Monday, December 22, 2008

Monastery life

In a light rain and with the weight of dusk, the Benedictine Monastery at Miradsous loomed greyer and more massive than the surrounding fog - higher, too, situated on a ridge 800 feet above the stream valley I labored along. Two thick pointed square towers protect an enormous square peaked wall containing a huge dark rosette window, unlit, though, when I viewed it, and it's stained glass messages kept secret.

It took close to an hour to reach the giant wooden door, lit by a dim bulb steaming in the humid cold air. A hand-written note indicates to sound (sonnez) twice and then enter. Sound what? I tugged twice on a long metal pole suspended from above in the darkness and pushed the smaller door in the large gate. In the forecourt, a lit reception booth to my left got my attention. I announced myself to the man behind the glass, who smiled, but told me I'd have to report to the pilgrim reception opposite. He slide the glass closed and left his seat. I shone my little flashlight hanging on the shoulder strap of my pack around the forecourt. Lovely statues and other decorations, but nothing looking inviting to a pilgrim. The man whom I spoke with reappeared (thankfully) and showed me to a door in the opposite corner.

Down a long, dark, and clearly high-ceilinged corridor, I found Père Hoteliére in the only lit office. 'Je suis la pèlerine, qui a téléphoné plus tôt', I repeated my self-announcement. 'Bienvenue à l'Abbeye de Maredsous, pèlerine. Votre credencial, s'il vous plaît.' Those Benedictines don't spare many words, but the monk was certainly kind to me. He stamped and dated my credencial booklet quickly, took a key from the keybox, and led me back out to the dark corridor. Stopping by the refectory, he offered me some tea and a biscuit, then took me to a small elevator. On the third floor, he showed me my room for the night - simple, clean, and importantly with a radiator below the two soaring lancet windows. He pulled back the red velvet curtains while explaining the hours of the offices: vespers at 1830 and vigil at 2030, both in the crypt and announced with the sounding of bells; supper at 1900 in the guest refectory. He handed me a course wool blanket and asked if I had my own sheets and towel.

I had little time to rest after a hot shower and a quick washing of my clothes before I heard the bells. I found the refectory again on the ground level, then followed the dark corridor around the huge cloister - 200 feet along each side - to the opposite corner. I saw in the dim silence the monks in the black robes descend to the crypt. I followed them down, sort of wishing I had a wool robe, too, as the corridor was damp and cold. The crpyt was surprisingly warm, though. A mustard colored carpet over the stone floor and some radiators made it cozy among the stout columns and high vaulted ceilings.

In total, eighteen monks assembled around a central alter. One took his place at the organ. Candles were lit. I took a seat off to a side with two lay men. Père Hoteliére saw me and brought me the Vespers songbook and the Advent book. Traditionally, the psalms and responses would have been sung in Latin with an enormous illuminated book of chants centrally placed, but that tradition's been replaced with the service in French and each person having his own little book. The monks, ranging in age from mid 20s to, whew, that one guy looked to be in his 90s!, oddly, all wore glasses. There was antiphon chanting - one group chanting the psalms in a higher pitch and the others responding in a lower tone. It's really quite beautiful.

After the service, the other two non-monks left through the exterior staircase - obviously not staying the night. I followed the procession of monks, all in silence, back up to the cloister corridor. One monk whispered to me that I mustn't use the same side of the cloister - it was reserved for the monk community. Instead, I must use the guest corridor - the one without any lights at all. I groped my way alone back to the guest refectory and was happy enough to find that there were 8 other guests that evening. Young men and women who chose not to attend Vespers.

The monks occupy themselves in art. There's an atelier for them that's open to students. I didn't get whether the monks themselves provide instruction, but somehow, the abbey of Maredsous is the center of an artist colony. In my room, I noticed that the art was all original and modern. There was a notice of the giftshop and catalog.

After the supper of vegetable soup, bread, and cheese, I had to rest my feet rather than wander around the abbey. I attended the late evening service in the crypt, slept soundly, and left in the light rain after a small breakfast followng the morning service, long before dawn.

Such is a glimpse of the interior of a monastery. I would have enjoyed staying the whole day there and learning more about the history of the abbey and the art of the monks, looking around the cloister in daylight, inside the church, too, but there's a long-standing rule among hospitality to pilgrims - one supper, one night's stay, one breakfast. Besides, a pilgrim doesn't reach Santiago by standing still.

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