I still have vivid memories of my first visit to a Trappist monastery: we had driven all day long from Notre Dame, arriving at dusk, and finally, along with my companions, walked into the expansive chapel (it’s actually a basilica) of the Abbey of Gethsemani. It was there that I heard Fr. Chrysogonus’ arrangement of the Salve, Regina for the first time. It was Compline – night prayer – and we all stood there, clothed in the dark of a November evening, listening to the monks sing their haunting anthem at the end of the day, the only thing visible being the icon of the Madonna, surrounded by candlelight.
The integrity of that prayer and song has influenced all I’ve done back at Notre Dame. I’ve always been caught up with this extraordinary paradox, a community of quiet men standing before the image of the Holy Mother, night after night, singing of their affection, petitioning for her protection.
It is no different here at Mepkin Abbey, except the chapel is simpler and on a smaller scale. Yet this only lends itself to a heightened sense of intimacy: we are closer to the image of Mary, closer to the scent of beeswax, shoulder to shoulder with the tremulous voices of the elder monks. There is a fragility and earnest attitude here that the world could learn much from.
The end of the day, celebrated through Vespers and Compline, mirrors the end of life. It provides a chance to look back on the work of our hands, a chance to embrace peace before darkness envelops everything, still confident that light awaits. Whenever I visit with the monks, well aware of their own faults and failings and human imperfection, I am still cognizant of just how closely they live this daily reality.
We leave Mepkin soon, having spent some wonderful days with Brother Dismas, our son. He, like us, has miles before him, especially when it comes to the implementation of the new liturgy and the musical demands that have been placed on his own shoulders. But we are so much better for the time together. And for both of our communities, Notre Dame and Mepkin, there is a clearer sense of the days that lie ahead, and how we are to be poured out.