Though, which is more civilized, the city of Boston or the abbey of Regina Laudis? I’ll let you mull over that one.
Oh yeah, by the way, I just spent four of the past five days (excluding today) at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, OSB, in Bethlehem, CT, thus the absence of posts the past few days. I haven’t fallen off the radar that quickly!
Background: my friend Emma O’Donnell is good friends with the ladies of Regina Laudis, who follow the rule of St. Benedict. She had been urging me to visit the place for the past, oh, year or so. Having some free time over Christmas vacation, I decided to take advantage of the invitation, offered after I wrote them a letter a month in advance asking for it. My kind of gals – pen and paper communication.
After hitching a ride with the generous Mr. Joseph Laramie, I arrived at the Abbey Thursday afternoon and settled into the cozy wood-built St. Joseph’s house, the home to many male guests throughout the past few decades. The visit began with the hours of Sext and None at the sisters’ small chapel, only a few minute walk up the hill. Unsurprisingly, the chanted Benedictine office, in Latin with Gregorian notation (I assume Gregorian, I could be wrong), was quite beautiful. I still have some of the tones stuck in my head. One can tell the sisters really give it their all in this prayer. As Emma says, it’s what they do.
Once prayer ended, my fellow men and I enjoyed a delicious meal of crawdad e tu fe, which I heartily enjoyed. Happy Epiphany indeed! (The sisters celebrate it on the traditional day of the 6th, which I enjoyed.) At this and many meals throughout the rest of the weekend, I got to meet a wide cast of characters, including the priest in residence, Fr. Louie, one of the cheese-making interns, David, an upright bass player and dry wit, Garold, and seminarian for Springfield MA, James. Brother Kevin, who lives at the Abbey, also joined us, as did Joe and Michael Magree from BC. Wonderful and sort of amazing to see how the abbey can bring so many different people together from so many different places, especially considering Garold is from Illinois!
Following lunch, I got my first experience of the work side of ora et labora. The men joined the female interns and a few other volunteers to move chairs to the large church in preparation for a concert to be held on Sunday. It was a pleasure to spend some time with the ladies of the abbey, religious or otherwise – vocations are complementary, after all! After work, the sisters sang Vespers, especially solemn due to the major feast of the day, which also meant we got some Benediction. Dinner followed, along with a nice fireside chat before retiring.
The next few days, not shockingly, followed a regular schedule of prayer, work, food, and relaxation. I checked out a wonderful creche the sisters have on display – it’s surely over 50 pieces large and has some of the best depictions of the Holy Family I have seen. Friday and Saturday I had the pleasure of – get ready for it, Sons – splitting wood. Yes, I did feel a little bit more of a man afterwards (and yes, my hands hurt). A wonderful snowfall began mid-afternoon and lasted through the evening, which made walking around after Vespers to dinner that much more enjoyable (though the snow shoveling the next day was less so). I had ample time to do some pleasure reading. Oh yeah, and I got to hear the Mass chanted, in Latin, ad Orientem, with all the propers sung beautifully by the sisters. Doesn’t get much better than that!
Finally, Sunday brought the concert, themed the “Tree of Life”. It was executed wonderfully. Around 300 people showed up for the show, many friends of the Abbey in some shape or form. I had the pleasure of directing cars where to park in the chilly cold before heading up to enjoy the tunes myself. The show featured friends Michael and Emma playing a complex Bach piece on piano and violin, respectively, which elicited much applause from the author. A barbershop quartet of seminarians from the Theological College in DC, perhaps ironically entitled Sixtus, sang – truly performed – some Christmas carols; a gospel group which was oddly similar to what the BC campus ministry Masses try to sound like (it even featured a large African American man jollily playing the keyboard… Meyer Chambers anyone?); a… sort of odd hippie group, featuring bongo and cooly-played tambourine; and a large choir that belted out an Ave Maria or two. Oh yeah, and a few of the sisters read some lessons, including the famous ex-actress Mother Dolores Hart with a stirring reading from Revelation. Of course the highlight was the last piece played, a modern tango written by another man but arranged by Garold himself. It was beautifully complex and rich instrumentation, including upright and electric bass, keys, organ (it still rings in my ears), violin, and the soprano singing of one the sisters. If I remember the name of the piece, I’ll post it here. Following the reception after the concert, Emma Michael and I headed home to rest after a surprisingly busy weekend!
All in all, my time at the Abbey was well spent. It was good to see how a community can still be more or less self-sustaining in a modern context. Hearing the Office and the Mass chanted in Latin over a period of four days, along with the work, really began to draw me into the rhythm of the life lived at the Abbey – though surely there’s a much deeper rhythm to experience the longer one stays there. Again, it was a joy to meet so many people from so many different places, all the way from DC to Brooklyn to Illinois, and find them all so attracted to the Abbey. Although I don’t think living at such a place is for me, I have mad respect for those who do. Living in the hectic, breakneck pace of ordinary “civilization” (again, ponder the comparison), I think we can all take a lesson from the groundedness of the sisters’ life at Regina Laudis. Again, the paradox – people who are so often stereotyped as ethereal and disconnected are actually some of the most grounded, down to earth people I’ve met lately. Also, it was incredible to learn of the diversity of the ladies in residence there – skills including everything from movie acting to law to medicine to cheese-making to biology to singing. Seeing is believing.
Here’s hoping I can make another visit before my time in Boston is up!
Finally, on an unrelated note, let me say: congrats to the Seahawks, who surely are the first team with a losing record to win a playoff game, and against the defending champs (condolances, Ryan Boudreau), no less, though they lost to the Browns, too, so who is really surprised? Here’s to hoping they become the second team with a losing record to win a playoff game – they’re still only 8-9.