Visiting Some Benedictines, Part 2
Wednesday, 9 June
Our second day at Clear Creek Monastery started with Matins and Lauds beginning at a quarter after five in the morning. The morning air cool, the church interior silent and dimly lit, a few guest attendees already waited for the monks’ arrival when Christopher and I took our places in the pews. The monks entered. There was no conversation, no music, no fanfare. The bells tolled, and there was a sort of silent anticipation. The monks chanted their prayers, starting the clock, so to speak, on their day.
As Matins and Lauds echoed, outside the sun rose. Slowly, surely, light filtered in through the small windows to our left and right. The dark stained glass windows behind the main altar illuminated. Morning prayers finished, and the new day had dawned. Most of the monks left. A few stayed to prepare three altars for Masses.
Each Mass was “said” in silence, all three simultaneously. Two altars on our side of the Communion rail stood to the left and right. The main altar stood some distance away. While I couldn’t be sure because of distance and dim lighting, I think there is a smaller altar between the main altar and the farthest wall below the stained glass windows. A fourth priest may have been celebrating the Mass at that altar as well. Although the celebrants spoke nothing aloud, the familiar gestures and postures clearly let us know which part of the Mass we were witnessing. In the downstairs crypt chapel, there is another main altar as well as eight side altars. For all I know, nine more priests also could have been celebrating the Mass at each of those altars.
Part of every Mass said everywhere in the world every day of the week includes petitions of prayer offered for others. The monks celebrate Mass twice each morning: the Low Masses after Lauds and the Conventual Mass after Terce. This is the first part of the Benedictine Order’s motto: Ora et Labora. Prayer and Work. Every Mass is a prayer, and everything the monks do begins, includes, and ends with prayer. By means of Ora et Labora, the entire day is ordered toward God. Everything is done for God out of love for God.
The first Mass of the day completed, we had some time before Prime, the next period of common prayer. Christopher and I didn’t do much. After Prime, it was time for breakfast, which was served about 9 a.m. We’d been up since before 5 a.m. Half a workday had elapsed before our first meal of the day.
Breakfast is somewhat informal. There’s still no chit chat, but the monks and guests come and go as necessary during the time breakfast is served. I had Frosted Mini-Wheats, hot coffee, cold milk, and bread with peanut butter and jelly. Once breakfast was done, we had some time to kill before Terce and the Conventual Mass.
I called my wife Trina, who informed me of car troubles with the Kia. She was working back in Houston to see how serious those troubles were. Christopher and I were due back in Houston some time Friday. Leaving my wife and daughter without a vehicle for two days was not an attractive thought.
Then, it was time for Terce and the Conventual Mass, both of which are open to the public. Several families arrived. This second Mass was the first Latin High Mass I’ve attended. As is the case with the Latin prayers, not knowing Latin is not really an obstacle. The English translation is included in the prayer books and missal. The austerity of the Mass has a sort of stark beauty. There’s no choir, and, thankfully, no band.
Bongos, tambourines, and guitars are not bad things, but they have no place in the Latin Rite. Such innovations do not add to the Sacred Liturgy. Also, there were no hymnals, which, in Catholic parishes, are too often filled with cringe-worthy folksy music influenced by the 60s and 70s. Again, such music has no place in the Liturgy, which is supposed to offer our best to God. The works of Marty Haugen and Dan Schutte, for example, are never going to be our best.
After Mass, Christopher and I visited the monks’ book store. I purchased both The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture by John Senior. I called Trina again, talking outside to get a signal, which also necessitated staying away from the gradually increasing number of wasps and hornets, two of the main reasons why I like the idea of the country more than being in the country. The prognosis for the Kia appeared dire. I found Father Guestmaster and let him know that Christopher and I would need to leave in the morning, a day earlier than planned.
Mid-day prayer time arrived, announced by the bells. Lunch followed. The informality of breakfast was gone. Lunch begins and ends with communal prayer. Of course, we had bread. There was also a potato-in-vegetable-broth soup, something very much like a quiche, and a mixture of hominy and cabbage. For dessert, we had cold lemony curds with Hershey’s Kisses and coffee. By this time, my knee was swollen again, which meant it was time to recline and read more of The Wind in the Willows. I also slept some. Christopher ended up working in a garden with one of the monks.
