Wednesday, October 10, 2007

cum sancto spiritu, part 1

This past weekend was my first stay at a convent (community? ecclesiastical farm? it’s a little hard to describe succinctly). Hannah and I went with a couple of friends to the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, NY, where we spent two very restful days and nights, in part to visit Suzanne, a priest we knew through Cornell. The Melrose Convent is an outgrowth of St. Hilda’s House in NYC and comprises six or eight women who work, farm, pray, and occasionally teach in a lovely, somewhat secluded spot. There is a school, the Melrose School, on the grounds, but no classes were going on, even on Monday because of Columbus Day. We very much enjoyed our time there, and over a few posts I plan to give a relatively thorough account of the weekend.

We set out from Ithaca late Saturday morning. The first couple of hours in the car we spent singing (what delight!), sharing favorite hymns and songs from our youth. Although Hannah didn’t grow up in the church, the rest of us had very varied backgrounds and could cross-pollinate a lot. Jessie teaches Sunday school and looks for good songs to teach kids. I presented my perennial favorite, “The Fruit of the Spirit”:
The fruit of the spirit’s not a cantaloupe (nope!)
The fruit of the spirit’s not a cantaloupe (nope!),
So if you want to be a cantaloupe,
you might as well hear it,
You can‘t be a fruit of the spirit, ’cause the fruit is:
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Jessie was raised Quaker, and taught us a song about Lucretia Mott to the tune of “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic”. Try it:
Thank thee kindly, friend Lucretia, (repeat twice)
Thy light still shines for me!
Did that refrain work O.K. for you? Then try making this scan to the tune of the verse:
Throughout the town of Philadelphia she hid the fleeing slaves;
For the freedom of her sisters she did cross the ocean waves,
And she asked Ulysses S. Grant to grant a pardon for the brave.
Her light still shines for me!
We worked on that over and over, marching around the kitchen as we made meals at the convent.

We stopped twice on the way to the convent. The first was for lunch. There was some debate as to whether we should stop at a familiar fast food outlet or press a little deeper to find a local restaurant. Realize that this was a car full of people who really like eating fresh food and supporting local business, and so the latter option was preferred. We ended up at Last Licks in Liberty (exit 101 off of highway 17). The friendly manager welcomed us and explained that everything was served on sandwiches—subs, hoagies, paninis, and the like. We all had a bottle of one of Boylan’s products (I had my first birch beer, which was a lot like a root beer, but independently very good); I recommend these, when you can’t get hold of Ithaca Sodas. There were quaint posters of olden-days Pepsi advertising (“Worth a dime, costs a nickel!”). The manager told us how he had just flown in from Florida and was just stopping by the store to check how things were going, when he learned that they were understaffed, and so he was working. When we told him we were from Ithaca, he said they had some regular customers from Cornell who would stop by on the way to Yankees games.

The second stop was at a fruit and vegetable stand. Hannah had made the proclamation, “It’s not really fall unless we do something to a pumpkin,” and so we had been watching for pumpkin stands. A hand-written sign on the side of the highway alerted us to the appropriate exit, and we pulled into the driveway of a house with an elderly man sitting under a tarp. He had a piece of corn in his hand, ready for us to sample (I have not been getting nearly enough corn this season), and told us a smattering of dirty jokes. He tried to convince us to buy his book of jokes. We managed to get away with just the pumpkin we were seeking and some corn, carrots, and broccoli (which became dinner the next night).

Once we arrived at the convent, we were promptly greeted with a wealth of treats and an invitation to Vespers. In fact, there wasn’t much time at all before the prayers began. We went into the small round wooden chapel, and we visitors spread ourselves out among the residents who knew what was going on. (We’d all been to evening prayers before, but the peculiarities of the prayer books at the convent required some guidance.) Much of the Vespers service is occupied with reciting psalms on a chant tone. One verse is chanted by the officiant to establish the tone, and thereafter the two sides of the chapel alternate chanting verses. For the first few psalms, I sat quietly, listening and not quite ready to break into the chant myself. There was only one other man there besides myself, and he had decided not to chant along. So my voice would have been the one to break the sound of the women. Now I love the sound of women’s voices (usually in harmony, which chant is not) but that’s not quite what was keeping me from singing. A true unison has a certain kind of purity. Splitting the octaves creates an essentially different sound (and I was not about to try to sing in the women’s range, particular since I’d been sick all week). So just as some people relax by popping in a “Chant” CD to hear the soothing baritone of monks, I was enjoying the piping clarity of women chanting together.

