The week of January 7 looked good on my calendar for a visit to the monastery. Sunday and Monday were the last two days of Christmastide in the church calendar — Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord. Then “Ordinary Time” resumes. My own calendar was open — once I rescheduled a visit to bring Communion to a shut-in — until a meeting of the Task Force Against Discrimination on Thursday evening. The guest master said my dates were fine (and I’m “always welcome”), and in fact I was the only guest after Monday morning.
Of course, the monastery was still decorated for Christmas when I got there Sunday afternoon: immense Christmas tree in the chapter room (one of the older monks said it was their best ever), nativity set with fairly small figurines in the church. wreaths in windows and on pillars, plants in front of some statues in corridors, tables pushed together in the center of the refectory instead of along the sides. I have pictures, and if I can figure out how to upload them, I’ll add a few.
I brought along a book titled “A Retreat with Fr. Cedric,” by Father Cedric Pisegna, C.P, who had given a mission at my parish in October. It was very down to earth and easy to read. It identified various areas where people might need to change, explored possible reasons for the problems and steps toward improvement. Somewhat to my surprise, I got through the 219 pages with ease, and I gained some good insights and ideas. Now all I have to do is follow through.
As usual, I also brought some “secular” reading for breaks between the retreat book. This time it was a book on medieval political philosophy by Francis Oakley, “Empty Bottles of Gentilism.” It is the first of three volumes in which he develops the point that the middle ages saw significant development of the idea of consent of the governed limiting the power of kings. The Renaissance didn’t recapture the idea democracy full-blown from the Greeks and Romans. I had already read most of it as my dinnertime “table reading” at home.
One of the monks mentioned at dinner on Sunday evening that the freshmen were being required to read “Democracy in America in their introductory humanities course. It’s about time I read it myself, so I went to the college bookstore to buy it, but it wasn’t there. It turns out they only read certain chapters, not the whole book. But while I was looking among the authors with names beginning “To,” I noticed “The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Short Stories,” by Tolstoy, and bought it. There was enough time for me to read the main story, as well as to complete the retreat book and finish the one by Oakley.
Although I’m usually awake at midnight, at the monastery I’m usually in bed by 10:00. Then I get up at about 5:00 and am ready for the first prayers of the day — mostly psalms, recited and chanted — a service that runs from 6:00 to 6:45 or so. On this visit, I read and reflected on my retreat book until breakfast (7:30), then more retreat and shave before Mass at 6:30. During the day, I’d spend some more time on retreat, as well as reading my other books and looking at the newspapers in the chapter room. Midday Prayer and lunch were at noon. At “haustus” (snack time in mid-afternoon) there were usually a couple of monks in the refectory to chat with. Vespers was at 5:30, followed by dinner, recreation (community members chatting, reading newspapers, playing bridge, etc.). Compline was at 7:05, and then I’d do more reading until I felt sleepy.
The book being read at meals was “Leonardo da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson. It has been a best seller,and the portions that were read while I was there, dealing with the painting of The Last Supper” and Leonardo’s return to Florence, were interesting enough. Still, I’m not so fascinated that I’d buy the book in order to read the rest, as I did with Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer and “The Quartet,” by Joseph Ellis, after I had heard sections of each on previous visits. Since the dinners on Sunday and Monday were festive, the reading wasn’t done on those evenings, dinner flowed into recreation, and after compline those days we cleaned the dishes from dinner. It’s really fun to pitch in with all the monks — from the abbot through the novice — in the kitchen.
At recreation on Tuesday evening, the abbot introduced me to cribbage. It’s very different from any other game I know, and the scoring is amazingly complex. The next evening, there was an empty seat at the bridge table, so I played, and I think I did adequately.
In order to get to my meeting on Thursday evening, I had to leave by 5:15, which meant I couldn’t stay for Vespers, much less dinner and recreation. Finally it occurred to me that it would be better to drive home in daylight and before rush hour, so I was on the road about 1:00 and home by 2:30.