a spiritual topic. Sometimes I talked about prayer. Other times I talked about the theology of the human body. I tried to make all my conferences accessible, relevant, and meaningful for the retreatants.

At the beginning of each year, I usually read my conference from notes. By the end of the year, my conference would be memorized and I would converse more freely with my audience, sometimes joking with them, sometimes asking them questions, usually engaging in a more Socratic method of spiritual instruction.

I hope I served as a channel of God’s love for them.

Some retreatants felt refueled at the end of the retreat week, and they returned to their lives with a greater sense of spiritual stability.

Other retreatants wept at the end of the retreat week. They did not want to leave the peace that our simple, small monastery gave them. They were the ones I usually saw return year after year.

Giving spiritual conferences became more than just a wonderful avocation of my vocation. It helped me better understand the meaning of our monastic motto: Ora et labora (prayer and work).

Giving spiritual conferences was as much a prayer to God as it was work for my soul.

Father Thomas and I quickly became good friends. He also became my spiritual director. Father Ambrose had been a great spiritual director during one season of my monastic life. But as my habit grew heavier, Father Thomas helped shape me into a better man for my brothers and a better monk for God.

I would go to Father Thomas to confess my fears, my wrongdoings, and all my dark thoughts. He would help me see the difference between sin and bad habit. He helped me see that what I thought was sinning against the Love of God was simply me enabling a bad habit because I’d never learned the discipline to do otherwise.

Father Thomas was a wise and good monk. He had such a delightful laugh whenever he looked at my bad habits mercifully — the way I hoped God would look at them. Father Thomas would laugh and he would say in his Yat accent: “Lawd, Becket, I love ya like a brotha, but you’re such a fool, dawlin’.”

Father Thomas confessed to me also that he loved being a priest more than he loved being a monk. Yes, he loved quiet and prayer and contemplation — the quintessential elements of a monastic vocation. But the prayer and work that fueled his monastic existence was wholly different from the prayer and work that enflamed Father Ambrose’s vocation.

For Father Ambrose, the priesthood of his monastic life focused on the interior dynamic of the brothers in the monastery. For Father Thomas, however, his priesthood focused on how the shockwave of the monastic life affected the surrounding neighborhood. One looked inward, the other looked outward.

Both men helped me become in myself the synthesis of a monk: A man working to be less selfish and more selfless.

Soon I became Father Thomas’ assistant retreat director. Sometimes he would have to go out of town and he would leave me in charge of a retreat week. It was my job to ensure that the retreat weekend went smoothly. Those weeks also gave me a chance to see what Father Thomas meant: His work was different from Father Ambrose’s work, although their prayers were similar. Father Ambrose attended every hour of community prayer. However, Father Thomas’ work required him to be away from many monastic services. I did not see him often at Laudes or Vespers, but he was usually at mass. His brother monks understood that his work required him to show constant hospitality to the guests in the retreat house.

Hospitality has been a monastic staple for over 1500 years.

Father Thomas was always hospitable to me.

After the final prayer of the night, Compline (our hour for bedtime prayer), I would go to the retreat house. The sun would have already set and the stars would have begun to twinkle as I made the short walk from the cloister to the place where I knew Father Thomas would be — in the kitchen.

He and I would sit in the kitchen and we would talk for a little while, sipping red wine. Sometimes we would play cards. We always played a card game called “Hearts.” We would usually invite Brother George and one other brother because the game was better with four players. Sometimes the fourth was Brother Elijah, other times it was Father Basil, or Father Killian, and once it was Abbot Justin.

We were poor men so we drank red wine from a box. Our cheeks would redden with the wine’s effect and we would raise our glasses in a toast, and with large smiles we would salute the wine in Spanish: “Vino de la caja!”

That was one facet of my life for many years, and to this day I remember the good things of those days and nights. The bad times were unfortunate accidents in a large machine, and today they have been washed away by love and nostalgia.

The year after I left the monastery, Father Thomas had a heart attack and died. He was the first true friend I had who died.

His body was nailed into one of our monastic coffins — a simple box that would house a brother’s remains until the Last Day. The large bell in the bell tower was tolled as the brotherhood carried Father Thomas’ coffin to our churchyard, where he was inhumed.

There would be no more conferences like those he and I gave. There would be no more games of hearts or toasts to “Vino de la caja.” There would be no more Yat Brothers – for me at least.

Another brother took over the work of the retreat house.

We were workers in the hive of God. The pollen we gathered were men seeking a deeper relationship with Eternal Love. The sticky honey we made was a good home of spiritual maturation. We worked, we prayed, and we hoped that we would go to heaven to be with one another for all eternity, where we will understand one another better, why we failed one another sometimes, and how we loved one another as best as we could.