Twenty-four hours after our arrival, it was time for Vespers again. Dinner followed Vespers, which meant more communal prayers before and after the meal. The meal itself consisted of bread and broth, steamed carrots mixed with some sort of grain, and a wedge of heavy, bittersweet cake. Also, I drank water. Lots of water.
We ended our day with Compline in the chapel. As the monks chanted the last prayers of the day, outside the sun set. The gradual illumination of the large stained glass windows we watched in the morning reversed itself. Light and color faded into shadows and muted tones.
Christopher and I packed non-essentials before retiring for the evening. After Matins and Lauds the next morning, we packed the remainder of our things and hit the road. Our trip to Clear Creek Abbey ended, albeit earlier than planned.
Visiting Some Benedictines, Part 1
Tuesday, 8 June
At oh-dark-thirty, Christopher and I arose. We’d packed our clothes the night before. I showered. While Christopher showered I ground some coffee beans and made what I thought might have been my last cup of coffee until Friday morning. After Christopher and I dressed, we finished packing, loaded the car, and hit the road, directions from our home to Clear Creek Abbey in eastern Oklahoma spelled out on a five-by-eight index card.
We had packed light. Shirt and pants combinations sorted on hangers. Necessary toiletries and medicines (or so I thought). My school computer on which I’ve typed these words. My copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which is the summer reading for my incoming 7th grade boys. We took the Rav 4, which had been serviced a couple of weeks ago and which proudly rode on four new tires. I filled up the elbow-side compartment with CDs to sing along with during the drive.
Our route took us up I-45 North until Fairfield, Texas, but first we stopped in Madisonville to visit the Lakeside Restaurant. I’ve eaten there once or twice before heading to or from the Dallas area, a section of the state we would avoid this trip. The freeways around Dallas and Forth Worth are a maze built by madmen, and so we left I-45 behind in Fairfield, taking farm roads and state highways, zigzagging north toward the Red River.
We passed into Oklahoma shortly before lunchtime, arriving in Hugo. It was here that my index card of directions proved inaccurate. A helpful lady at a Dollar General and then later a helpful gentlemen at a Choctaw Nation gas station in the Ozarks kept us on the right path. We hit Muskogee around 4 p.m., and I regretted not bring my Merle Haggard collection.
Since we’d skipped lunch to make up some lost time, we decided to not skip dinner. When traveling, I prefer to eat at local places rather than nation-wide chains. Give me some Mom-and-Pop family business diner over Denny’s or McDonald’s. Intrigued by a roadside sign, we stopped at the Amish Country Store & Restaurant in Muskogee.
Christopher had the open-faced meatloaf and I had The Jacob, a hearty portion of roast beef flanked by slices of American cheese and sandwiched between thick pieces of toasted bread with a side order of onion rings. Christopher had the apple cider; I had the blueberry. Wonderful food and friendly service by his and hers youths. The His, a lad sporting longish hair and an attempt at a moustache, restored some hope in today’s youth with his Pink Floyd T-shirt. I refrained from asking about his favorite Pink Floyd album for fear that he’d admit to only buying the T-shirt because he thought it looked cool.
We arrived at the Clear Creek Monastery about 5 p.m. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. No paved roads lead onto its property. At night, not a single town light or head light is visible. Wooded hills surround the monastery on all sides. We carried our stuff to our cells in the men’s guesthouse, a four story structure adjacent to the church and refectory. Our rooms are small, about 15-feet square, with an attached shower-and-sink bathing room. The other facilities are down the hall in a common men’s room.
At 6 p.m., we attended Vespers. My Latin is rusty due to disuse. Even with the aid of the prayer book, I lost my place as the monks chanted the prayers. I kept up with what Latin sections I could; when I couldn’t, I read the English. The chant was beautiful. The acoustics in the high-ceilinged, thick-walled, minimally windowed church gather up the Latin chords and spread them about the space, adding a soft layer of meditative hum to the prayers. Best of all, there was absolutely no sense that Vespers, which was well-attended by guests of the monastery, is any sort of public performance. The monks do not chant to impress an audience. They chant to raise their voices in unison to the praise and glory of God in a manner similar to what Benedictines have been doing for about 1,500 years.
