Today my usual was interrupted by mother nature. We awoke to a blanket of five inches of snow and then freezing rain on top of that. I was to travel to Mt. Irenaeus for Mass and then a meeting our Secular Franciscan fraternity. I called Fr. Lou and then a couple of our members and decided it best to call off the meeting. Mt. Irenaeus is located at the top of 2200 foot hill in rural Allegany County. It sits astride a dirt road that can be treacherous with a coating of ice.
I spent most of this morning and afternoon reading and writing and then about 5 pm I ventured out. I drove through the approaching dusk and nightfall toward Abbey of the Genesee hoping to arrive in time for Compline. After driving through miles of slush I made it eventually to the monastery and got to spend some time enjoying the aroma of the bread store with its mixture of smells. Every time I visit a local store and stop in the bread section where Monks Bread is sold it is a call to holiness and remembrance of the Abbey of the Genesee and the Cistercians who call it home. As I lingered in the bread store and stopped in the adjacent bookstore to see what was for sale I caught myself wondering and hoping that heaven smells like this. I’ve been stopping at the abbey for nearly twenty-nine years now and in the last eight I’ve become a regular.
Tonight I wandered up the corridor to the chapel and took my seat as Brother Christian prepared for compline. In the dimly lit chapel that smelled of incense I could see the sanctuary candle that symbolically represents the presence of the Eucharist. I come here because I sense that presence more, but it really is everywhere. I soaked up the beautiful stillness that is in the chapel. Slowly one monk, then two and three more make their way to their prayer stalls. Then the lights come on and we stand and make the sign of the cross, a short hymn and then Psalm 4 followed by “Glory be to the Father and to the Son… Then my favorite Psalm 91.
You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.” God will rescue you from the fowler’s snare, from the deadly pestilence, Will shelter you with pinions, spread wings that you may take refuge; God’s faithfulness is a protecting shield.
Compline ends with Psalm 134 and a lovely hymn to Our Lady. The focus is on her as all the monks turn to the Madonna. Then the lights are doused and we hear the tolling of the abbey bell and we all file out. One of the monks emerges from the darkness to sprinkle holy water on me and then I leave and walk to my car.
It’s been a hundred mile round trip but for a contemplative it’s all in a day. Agnus Dei qui tolli peccata mundi, Dona Nobis Pacem. Oh, beautiful solitude.