This is the second in a series of occasional posts from Jamie Howison’s retreat time at the Collegeville Institute at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota
et me tell you about chapel life at St John’s Abbey, starting with a few words on the rather extraordinary Abbey and University Church of St John the Baptist. Designed by the reknowned modernist architect Marcel Breuer, the church was built between 1958 and 1961. It is a building striking in both design and size, with a total capacity of 2500, yet unlike many modernist churches it is not lacking in warmth and even intimacy. From the outside the place seems rather imposing, with an enormous slab concrete bell banner standing across the front, and a sort of honeycomb of windows acting as the main outside wall.
Once inside the church, everything begins to shift from imposing to a curiously successful blend of grand and humane. The light flowing in through that honeycomb window is filled with colour, such that even the plain concrete loses its coolness. The pews are a wonderfully dark wood, which brings an earthiness to the place. For all of its scale, it is simple, yet quite elegant. And the sound… the resonant sound of the monks’ voices in the place is gorgeous. I’m not much of a singer, but I have little trouble finding my voice and adding it to the chorus of hymns and chants.
The monks gather for prayer four times each day: for morning prayer at 7:00am, midday prayer at noon, mass at 5:00pm, and evening prayer at 7:00pm (with a slightly different schedule on the weekends, to accommodate a morning mass). Others are welcome to join in any of these liturgies, and I’ve decided to make it my practice to take part in evening prayer each day. That service is built around psalms (both chanted and said), an extended reading, prayer, a hymn and a sung biblical canticle. There is no rush… no rush at all. If you’ve ever thought that we at saint ben’s take our liturgy at a very slow and deliberate pace, we look like speed demons next to Benedictine monks. But it is all quite wonderful as a way to slow down and refocus.
Tonight rather than going to evening prayer, I went to the 5:00pm mass so that I (along with Jim Snyder, the writer of our Lenten Book) could meet with Father Kilian for supper and some conversation. The mass itself was good to take part in – and here an invitation is open to non-Roman Catholics to receive communion – while the supper was delight. Great to hear a bit more about Kilian’s latest work as a poet, but also to listen to some of his reflections from his days working as one of the Catholic church’s key theologians of the Holy Spirit and the charismatic movement. He actually spent 30 years as the Vatican’s representative in conversations with the Pentecostal Church, which has given him a most unique perspective on things ecumenical. I picked up a book he wrote some years back on the Trinity, which I look forward to reading in light of his very generous remarks about the significance of the charismatic movement in the life of the whole church.
That is enough for now. It is just past 8:00pm, and I want to do a bit more reading before getting some sleep in preparation for a day of writing tomorrow.