A Day Within the Walls: Benedictines
At the Immaculate Heart of Mary Benedictine Monastery in Westfield, Vermont
Praising the Creator in Prayer
It was a bright sunny day when I awoke on January 17, feast of St. Anthony, called the first hermit. This celebration would be simple. On this day it is a Benedictine tradition to have the animals blessed when there is a farm at the monastery, which is not the case here. The Hours of the Divine Office are the splendid accompaniment, the preparation for, and the radiance from, the Eucharist. The Holy Scripture itself summons us to praise our Creator seven times a day and once at night (cf. Ps. 118). I went diligently to the choir to chant Lauds, the first Hour of the morning; afterwards I started my personal prayer. At the end of it, however, I was distracted by the arrival of a nun carrying a ladder and a cardboard box! Opening wide my eyes, I saw Sr. Luce bravely climbing, hoping to catch a bat fallen asleep on the ceiling. Skillfully she got the bat inside the box and took it safely outdoors. At that moment Mother Prioress gave the signal to start Prime, the first Little Hour of the day.
The Little Hours
These so-called “Little Hours” are as important as the other Hours of the Divine Office; but because they are composed of only a hymn, three psalms, a short reading, and a concluding prayer, they are shorter. They—and all the Hours—are calculated according to the time in which lived St. Benedict; the Romans started the day at sunrise and ended it at sunset. After Prime, I reached the refectory for a healthful breakfast. Then it is the custom that the nuns spend an hour for their personal lectio divina in their cells. “Mary-Agnes,” the monastery bell, called us to chant Mass in Gregorian and Latin, as we do every morning, so I joined the others. Before the Liturgy of the Word, Terce is prayed; it is the third hour of the day, the hour in which the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:15).
Star Makes His Entry
We continued Mass in a very prayerful atmosphere. Suddenly, a moment before the Offertory, imagine the astonishment of the community when we saw, coming from nowhere, Star, our new German shepherd dog, making its entry into the choir with great dignity. Stopping only at the Communion rail it asked with its wagging tail the blessing of St. Anthony, this good friend of animals. Sr. Benedicta hurried to lead the disappointed dog back to its kennel. The Lord was certainly not offended by our laughter.After our thanksgiving, each nun took up her proper task of manual work, in the kitchen, the altar bread department, the sewing room, etc. At the monastery it seems that time flies like an arrow in the air! The bell called us for Sext, the sixth hour of the day.
Keeping a Recollected Attitude
I must say that it had previously snowed for three consecutive days; and the snow, pushed by a strong wind, had reached the windows of the second floor on which is built our temporary chapel. As hebdomadarian I was just about to start Sext. Making the Sign of the Cross, I perceived in the window next to me two lifted ears, and Star very interested in what was going on! Honestly, I made a great effort to keep a recollected attitude; most of the nuns did not notice Star, and I had to wait until recreation time to share the joke with my Sisters. Our dog, it seemed, was becoming a movie Star! Again it was time to reach the choir for None, the ninth hour of the day. A very precious hour, indeed, in which our Redemption was accomplished by the death of Jesus on the cross. “Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus did not only lay down His life for His friends, but for all humanity, even His enemies. From the Acts of the Apostles, we know that Peter and John were going up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour (Acts 3:1).
Time of the Evening Star
Our everyday duties continued until the solemn Hour of Vespers, considered as the time for the Last Supper, the time of the evening star, Vesper. Vespers is usually followed by a conference, either by Mother Prioress on the Holy Rule, the liturgy, or a Magisterium publication, etc.; or by an invited lecturer; or, once a week, by our Father Chaplain. As is the monastic custom, supper is taken in silence as are other meals; but we always have reading during this time. The night recreation is followed by the last Hour of the day, Compline. Then everything in the monastery becomes quiet as the “night silence” begins. Is this silence really always quiet? Not quite so, I presume… Before the night prayer called Vigils, I was praying, eyes closed, in my stall. Unexpectedly, I had a curious feeling that something was moving under my cowl. I finally discovered that a frightened squirrel, pursued as it was by a nun, had found a hiding place! The poor animal, probably seeking a nut or two, had been found exploring the hallway to the choir. Presuming that my legs were perhaps a tree, it was trying to climb on them. I immediately liberated it from its false branches, and Sr. Luce again came with her cardboard box. What was intended to be a calm monastic day turned out to be a real solemn feast of St. Anthony, who probably rejoiced that day with St. Francis of Assisi!
With thanks to one of the nuns of the Benedictine Sisters in Westfield, Vermont, for sharing her personal reflections.