But within a few moments, I developed a strong sense that something was wrong—not just that I was isolating myself from my fellow congregants, or holding back from singing. I’ve studied chant, in the context of music history. I’ve listened to plenty of recordings, made available for the benefit of scholars and consumers. I’ve read about how it tried to strike the balance between emotion (rejoicing, mourning, awe, or penitence as necessary) and removal from the secular realm. About how composers expanded chants to reflect the text (even on the simple word “Alleluia”), then moved them from the meditative to the musical realm. Once I joined in, I realized what had felt wrong. Chant is not meant to be listened to. It has elements of song and elements of speech, but it isn’t either. It’s meditative, certainly, for both those chanting and those “listening”, but it’s nearly meaningless until you participate. It’s deliberate, ancient, immediate (be glad I’m not going off into another Kierkegaard digression here on the immediacy of music), transcendent, spiritual, physical, perplexing, focusing, and holy (in the sense of being set apart from other things in the world).

I’m making this point a bit strongly. There is real musical merit in, and real “outside” appreciation possible for, the hymns, antiphons, and sequences of the liturgy. But a psalm is mostly just intoned; from a melodic standpoint, it’s almost entirely a single repeated note, with a concluding burble up or down. Listening to it may put you in a trance, but I can’t imagine how it would help you worship. I don’t think I can explain more than that how important it is to join in chanting the mass, or service, or whatever, whenever it is possible to do so in place of just listening.

After dinner, we got set up in the guest house, known there as the “longhouse”. We had our own kitchen, stocked with fresh organic goodies (from eggs to raw milk to cookies), a sunny sitting room (directly adjacent to the school; apparently previous residents could hear homeroom or French class going on), and several private rooms to disperse to. Suzanne provided us with her Eddie Izzard DVD collection (which we didn’t manage to watch, however; as a first inkling of what the community was like, if you’ve never met nuns before, the sister who was showing us around the house also declared herself a big fan of Izzard).

We returned to the main house and looked around as dinner was being prepared. Hanging in the hallway was the following prayer. Now, the deliberate vagueness of the authorship, along with the style of writing makes the purported source of this text somewhat suspect. In fact, I searched the internet once I got back and could get no more information; the prayer was always presented in a vacuum (or list of other inspirational texts), except on a couple of occasions when attention was drawn to some anachronisms in the writing. So I include it as an example of how the nuns at the Melrose Convent see themselves and their calling, not any sort of historical document. It’s also still full of useful things for all of us to think about:
17th Century Nun’s Prayer

Lord, Thou knowest better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody: helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest Lord that I want a few friends at the end.

Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.

I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a lessing cocksureness when my memory seems to clack with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.

Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a Saint—some of them are so hard to live with—but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And, give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.


Dinner was a veritable feast. Apparently excited about having us as guests, the nuns had prepared several courses, and had sent out specially for hot dogs (they don’t usually eat meat). Hannah and I were, as expected, exceeding happy about the presence of kale. (Over the summer, as we were picking up vegetables from our CSA farm, we would ask with increasing intensity, “Are we getting kale this week? We really hope we are, because we really like having kale.” The first time we did this, the farmers responded in perplexity, “We’ve never actually had a reaction like that from anyone about getting kale.”) And here before us was a new yummy way to prepare it! (They call it “killer kale”.) We also had homemade ketchup, mustard, and tomatillo salsa; “apple leather”, the real version of what Fruit Roll-Ups always dreamed of being; fresh grape juice and grape jelly made from wild grapes in the area; a mix of beans from the garden; and other courses. Apparently when you make all your food fresh from the garden, living with a vow of poverty isn’t so bad.

Lots more I could share about the humor of the sisters and the stories that came out about convent life (such as tales of mass hysteria, or the three nuns who got in a fist-fight), but this is getting a bit long. Moving on to the evening…

Back at the longhouse, we sat around reading for a while. Hannah was reading poetry by Elizabeth Bishop. I was reading hymns (because there was no piano in the house for me to play them on). For some reason, “Lead On, O King Eternal” was going through my head:
Lead on, O King eternal,
The day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest
Thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
Thy grace has made us strong;
And now, O King eternal,
We lift our battle song.
I was reading from the Pilgrim Hymnal, of which I have four copies but hadn’t examined too carefully yet. Christian hymnody has plenty of texts with battle imagery (with good Scriptural reason), and many of them are collected, along with other exhortations to fortitude, in the Pilgrim Hymnal’s section on Courage. But I was struck by the end of the second verse, which I’ll use to close this entry (as always, the whole text of the hymn is available at Cyberhymnal). In a way quite consistent with the verses I linked to above (q.v.), it emphasizes the means of winning the battle to be our acting in love:
For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes.

1 comment:

jhb said...

Wow. Sounds like an amazing time. I have often thought of visiting a monk's retreat in Arkansas for weekend of rest. I was especially touched by the nun's prayer. Lots of food for thought there!