A Day on the Holy Mountain of Norcia

The first bell rings at a quarter past three in the morning, the lights in the dormitory turn on and I along with all the brothers rise from bed then fall to my knees to offer the first moments of the day to God in prayer. Then I rush to make the bed and change into choir habit before the Office of Vigils begins at three thirty.

Vigils is the longest and most beautiful of the hours of the Divine Office which we sing every day. It contains at least fourteen psalms with hymns, responsories, and long readings from scripture and the Church Fathers on feast days. Only occasionally  does it last less than an hour; an hour spent in a half-lit chapel surrounded by the darkness and silence of night. After Vigils, I head to the refectory for a quick cup of coffee and then to the scriptorium for the morning time of lectio divina.

(In the photo: a desk in our monastic scriptorium.)


At six, the I close the book, blow out the candle, and return to the chapel for the Office of Lauds. Like all our prayers, we sing Lauds in Latin according to the ancient order laid down by St. Benedict in the Holy Rule and using the Gregorian melodies. We pass these forty minutes with the exact same words and nearly the same melodies that have formed the souls of Benedictines since the sixth century. At the end of the office the monks all kneel as the large bell in the tower peals out for the Angelus after which we process out of choir and the priest monks celebrate their private Masses at the side altars while the brothers serve.

After the priests have made their thanksgivings, the community chants the Office of Prime. Until this point, around eight in the morning, the whole community keeps strict silence. Prime is the transition point from the night silence to the mitigated day silence. It is followed by prayers in the Chapter room, so called because this is where the superior comments on the chapter of the Holy Rule that is read each day. Though often as not these days, the superiors are travelling to raise money to build a permanent monastery to take the place of the temporary buildings we use now.

(In the photo: The 16th century ruins we are currently rebuilding beside the two temporary structures in which we live.)


After Chapter, I head to the kitchen to get started preparing the day's meal. I've served as head cook and kitchen master since around the time of my vows last fall. This means buying the groceries, planning the menu, supervising the novices who assist, and making the food. Most of the time there are other odd jobs to be done at this time too, and other brothers are out feeding the animals, tending the garden, helping with construction, and any number of other duties But we can only just get started, because at ten o'clock the bell will call us back to the chapel for the Office of Terce and the Conventual High Mass.

(In the photo: Fr. Subprior sings the Gospel at High Mass for the first Sunday of Advent.)

 

Everything in our monastic life flows from and returns to the Holy Sacrifice surrounded with all the beauty and reverence that Catholic tradition has passed on to us. The hour or so that we spend at Conventual Mass every day always seems so brief. Often, as the priest is praying the Last Gospel, I half expect him to start again with the prayers at the foot of the altar, but I'm always disappointed. Thankfully, on several days of the year we sing two Conventual Masses, and sometimes three!

(In the photo: the schola sings Gregorian chant at Holy Mass.)


After silent prayer of thanksgiving, the bell rings and sends us off to our work. For me, it's back to the kitchen until Sext and the midday Angelus at around one o'clock. Then a half-hour's siesta and the final touches to the one meal of the day. A little before three we pray the Office of None and then, after another chanted prayer of blessing in the refectory, we take our daily meal.

We eat our meatless meal in silence as one of the brothers reads aloud from a book of history or spirituality. After the meal, he reads the Gospel of tomorrow's Mass then we rise and sing our thanksgiving to God, processing to the chapel chanting psalms.

Once I've finished cleaning up the kitchen, I have a little time for study. We take correspondence courses in theology as part of our formation and there's always more to read than time to read it in. After I've taken in as much of St. Thomas or Leo XIII as I can manage, the bell rings again to warn us to prepare for Vespers. At this most solemn hour of the day we sing the canticle of the Blessed Virgin and, if the next day is a major feast, its chanting is accompanied by incense.

A few minutes of free time for various personal needs follow Vespers and then the community again gathers in the Chapter room. We take the last quarter hour before the night silence returns to recollect our minds while one of the brothers reads aloud from a book of the Fathers or Holy Scripture. At the moment we're reading from the sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of my favorite monastic saints.

At the end of this reading, any brothers who have committed any faults or negligences kneel and accuse themselves before the community and receive a penance from the superior, who gives them his blessing.

With the blessing given, we all rise and process to the chapel for the Office of Compline. This hour is the same every day, and we pray it by heart so the chapel is in darkness save for two candles before the statue of the Mother of God, Mary, Regina Monachorum.We turn toward her at the end of the office to sing the Salve Regina. Blessed Cardinal Newman said the particular spirit of the Benedictines is that of childhood, and this moment has always struck me as the children of the family gathering before bed to say "goodnight" to their Mother. When the short antiphon comes to an end, we kneel as the bell tolls for the last Angelus of the day. Then Father Prior takes holy water and walks up and down the choir sprinkling each monk. The children have said goodnight to Mother, and now they get their father's blessing before taking their rest.

After the last blessing, we process out of the chapel and change back into our night habits. One of the brothers lights the vigil lamp before the image of the Sacred Heart that hangs at one end of the dormitory. The candle gives us enough light to find our beds, kneel and offer the last moments of wakefulness to God before passing into the night's sleep which is a figure of the final sleep of death.

(In the photo: our monastic dormitory.)

 

-Brother Mary Peter Leedy, OSB