Six Days at the Monastery – July 2018

My visit to St. Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire — from Sunday afternoon, July 8, through Saturday afternoon, July 14 — had several purposes:

  1. Be present for the solemn monastic profession (final vows) of Brother Ignatius Membrino, O.S.B. The abbot had introduced us when I was visiting in late June, 2014, and Ignatius was a novice about to take simple (temporary) vows. I returned for that vow-taking in early July.
  2. Go on retreat, away from the internet and my usual routine. I brought the book Glorious Holy Spirit, by Fr. Cedric Pisegna, C.P., to read and reflect on. It has sixteen chapters, so I could complete by reading the first chapter on Sunday evening and three every day through Friday. I had a second book, World without End, based on interviews by a Belgian television host with Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. I had begun it on my trip to Colorado in April and though it would be good to dip into at times when I wasn’t reading Fr. Pisenga’s book.
  3. See the novice Bro. Aloysius, O.S.B. take his simple vows and give him an icon of St. Aloysius.
  4. Celebrate the Feast of St. Benedict, July 11, at the monastery.
  5. Visit with the monks.
  6. Prepare for the homily I was scheduled to deliver on July 15 at 7:30 a.m. Mass.

Beyond these there were a couple of bonuses which I hadn’t known about in advance.

  1. Four jubilees were celebrated on Tuesday, July 10. Two of the monks had taken their simple vows 70 years ago, July 2, 1948: Fr. Cecil Donahue, O.S.B., and Bishop Joseph Gerry, O.S.B. (Bishop Joseph is a former abbot of the monastery and was bishop of Portland, Maine, from 1989 until 2004.) Brother Isaac Murphy, O.S.B., professed simple vows 25 years ago, in 1883. Fr. Mathias Durette, O.S.B., prior of the monastery, was ordained a priest in 1993. The four jubilees were honored at Mass that morning at 11:00, followed by a reception and linch in the student center.
  2. On St. Benedict’s Day, the community’s postulant, Louis Franciose, was received as a novice, clothed with a monastic habit, and given the name Basil. The reception took place in the chapter room of the monastery in a private ceremony, which was followed by a special lunch in the courtyard.

So it was a very full week.

As it happened, Bro. Aloysius had professed his vows on Saturday, July 7, so I missed that. I was able to give him the icon after Compline (night prayer) on Sunday, while we all were doing the dishes from dinner. He gave me a very kind thank you note and he told me he had hung it on the wall above his bed.

The daily schedule gave periods of under an hour between Lauds and breakfast, and between breakfast and Mass. There was over two hours between Mass and Midday Prayer (followed by lunch) and between lunch and Vespers. After Compline, I could go to bed whenever I wanted, so had all the time I needed for reading. I read a chapter of Fr. Cedric’s book during each of those longer periods. I used the shorter periods, as well as the ample free time in morning and afternoon for my other books. In addition to my “retreat books,” I had brought a couple of scripture commentaries to help me prepare my homily, and a couple of “secular” books for relaxation. I only looked at one — A Man Called Intrepid, by William Stevenson, which I had on Kindle and had nearly finished — and I finished it toward the end of my visit. I also walked around campus several times, taking pictures and exploring the new student center.

In midafternoon there is a custom called Haustus (Latin for ‘”draught”). Monks and guests can drop in to the refectory, have a snack, and chat. The novices and junior monks are frequently there, a couple of the senior monks come by sometimes, but others have jobs in the college and don’t get there. It was a nice chance to spend some time with the guys who came.

Between dinner and Compline there is a period of “recreation” during which the monks gather in the chapter room and converse, read newspapers, play games, etc. I kibbitzed at the bridge table several evenings and played when two of the regulars (Abbot Mark, Bishop Joseph, Fathers Cecil, Peter, and, if needed, Anselm) were missing.

