The rain is a steady drip outside my window right now and I’ve just returned from Compline, which at the Trappist monastery in Conyers, GA is prayed entirely in the dark. The monks have all the psalms memorized, so it is not a problem for them. For me… well, I’m content to just listen. Many of the words I cannot quite catch. They echo because the church is large and we are few and the voices a bit faint. But the Canticle of Simeon… that I can recognize: “Now, Lord, you can let your servant go in peace.” And the wider theme of asking for forgiveness at the end of the day, each and every day. I can catch that.
I’ve been here the past two days for a committee meeting for CGSUSA and—despite a few challenges with wifi—it has been a beautiful place to meet. They actually have a museum dedicated to the history of monasticism and this monastery in particular, founded as an offshoot of Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky in 1944. Apparently the 21 monks who were sent to Conyers to launch this endeavor found out two days before they were leaving… by sign language. The Cistercians did little speaking in those days. Now they are much more communicative. At least the monk in charge of the guest house is. And the others we have passed on the road or serving meals have been so gracious as well.
Living in such a close community with the same twenty some odd monks and a few rotating guests day in and day out for years on end can’t be easy, however. I can see why the prayers of Compline would be important every night. There is no way one can run such a complex and not be bumping up against one another. I imagine that forgiveness here, as Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, is not so much an isolated event but an attitude. A way of being together that is rooted in endless patience regarding all the ways we step on each other’s toes.
The first readings of the daily lectionary over the past week or so now have been from the opening chapters of Genesis, considering the creation of the world but also its descent into chaos and violence. Monday’s first reading tells the age old story of Cain and Abel which most of us have heard since childhood. It is in many ways the opposite of the life nurtured by Compline. It is the story of how a single slight could not be let go and escalated into the world’s first murder, the ramifications of which go on and on and on. To prepare to preach on today’s first reading for WORD.OP, I read a wonderfully creative book called Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama by Rabbi Dan Ornstein. Amazing what he was able to pull from a passage that is only 250 words in length! If you are interested in the Jewish midrash on this text, you might enjoy it also.
Pray for me this coming week. From here I’ll be heading shortly to the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary to give their annual Yost lecture. I’ve never been to Columbia, South Carolina before and looking forward to seeing someplace brand new. But I know I want to take something of the silence and pervasive peace of this evening at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit with me as I go. Wishing you peace as well.
(PS. Here is my favorite quote from Conyers, from one of the monks who was part of the original 21 to found the monastery: "I said, 'Reverend Abbot, I don't know how to sew.' And he said, 'But you can learn.' So I went to the tailor shop, thinking the brother there would teach me. He said five words to me: 'The machine is over there.' But God gave us the gift of a mind. So I figured it out.'" Isn't that the story of life?!)