A note from Jamie Howison: This is the seventh in a series of weekly updates regarding my unfolding sabbatical study leave. For background on my work during these two months, plus other updates visit the sabbatical news page.
fter that month in Manhattan, what a different pace and pattern of life these weeks at the Collegeville Institute have given me. No more bright lights, late nights, cramped jazz clubs, and crowded sidewalks; now it is trees and lakes, casual walks, and prayer in the abbey church with the monks, to say nothing of “early to bed, early to rise.” Not that I’m complaining. In fact, it has been a wonderful complement to the crush and busy-ness of my New York month.
A typical day finds me up around 7:15, just as the news winds up on the local Minnesota Public Radio station (which was actually founded by the monks here at St John’s Abbey several decades ago). After getting myself moving, I head across to the Institute common room and settle on the couch by a big window overlooking the little lake and pray morning prayer. My timing is such that I’m always in that space for the sunrise, and what with the coffee maker right at hand I usually just stay put and read there for the next hour or so.
By 9:00 I’ve settled myself at the big desk in my own cottage, where I pretty much stay until about 5:30pm, though I do take a break to make the ten-minute walk up to the Abbey Church to join the monks for noon day prayer. And I’m generally back with them at 7:00pm for evening prayer. By the time I’ve walked back to my cottage, it is pushing toward 8:00pm, which means it is time to make tea and read my novel for an hour or two, by which time I am more than ready to head for bed (one night I didn’t even make it past 9:00… and in New York I often wasn’t even heading out until after 9:00!).
Sunday is the exception to this routine, in that I do no work on my writing project, and instead just attend morning worship, head out on a longer walk or two, read only novels and maybe the newspaper, and give myself a weekly sabbatical Sabbath.
So just a couple of reflections from those times in the Abbey church with the monks:
–Their pattern for daily prayer is based in the praying of the psalms, in a very slow and deliberate way. Each day at noon we’ll pray three psalms, and in the evening it is usually six. Some are sung, some are read, and always in a dialogue back and forth between the two sides of the choir area. You really hear things differently when the psalms are prayed so slowly; sometimes it is in the verses you are praying, and sometimes in those that are being spoken from the other side of the choir. But almost inevitably something will “click” in those texts, as if you’ve never heard or thought of that before.
-As you enter the main doors of the church (which is a very large space, by the way, holding probably 1000 people), you walk through the “baptistery.” I’ve included a photograph of this space, with the stylized figure of St Benedict standing over the actual baptismal area. There are few steps down to the font, which is large and fitted with piping that means the water actually flows for baptisms. On the half walls around that sunken area there are smaller bowls that are always filled with water, so as you as enter or exit the church you can dip your fingers in as a recollection of your own baptism. I have to say, I really appreciate how prominently this baptistery is in the design of the whole church (essentially, you can’t miss it, because you have to walk through it), particularly compared to the set-up at All Saints. I’d love it if there was a big baptismal font at our church, which you actually had to walk around every Sunday as you made your way into the pews, rather than the old stone one that is more or less lost and out of view by the door to the hall. If baptism marks and celebrates our belonging to Christ, doesn’t it make sense to have that more prominently represented in our worship space?
Finally, at the invitation of my friend Father Killian, I had dinner in the monastic dining room on Monday. Killian has lived as a monk at St John’s for some 60 years, and is a treasure trove of both great wisdom and wonderful stories. Somehow we got to talking about the writings of Thomas Merton, and Killian told me a story of Merton visiting at St John’s sometime in the late 1950s. He was very taken by the lake by which the Abbey is located, and so Killian managed to get him a small boat so that he could spend some time out on the water. Three hours after his setting out from shore, he returned absolutely soaking wet. When Killian asked him what had happened, Merton replied that he had been over in a very still and clear bay, and had been gazing into the water. “Looking into the clear water, I could see the green plants and the fish, and it looked so peaceful and lovely that I decided that I had to be a part of it. So I jumped in.”
And now with the clock ticking toward 9:00am, it is time to wash out my coffee cup and head to my cottage for the day’s work.