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Monks are supposed to represent the “prophetic” dimension of Christ's church. I keep reading that. Am I a prophet? Are my brothers here at New Melleray prophets? Last night, after Compline, I was sitting in the sun room of the infirmary enjoying the lights of the especially nice Christmas tree Paul Andrew set up this year, when Fr. Bede came in, stopped in the middle of the room, noticed me, and turning, started inching his way toward me, peering at me intently . . .
Everything about Christmas Midnight Mass is glorious, mysterious, and unsettling. It is unsettling for a monk to have his normal schedule completely blown to smithereens by getting up at 11:30 at night. It is unsettling to walk into church, and find a hundred men women and children sitting there facing the altar with quiet expectancy – and I mean quiet. It is amazing to me that one hundred people can be together in a room and not make a sound.
Lying awake on my bed, recently, at about two in the morning, I was unable to go back to sleep and lay there marveling at the pre-dawn stillness of a Trappist monastery. The magic of the stillness never wears off, because it has the effect of awakening your spirit to an inner stillness that is, well . . . infinite. Suddenly, I had an awareness of movement. I didn't hear anything exactly, but something alive and very close to me was stirring.
Small crowd at mass this morning. Even some of our most devoted regulars are not there. Icy conditions on the roads this morning are disrupting even the most basic daily routines of the monks and our neighbors. It's really, really, cold. I desperately crave some fresh air and an opportunity to stretch my legs. After mass, I make my way out past the deck behind the infirmary toward the Quarry Field, a vast expanse of clean snow, brilliant under a sun heralding the new day.
What is the Christmas season without shopping? Ask a monk and he'll tell you it's just thirty days spent waiting for Christmas. Advent can be an intense time in the cloister. That is largely because of the approach of Midnight Mass, one of the great liturgical events of the year. At New Melleray, we work hard at insuring that the liturgy is well-executed. There is a pretty high standard set as regards the quality of reading, singing, and presiding at eucharist.
In the monastery it's Advent, but out there, it's Christmas, the time of year when newspaper journalists tend to swoop down for a closer look at the monks and our unusual way of life. Does super-secular America feel a touch of apprehension as the mysterious night approaches? Is that why, every December, the newspaper journalists show up? By the time they arrive, we're expecting them. One of the monks cries: “In-coming!”, and we all dive into our fox-holes.
On a certain day God springs on the world a surprise so wondrously strange it scarcely registers as a ripple in our awareness. So quiet, so hidden, is this miracle given to a world full of noise that you almost have to be in a monastery to notice it. The surprise is Mary's Immaculate Conception, and today is the day the church celebrates it. Unfortunately, the boiler kicked in late this morning and the church was freezing when we got up at 3:00 a.m. for Vigils.
Well, the results are in. Bro. Stanislaus has come through the mid-term community evaluation, and . . . he's still here. Not that I had any real doubts about him being approved. Even so, he is a Junior and I am the Junior Director responsible for accompanying him through three years of formation, so the process had both of us on pins and needles for a few days.
It's a little after four in the morning on the fifth day of Advent. The monks just finished Vigils, the first prayer service of the day, and at the end, stood in the dark church as the antiphon was intoned: “Come Lord Jesus – O co . . . !” Brother Kevin's voice suddenly broke. (Ever try getting up at 3:00 in the morning and singing a song for thirty people?) Casting a glance in his direction, I found myself looking at Fr. Daniel's empty chair in choir.