(Nota Bene: If you’ve got about 25 minutes to spare, this link goes to a video of monks at Conception Abbey in Missouri chanting Vespers.)
After Vespers, we male guests lined up outside the refectory. Father Guestmaster (his title, not his actual name) explained briefly the structure of supper. We filed past two monks, one of whom held a bowl and pitcher of water, the other of whom held a towel, so that we could ceremonially wash our hands before entering the refectory. Father Guestmaster showed up to our places.
After more prayers standing so as to face the center of the room, we sat and ate in silence. No idle chit-chat occurs during supper, which consisted of three courses. We started with heavy bread and some sort of grain in vegetable broth. A mixture of cold carrots and green beans from the monastery gardens followed. For dessert, there was a sort of dense cake, vaguely sweet, which we could top with applesauce. We served ourselves lemonade or water from pitchers. Supper concluded, and we stood for a brief prayer before filing out of the refectory.
By this time, the early morning start combined with the long drive and the lack of air conditioning in the monastery's buildings had caused my feet to swell. Heading up and down the stairs to and from the third floor of the guesthouse had taken its toll on my knees. I’d forgotten my joint salve as well as any sort of over-the-counter pain meds. I was uncomfortably sticky. So, I showered, put on a pair of shorts, and set the box fan atop the desk in my room so that the air circulated better. By the time Compline, the final prayers of the day, started, I had read the first two chapters of The Wind in the Willows and fallen into a reasonably sound sleep.
Thus ended day one.
Reflecting & Planning
Back in October 2020, I started the Knights of the Mightier Pen as a response to COVID-related restrictions putting the kibosh on extracurricular activities. Our Regis Knights needed outlets for their energies, but the school's precautions made the normal after-school activities impossible for a time. I figured that since so much of what we were doing had been moved to on-line formats, why not one more thing? I concluded the first Mightier Pen post with this paragraph:
Each Friday starting 6 November, I shall throw down the gauntlet in the form of a writing challenge. Regis Knights who have chosen to join the Mightier Pen Knights may pick up that gauntlet and complete the challenge. By doing so, a student enters the Hall of Heroes and may even earn the honor of having his work featured in a blogpost.
And, for several weeks, it all worked well. Sort of. Between October 2020 and the end of January 2021, I tossed down a total of five gauntlets. Those who are good at counting may note that five in about four months is not one writing challenge each week. A small number of students answered my challenges with about a dozen submissions. The last challenge, the one from January 2021, remains unanswered. I didn't post again to this site until near the end of April 2021. If the Knights of the Mightier are to survive, we need a reboot.
One challenge a week from me is unrealistic. I know that now. It's not so much that I can't come up with a weekly challenge as it is that each challenge which solicits responses obliges me to devote time to each student's submission. Posting to the site and updating the Hall of Heroes also takes time. It all adds up. Also, our Regis Knights are busy gentlemen and scholars, and this next year they'll be busier as it seems likely that COVID-related restrictions shall continue to vanish, which means their usual extracurricular activities shall return. With all the additional options and demands, this attractions of this project may become increasingly small.
So, when the new school year begins in August 2021, I shall endeavor to post a challenge twice a month. The more leisurely pace affords me more time for reading, site maintenance, et cetera, and affords the students more time to craft their submissions.
If you look at the Hall of Heroes, you'll notice that each student has a rank followed by a parenthetical number. For example, Tate C. is a Page (2). This means he's answered two writing challenges. Presumably, by diligent effort, Tate C. shall continue to advance in rank.
But what does this mean?
The three basic steps of knighthood are Page, Squire, and Knight. Knighthood is conferred via the accolade, at which time the squire is dubbed a knight. Within the rank of knight, there are distinctions, such as knight-errant, knight bachelor, knight banneret, et cetera. These distinctions may prove useful for the Knights of the Mightier Pen.