Except at “festive” meals (Sunday evening, big feasts like St. Benedict’s day, and celebrations like the receptions for the jubilarians and Bro. Ignatius) meals are taken in silence, with a monk reading to the rest. While I was there, they finished a book about the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro with the loss of the entire crew of 33: Into the Raging Sea, by Rachel Slade. Then they began Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Bret Baier, about Reagan’s visit to the Soviet Union in May, 1988. The beginning was so interesting that I got the book for my Kindle.

It was a pleasant stay. The biggest point I got from my retreat reflections was that I need to stop procrastinating and do things. At this point, I’m thinking of having a brief visit in Advent — maybe two or three days in the second week of December, depending on what’s happening here in the parish.


Four Days at the Monastery — Winter 2018

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.





Lunch with College Classmates and Their Wives

From time to time I’ve gotten together with a couple of college classmates, Dan and John, and their wives for dinner. Last Saturday, we got together for lunch. Another classmate, John B, and his wife also joined us. It was part of a fairly busy day. I had told them that I’d have to leave by 3:00 so I could get home in time to attend my parish’s “Mass of Remembrance” and the unrelated dinner that would follow it. Lunch was to be at 1:00 at a harbor side seafood restaurant in Boston, about 45 minutes’ drive from my home. After all that was planned, a fellow parishioner asked me to meet him in the morning to tell him what the scripture scholar, who comes to our parish a couple of times a year, had said in the last lecture of a recent three lecture series. That get together lasted from 10:00 to 11:30.

John and Maureen were there when I arrived a couple of minutes before 1:00, and Dan and Carolyn arrived soon after. John B and Winnie got delayed by traffic coming up from the Cape, but were there by 20 past. I followed John’s example and had a bloody mary. As usual, we talked for a while, but owing to my time constraints we had our orders in by 1:45. I decided on the fish in a bag because it had mushrooms. The bag turned out to be cellophane, and the fish was steamed in it. It was brought to the table opened. It was good, maybe not the best fish ever, but enjoyable.

The conversation was pleasant. Despite Maureen’s rule of No Politics, imposed after an evening in which we got into a fairly heated argument, this time we managed to get in a few brief exchanges about the election and the President-elect. I think we all agree that Trump isn’t fit for the job, and much will depend on the people he selects and listens to. There was also a lot of talk about family (John and Maureen’s extended family is fairly large) and some about travel. At one point a couple of books were mentioned, and I took the opportunity to give a strong recommendation for Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, about James A. Garfield. As soon as I mentioned it, John B. chimed in (see what I did there?*) with an enthusiastic second to my suggestion. He then gave me a couple of other titles — one by Millard — that he thought I’d like. Sometimes there was one conversation going on, sometimes several smaller ones.

It was a fairly pricey afternoon. We decided to split the tab equally, and Dan took charge of the check. It think he included the tax in figuring the tip, and rounded up rather generously, with the result that the tip was about 28% of the total and 37% of the pre-tax amount. Anyway, we paid $50 per person. Parking in the garage was another $29 (The garage at the subway station nearest my home charges $5.) But it was worth it: I can spend as much on a dinner alone, and this was maintaining friendships.

I had a couple of apprehensions beforehand. One is that typically the conversation can go on almost endlessly (the waitress has to come back maybe four times before people decide to order), and that would have been a problem for my getting home in time for the Mass. But they took care of that. The other is that sometimes the conversation includes long stretches of Dan and John exchanging news about classmates with whom I was not acquainted, or only barely so, That makes for a pretty boring time. But this time there was little, if any of that. So it worked out well, and I was home in good time.

*In college, John B was a member of the a cappella octet called The Chimes. I didn’t think of the play on words until after I had written “chimed in.”

Five Days at the Monastery — Beyond the Schedule

It’s now six weeks since I arrived at the monastery, and over five since I came back home, so I’d better get to this before I forget everything.

