It was Saint Augustine who said that to sing was to pray twice. At a time when singing is not allowed in churches it is wonderful to be at the monastery and to be able to sing during the chapel services.
It is wonderful in general to be back at this monastery, a place I’ve made regular visits to for almost thirty years. It only reopened to guests in August, after closing its doors in March due to the coronavirus, and I’m one of the first to visit. I couldn’t wait! In a year when various trips were cancelled, this is the first time in six months that I’ve slept in a different bed. I was saying to participants at the start of the recent Irish Chaplaincy summer retreat that sometimes it’s good to go to another place, a place apart, for it is only then, perhaps, that we have the opportunity to see things a bit differently or to really notice things that we may not normally notice. The first thing I noticed on arrival here was how tired I was, even after being off work for a week. That week had been a ‘staycation’; and it had been very nice, but I just needed to spend a bit of time on my own, and, yes, to be in a different place.
I slept long and deep on the first night and after waking up I looked out of the window at the trees and the rising sun and went for a first stroll in the woods, then to the chapel for what would be my first service of the day, the 7am ‘Lauds’. The monks had already prayed ‘Vigils’ at 5am but I was never going to be joining them for that. I’m on holiday after all! There’s something very calming and ordering and centring about the monastic liturgy. Various psalms are sung in plainchant, with one side of the chapel singing one verse and the other side singing the next, so that there is a constant give and take, an ebb and flow. Breakfast follows, eaten in silence, and with social distancing observed in the refectory! This monastery is a place for me of sacred rituals and one such is the second cup of tea! One of the monks goes around the tables mid-way through breakfast with a tray, onto which we place our empty mugs. He pours from the large tea pot at the side, and goes around again with the tray from which we pick up our now full mug of steaming hot tea. That something so simple as receiving a second cup of tea in the morning can produce in me such delight indicates how special this place is.
It’s only just gone 8 am when breakfast is finished. There is a whole day ahead. That day will be punctuated by more services and by more meals. There will be the short mid-day office, ‘Sext’, followed by lunch, the main meal of the day. And there will be ‘Vespers’ in the evening. The exact order and timings of the services varies according to the monastery but here, as in all monasteries, the final liturgy of the day is followed by the ‘great silence’, a time when a particular hush descends until the following morning.
I sink into that silence here, and I luxuriate in the stillness and in the ancient, wholesome and healing monastic rhythms. I go for long walks in the surrounding countryside, and for short, slow meanders in the monastery grounds. I read a bit, write a bit, rest a bit. I sit out in the garden in the late afternoon sun with a cup of tea; and then walk barefoot in the orchard in grass which is still long and lush and green in spite of the recent heatwave.
I give thanks for this place of peace, of rest and rejuvenation, of simple pleasures. And I rejoice in that I’m able to sing and therefore, according to St Augustine, to pray twice…