Advancement is based primarily on accepting and meeting challenges. Each challenge earns a point, so to speak. After a certain number points are earned, the Page becomes a Squire becomes a Knight, and so forth.
With the slower pace planned for the coming school year, it makes sense to scale the number of points need to advance downward. (Not that I ever really had any hard, fast numbers in mind to begin with.) I'm thinking three points reaches Squire, and four points reaches Knight. Going this route, I owe Dominic H. a promotion, along with the attendant honors.
Page: Entry into the Hall of Heroes suffices for the honor bestowed upon a Page. A Page also receives a Coat of Arms, which is displayed in the Hall of Heroes. After this, additional honors ought to be conferred.
Squire: A Page reaching the rank of Squire shall be bequeathed a Certificate of Merit in a public ceremony. Our morning assembly is an ideal venue for this sort of thing.
Knight: A Squire reaching the rank of Knight shall receive the accolade in a public ceremony. This should include the new Knight receiving his nom de plume, an additional title suffixed to his name. (This also gives me an excuse to bring my sword to school.)
I like the idea of adding additional ranks beyond Knight. I'll have to hammer out those details. Also, since Knights compete in tournaments, maybe I need to plan some sort of writing tournament? I've never done this sort of thing, so I'll likely need to seek out some expert help.
Summer time off arrives, and with it arrive new opportunities, chief among them the opportunity to properly understand what leisure ought to mean.
Leisure is not merely time off from labor. Leisure does not just mean sitting around, watching TV, playing games, and giving in to the near mindlessness of clickbait social media and news entertainment. Leisure has a higher purpose. As Josef Pieper's thesis states, "[I]t is essential to begin by reckoning with the fact that one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure" (Leisure: The Basis of Culture).
"Leisure" has its roots in Latin, specifically the verb licere, which means "to be allowed" and is also the root of the word "license". In Greek, Pieper notes, "leisure" is skole, which means school. The classical conception of leisure asserts that leisure is a privilege, a time free from the demands of labor performed for the benefit of others which is then used for benefit of the self.
In short, leisure, properly understood, is time I use to make me better than I am.
The Regis School is a Sacred Heart school, which means the students' labor aims at more than just the acquisition of knowledge (itself a very good thing). The overarching goals of the Regis School put first things first by aiming to educate our students toward "a personal and active faith in God". After this comes "a deep respect for intellectual values".
In short, education at the Regis School, properly understood, includes time that I structure so that others may become better than they are.
During the school year, if I'm a student, the demands of my teachers consume much of my time. My students' school day officially starts about 8:00 a.m. and ends about 3:30 p.m. Before this, students presumably get ready for school. After this, students usually have homework and/or some sort of extracurricular activity. Each of my students has what is the equivalent of a full-time job.
For this reason, I am loathe to assign homework over weekends and holidays, to include over the summer, and there is a danger in this. By signaling that those times ought to be as free as possible from school work may encourage the perception that those times ought to be from learning.
Leisure time should be oriented toward self-improvement based on my talents, my interests, and my honest assessment of my deficiencies. C. S. Lewis compared a bad habit to a bent wire. If I want to straighten the wire, I have to bend it in the other direction. For example, if I know I spend too much time reflexively refreshing this or that social media site, then my leisure time should be spent doing something else.
Reflexively refreshing this or that social media site adds little value to my life. It doesn't make a better man, a better father, a better teacher, or a better husband. One could argue that it detracts from progress toward those goals. Odds are really good that if I stopped posting on Facebook or MeWe that very few people would notice. Life for most of my hundreds of friends, many of whom I've never met in real life, would go on as before. Social media sites don't do much other than feed morsels to my ego. The likes, shares, and comments, no matter how superficial, reinforce the illusion that I've connected in a meaningful way to another person.
The truth is this: Just about all I've really done is continue to provide data to be sold to advertisers, who are then better able to target me with solicitations for products that algorithms indicate I might purchase. Surely I can do better, and so, this summer I've put together a simple schedule that might help keep me focused on being active both mentally and physically. Today is day two of that schedule, and this blogpost, once written, revised, and posted, is a goal accomplished.
Little by little, I strive to straighten a few bent wires.
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.