I look forward to seeing Father Thomas again one day. I am eager for heaven where I hope he will greet me in his Yat accent: “Lawd, dawlin’, you’ve been such a fool, but I love ya like a brotha. Get in here!

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A Monk’s Story Part 5

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

A Monk’s Story Part 5

by Beckett

English: Roman Catholic monks of the singing o...

THE RINGING OF THE BELLS

One of my favorite jobs in the monastery was ringing the church bells.

The prior assigned that work to junior monks like me.

Each of us took turns ringing the bells one week a month.

There were six bells. Each had a name.

Raphael, Blaze, Laurence, Gabriel, Sixtus, and Angelo.

Each bell had a long rope that stretched from the bell tower all the way down to the church, into the ambulatory – the hidden walkway that reaches around the back of the church, behind the main altar.

The ropes were worn from years of use.

We rang the bells almost every day for prayer.

The bells were a way of communicating. We had sacred silence in the monastery. Ringing the bells told us when prayer began. Tolling the bells told us how prayer was ending.

For ringing, I simply continued pulling on the rope to keep the bell swinging with momentum.

Tolling means I could only let the bell ring once. It was a controlled clang.

We had four kinds of days of prayer. Each kind of day required a different way to ring the bells.

Most days were ordinary. We rang and tolled Gabriel then. He was the middle bell.

We never heard him at the first prayer service, Matins, just before 5 am. That was still a time of silence.

 

Gabriel was first rung with the sunrise, at 6am, for our Laudes service.

 

His note could be heard for about half a mile, all the way down to the Carmelite convent, where gentle sisters were also gathering together for their own morning prayer service.

 

We run Gabriel before mass, before Vespers (evening prayer), and before Compline (night prayer).

 

He was also tolled for our Angelus Prayer, which began after Laudes and Vespers. That was a prayer remembering how the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary, the mother of God.

 

Tolling Gabriel for the Angelus Prayer was tricky. He had to be tolled three times, then three more times, and then three last times. And then he was rung for a full minute.

 

Tolling bells was difficult for me at first.

 

Each bell had its own personality, and this was especially true for tolling.

For the lightest bell, Angelo, you could pull his rope down once, and hold it so that one note tolled out.

But you could not do that with Gabriel. He was too heavy. I had to pull his rope down just enough so that the hammer in the bell was about to strike a note, and then I’d release him, so that his bell tolled on the upswing. But then I had to quickly grab the rope again, to stop the bell from swinging back, preventing any further notes from knelling.

Tolling was an important aspect of monastic work.

Another kind of prayer day was memorials. That’s when we remembered an important event in the church’s history, such as the death of John the Baptist. On those days we’d ring two bells.

And after Laudes and Vespers, we’d toll just Gabriel again.

Fewer than ordinary days and memorial days were feasts. But they were more celebratory. Those were days when we remembered important events that shaped our relationship with God, such as Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.

On those days I’d ring three bells. This meant that I would have to get another monk to help me. Sometimes I couldn’t find another brother. Trying to ring three bells at once was challenging, but it was possible, albeit awkward. I’d have to pull the rope of the two lighter bells in one hand while pulling the rope of the heavier bell in the other.

Fewest of the four prayer days were solemnities. They were the most important celebrations of our year. On those days, we remembered events that we believed changed the course of human history, such as Christmas and Easter.

On those days, all six bells were rung.

I had to get five other brothers to help me, and sometimes we had to make do with only four.

Each kind of day – ordinary, memorial, festal, and solemn – had a special sequence for the ringing of the bells.

Most days I’d ring Gabriel for a minute or so, while the monks walked in statio from the cloister to the church. I’d ring until they processed through the church and took their place in choir.

On festal days I’d ring the bells in a particular sequence for about five minutes. The sequence began with all three bells ringing for a minute. Then each bell was rung alone for a minute. Next two bells were rung together for the last minute. Finally all the bells were rung together.

Solemn days were wonderful! For mass, all six bells had to be rung for 15 minutes. This sequence began with all six bells ringing together for five minutes. Then each bell had a turn alone for a minute. Some bells were coupled together for a few minutes. At last, when the celebration was about to begin, all the bells had to be rung together.

The noise was grand, especially on the Easter Vigil, which began at 10pm and finished at 2am.

Before then, we had 40 days of Lent. We didn’t ring bells during that time because bells were considered celebratory instruments, and for us Lent was supposed to have greater gravitas.

Instead of ringing bells we had what we called a “clacker.” It was a wooden instrument with a handle that had to be cranked around, like an organ grinder. Yes, it made a *clacking* noise. It was penitentially loud.

We were glad when Lent finished for many reasons, Easter being principal, of course, but also because we put the clacker aside.