The evening I got there, the monks had a buffet dinner, cooked by one of the monks, in the Chapter Room, instead of the everyday dinner in silence with table reading. This is the usual practice on Sunday evenings. It gave me an opportunity to tell the junior monk who had tweeted a recommendation of Destiny of the Republic that I had bought the book and begun to read it. He told me had come across it one day browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

The next day at haustus (snack time in mid-afternoon) some monks were talking about a student at the college, Louis, who was spending the weekend with the Franciscans exploring whether he might want to join them. Naturally, they would rather see him join the monastery. As it happened, since the day was a holiday, the abbot chose to have dinner in the Chapter Room again. Unexpectedly, Louis was at Vespers. Since the campus eateries were closed for the holiday, the abbot invited him to join us in the Chapter Room, and he accepted. It almost looked at times as if some of the monks were putting the “full court press” on him to get him to consider the monastery. Well, I suppose all religious orders can always use new members, but the abbey needs to maintain numbers to be an effective presence in the college. It happens that last summer one of the two junior monks who had taken temporary vows in 2014 had decided to leave, so now they only have two people “in formation,” the remaining junior and a novice who was admitted last January. I hope Louis will ultimately decide to join there. I don’t know him, so I can’t be sure he belongs, but the monks who do know him seem to think he’d be a good fit.

One thing I enjoy about the Chapter Room meals (held outdoors in the cloister in warm weather) is that afterwards, the monks clean the dishes and utensils, because the regular kitchen employees get the evening off. It’s fun, but it’s also impressive to see everybody, from the 80+ year old retired bishop of Portland to the novice, chipping in to do the work. I’ve noticed that other guests don’t join, but I go to the monastery to visit the monks as well as for private benefit, so I’m happy for the additional opportunity to spend time with them.

On Tuesday, when the campus bookstore reopened, I went to get some cough drops and something or other else. As I entered, the clerk cheerfully called out, “Happy Monday,” to which I replied, “or Tuesday, as the case may be.” After I had made my purchases and was walking away, I thought of a pun and went back and told her that “Tuesdays after a holiday can feel mundane.” She and a customer got a nice chuckle from it.

One day I went out to the cemetery. I know who most of the monks buried there are, since they were monks when I was there in the 60’s. Another day, I asked the abbot about visiting Fr. William in the nursing home. He wanted to go, but there were meetings of the College trustees that week, and he ended up not having a chance to go see Fr. William.

I had planned to leave on Friday afternoon in time to get home before dark. But then I noticed on the bulletin board that the Mass on Friday (at 5:15 because college was in session) would be for all the deceased monks of the abbey and its sister abbeys of the American-Cassinese Congregation of monasteries. With that added incentive, I decided to stay for the Mass, and the following dinner, recreation and Vespers. Leaving the Chapter Room a the end of recreation, I tried to say good bye to the junior and the novice, but couldn’t get to them.

As we were all walking down the corridor toward the church, Father Peter twice urged me to visit again soon. For services in the church, the monks file in led by the juniors, with the abbot at the end of the procession. Leaving, the order is reversed, beginning with abbot, and ending with the most junior. After they’ve all left, the guests leave. I was pleasantly surprised at the end of Vespers on Friday to find that the junior monk and the novice had stopped at the door into the corridor to say good bye. Then, a little bit farther on, the abbot was waiting to bid me good bye.

It had been a very pleasant visit, and I’m looking forward to going back in the not-too-distant future. I’m trying to remember the big points I took from the book I had found in my room. I had thought I might set aside some time each day to continue reading the Pirenne book, the follow-up by Scott, and then other books, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, when I finished Destiny of the Republic as my dinnertime book, I turned to the Pirenne, which is better organized in the final chapter than in the earlier ones. One change which has continued is that I’ve expanded my usual morning prayers into something more like the Vigils they pray at the monastery at the beginning of the day. It’s interesting that it took me three yearly visits to be motivated to do that. “Third time never fails.” But seriously, it seems that sometimes it takes several exposures for something to sink in.