At the Easter Vigil, all six bells were rung for the first time after 40 days. It was a welcomed sound. We were celebrating the fact that we weren’t afraid of death any more because we believed that Jesus defeated it by rising from his tomb. All six bells announced our joy.

The bell ringing commenced two hours after the service began, right at the stroke of midnight.

We rang all six bells for almost ten minutes.

The bells could be heard for miles around. Many families lived down the road from the abbey. I never heard of any neighbor complaining.

Easter was beautiful because we celebrated life from death.

But funerals were equally important.

Only one bell could be heard at our requiems, Raphael, the largest.

We seldom rang him. He was seldom heard.

Most often we rang him with his five brothers, such as during Easter.

He was so heavy that, if you held on to his rope, he would pull you up into the air, which was often the case when it was time for the bells to silence.

I had to put all my weight into stopping his momentum. He could lift me five feet up.

But Raphael was never rung for the monk’s requiem: He was tolled.

Tolling him was the most challenging task. But I believe it was also the most important.

Like Gabriel, I had to pull Raphael down to the point where he was about to make a sound, and then I let go of his rope, so that the bell tolled on the up swing.

You see: Only one other noise preceded Raphael’s tolling: It was the noise of a hammer nailing the deceased brother into his coffin.

Our coffins were simply wooden boxes. The lower half of the brother was always nailed up. The upper half was exposed for the rest of us to view.

Once our requiem ended, the upper half was nailed closed. The hammer striking the head of the nail was the only sound in the church.

Some brothers couldn’t stand that noise. It sent them running from the church in tears.

So tolling Raphael the right way was important. It was the last celebratory noise we’d make for that deceased brother.

It was the last send off. It told everyone within earshot: Here is a brother who meant something to us. Here is a brother who did his best. Here is a brother we loved and served and helped grow closer to God. Here is a brother who acted as a channel of God’s love for us.

Several brother monks would carry his coffin from our church to our churchyard, where a grave had already been dug.

For Brother Gabriel’s funeral, I worked hard to toll Raphael just right.

It was my way to say goodbye, and ask forgiveness for the times I failed him.

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A Monk’s Story Part 2

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

A Monk’s Story Part 2

by Becket

I am continually humbled that some of you are interested in my monastic life. Some have asked that I continue with my story. I still feel awkward doing this (forgive me), but I will give it a go.

I left off talking about adjusting to the Gregorian chant. Monastic life was a mystical adjustment altogether.

My first year in the monastery was called the novitiate. I was a novice. (Still am a novice in many ways.)

Daily life was similar to a normal monk in solemn vows. We all worked together. We all prayed together.

In the beginning the work I did was mostly cleaning: Kitchen, bathrooms, church, and abbey. Sweeping, mopping, polishing, the usual sprucing.

I also worked in the bakery two days a week. One of the monastery’s charitable works was baking bread for the inner city of New Orleans, then

Becket, Me, Bede and George after a morning at the bakery.

Becket, Me, Bede and George after a morning at the bakery. (several years ago)

delivering it to soup kitchens. In the summer we awoke at 2 am to bake bread. We finished by noon, before the Louisiana heat struck. We baked over 800 loafs a day.

Fr. Augustine was chief baker. He taught me how to bake all kinds of delicious breads. Sometimes he and I would bake pizza for the monks for lunch, a kind treat for them.

One night a week was special. The monastery had an infirmary, where sick and dying monks ended up. One night a week, I would keep watch over the infirmary, staying up all night, being attentive to the needs of the infirmed.

An old priest was there, Fr. Daniel. He was so gentle, especially toward the end, when he passed away the night before I became a monk. I spent the year of my novitiate trying to make him comfortable. But he didn’t need much. His prayer life had given him faith that he would be in eternal rest.

All our work was not beyond the scope of our prayer life. Everything we did – be it cleaning, baking bread, or watching the infirmary – had to be done with a prayerful spirit. We tried to depend on God’s help for everything, especially the work of our hands.

But not all prayer revolved around work. We also had community prayer.

All the monks would gather into the church five times a day for five routine prayers: Matins, Lauds, Mass, Vespers, and Compline.

Matins is a predawn prayer (5am). Lauds is Morning Prayer (6am). Mass was at noon. Vespers is evening prayer (5pm). Compline is night prayer, right before bed (7pm).

During community prayer, the monks divided into two groups: Choir One and Choir Two. Choir one was on the left side of the church; Choir Two on the right; both groups facing one another.

Then the two choirs of monks would take turns chanting the psalms and other biblical texts, each choir chanting a stanza. We chanted all 150 psalms in a month’s time – like the early monks from the 5th century.

Our day began with prayer. Our day ended with prayer. Chanting biblical words bookended our daily work.

Work and prayer. It was a life of labor and love. It was a life of simplicity.

More to come………..

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