Five Days at the Monastery

Background: For about 2 1/2 years in the 1960’s I was at St. Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire as a prospective monk, in a status they called “scholastic.” Now the category which most nearly corresponds to it is “postulant.” But scholastics lived in an apartment on the college campus, and joined the monks for some prayer and meals, whereas postulants live in the monastery and participate in everything.


Anyway, I eventually left, but I’ve continued to hold good memories and warm feelings from my time there, and in recent years I’ve begun to visit regularly, staying as a guest in the monastery. At this point there are about five active monks whom I knew as monks or college students  back in the 60’s.


From the evening of October 9 through the 14th I was there for a visit. The daily routine of prayer and meals, which I followed, begins with Vigils at 6:00 a.m., lasting about 45 minutes. Breakfast is at 7:25. On non-school days, Mass is at 8:30, Daytime prayer at 12:00, followed by Lunch, Vespers at 5:35, followed by Dinner and Recreation, with Compline at 7:05. On school days, Mass at 5:15 takes the place of Vespers, and Vespers replaces Compline, which is then prayed privately.


Usually, during lunch and dinner, there is reading, first briefly from scripture and the Rule of St. Benedict, then, for most of the meal, from a “normal” book. While I was there the reading was from The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, by Joseph J. Ellis. It was interesting to listen to, and, despite the author’s clear sympathy for continuing centralization and disdain for “original intent,” I’ll probably buy the book so I can get the rest of the story as he tells it. If so, this will be the second time in three years that I’ve bought the book being read during my visit. In 2014, I heard readings from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas, and bought it for myself.


These visits (2014 and 15 and this year) serve several purposes. They function as a retreat, as I focus on a spiritual book I’ve brought to read. They give me a chance to visit with old and new friends. They give me a break from the internet, since I don’t have anything to use to get on line. One reason it’s so long since I’ve blogged here is that I’ve been catching up. In addition, there have been some changes to my daily routine inspired by the visit. (Beyond that, I’ve just been busy.)


In the times between prayer, meals, and recreation, I do a fair amount of reading, both from spiritual books and from other books I bring to read. This year, I brought several small books on the Jubilee Year of Mercy which Pope Francis proclaimed for this year. I finished Celebrating Mercy (on incorporating the jubilee into liturgical actions), read Parables of Mercy, and began Psalms of Mercy. I also found in my room a small book titled A God Who Acts: Recognizing the Hand of God in Suffering and Failure, by Harry Blamires. Even though I don’t think of myself as having suffered or failed very much, i figured I’d see what it had to say. There sere some good points. One is that if we’re attempting something good but don’t succeed, it can simply be that God’s providence needs something else. Another is that when we’re grateful for God’s gifts, it’s not enough just to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you:” God’s gifts are given to us to be used for his purpose.


For my “secular” reading, I had brought a tandem of recent acquisitions: Mohammed and Charlemagne, by Henri Pirenne, published in 1937, and Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, by Emmet Scott, published in 2012. Interspersed with my spiritual reading and other doings, I read a bit more than half of the Pirenne book. He argues that Roman civilization didn’t end in the West with the barbarian invasions, with such events as the raids of Atilla or the death of the last western emperor in 476. He presents considerable evidence that Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, and other tribes who settled within the boundaries of the empire. adopted the culture and way of life of Rome, looking to Constantinople as thhe locus of supreme political authority. In his view, it was the Islamic conquest of much of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Iberia which cut off contact between East and West and caused the break with classical civilization which is called the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, Pirenne had only completed his first draft of the book at the time of his death, and, as his son explains, it was his habit to rework such drafts extensively before publishing the book. Although his thesis was important enough to justify the book’s publication, the book suffers from not having had the author’s revision. It seems very disorganized. To me it reads like a succession of note cards collected under various headings. It jumps around from events out of chronological sequence, and I found it difficult going. But I did get through the first part, dealing with the period before the Saracen conquests, and read into the second part, getting the description of the Islamic conquests, with the consequences still to be spelled out.


This is probably long enough for one post. I’ll try to post soon with more: other things I did, interactions with various monks, and the aftermath since I came home.