Friday, April 18, 2008

Weekend at Corpus Christi Monastery

So Mery and Diep and I flew up to visit the contemplative Dominican nuns last weekend. I think I'll make a career of visiting religious orders; they're so hospitable. :)

The weekend started at 5:30 AM on Saturday. At our church we joined the regular early risers and a large crowd of Spanish speakers who'd been there all night in adoration. Father said Mass for us in Spanish since they had the majority, but he did the Consecration in Latin to keep everybody happy. I liked that; it was the first time I ever heard it in Latin, since the consecration is done in an undertone at a TLM. Afterwards we dramatically hugged everyone goodbye and begged a blessing from Father. "I'll be back on Sunday!" I assured a friend, who looked unimpressed: "That's tomorrow night." Somehow it seemed to us like it was going to be a long trip, perhaps because a plane was involved, or else because a monastery's another world.

We had an uneventful flight from LAX (not an airport I recommend) to San Jose in the Bay Area, where Sister Maria Christine picked us up. She's the extern sister, which means she's the only one who goes outside the monastic enclosure. We drove to the very pretty, rural-looking neighborhood where the monastery's located. They have two acres of buildings and eleven acres total of land, but most of this we never saw since it's part of the enclosure. Mery was inside during the month of her aspirancy, but this time she had to stay in the guest quarters with us. I was delighted with our rooms-- small and simple with signs on the doors welcoming us by name, crucifixes over our beds, and heavy wooden shutters on the inside of the windows. The shutters were the great selling point; I like old-fashioned stuff like that. Mery pointed out the view of the monastery's chapel from my windows. "Sleeping under the same roof with Jesus!" The bedrooms opened onto a big common room with comfy furniture and lots of good books, but we never spent even a minute there-- too much else to do all weekend.

We had a chat with Sister Mary Catherine, the prioress. I was surprised to learn that she hadn't been with the community all that long, given that she's the leader, but later I learned that their prioress changes every three years. These nuns are pretty democratic and apparently a big part of the prioress' duty is to try to achieve consensus. I'm not sure but I think most other congregations are more of a monarchy with a Mother Abbess in charge for life. I think I'd prefer the latter, possibly because I'm envisioning Peggy Wood from Sound of Music putting the smackdown on silly young nuns. Our chat with the prioress took place in one of the rooms at the border between the enclosure part and the guest part of the monastery. She removed the screens so we could talk more easily. Apparently older monasteries had fixed grills that couldn't be removed-- a priest told me he once saw an old monastery with spikes coming out of the grill to prevent visitors from even leaning in too close!

Soon it was lunchtime; we ate in the guest dining room and we ate well. The extern sister brought our plates and every meal was big. Afterwards we attempted to walk off the meal with a walk around the outside of the monastery. It was built in the 1920's in Gothic style and has more taste in its little chimney than most buildings have in the whole house. I loved the chapel. In this picture you can just see one of the nuns in the choir stalls on the other side. Note the position of the Dominican friar saying Mass-- since he faces the nuns, Mass from our perspective was ad orientum. :)

Here's the gate on the altar rail. The Latin means something like "Mankind ate the bread of angels", which is from one of the Psalms about manna in the desert, and now is applied to the Eucharist. It's wonderful how much Catholic doctrine is communicated visually in a church like this. There are churches that lift your mind and heart to God and put you in a praying mood as soon as you step inside, and this was one of them. Kind of a shame the nuns don't see it, but no doubt their side is pretty too.

We gathered for prayer six times a day (well, we guests missed a time or two) and got to chant along with the nuns, they on their side of the chapel and we on ours. Their way of doing the Office is not long and elaborate, but it's lovely. They chant all but the readings and do a profound bow with every "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit..." This had an interesting effect on me. Normally when I say the Hours, especially alone, all those Glory Be's feel like speedbumps. It's not anything new or interesting; it's just something I have to get over before I can begin the next Psalm. But bowing ninety degrees at the waist every time forced me to reflect on what I was saying and why. The Glory Be's became not an annoying slowdown, but the climax of each section, the point of the Office. I'll try to remember to think of them that way.

In the afternoon we walked to a nearby retreat center and toured the parish church, another lovely old one, right down the road. (It's kinda sad when you look into one of the ornate built-in confessionals of an older church and see it's being used for storage...) Diep and I were photographing every building, statue, and flower we passed, just as Mery did when she first visited the monastery. In the evening back home we got to meet nearly the whole community and chatted nonstop until we all had to leave for Compline. That was great fun. In my limited experience of nuns, they usually seem joyful, and these were no exception. They enthusiastically hugged Mery and grilled Diep and me to tell them about ourselves. While we were talking I noticed that some of them were occupied writing very rapidly on a piece of paper which they then passed around to others. This mystifying behavior was later explained to me by Mery-- they were recording our conversation to show the older nuns who don't hear well.

On Sunday morning after Mass we were joined at breakfast by Louise, who'd done an aspirancy at the same time as Mery, and afterwards we all headed to St. Patrick's seminary a few minutes away. A seminarian friend of ours met us and showed us over the building and grounds. What a grand place it is. I could spend hours there just walking the halls and studying all the pictures. The seminarians live on the third floor and classes and offices are on the floors below, with a big library sprawling into the basement. There's a small and beautiful Eucharistic chapel and a really impressive big chapel in the center of the building. I was sorry (but not in the least surprised) to hear from our friend that there's a lot of heterodoxy among the teachers and students at St. Patrick's. (I was going to call them "liberal", but that word has really been mangled and its classical meaning has nothing to do with what I'm talking about.) Possibly related is this depressing picture: the ordained priests from St. Patrick's with the class of 1954 on the left and the class of 1966 on the right. There were no more class pictures after the 60's, but I think San Jose had five ordained last year, same number as in the Archdiocese of L.A.

We said farewell to our seminarian friend, and back at the monastery after lunch we chatted with "the novitiate", the two newest members of the community. I thought they would have to go as 2 pm drew near, since that's the monastery's profound silence hour. But they were deep in conversation with Louise and Diep and showed no sign of leaving. As 2 o'clock turned into 2:10 and then 2:20 PM, Mery and I slipped to the back of the room and documented the flagrant rule violation with time-stamped digital photos. But then the extern sister passed by and seemed disinclined to scold, so apparently the blackmail potential of our shots will be limited.

Mery had billed the weekend as a spiritual exercise. "Like doing a mini retreat," she said. Lots of time to sit in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament and pray, she said. Didn't happen. We did lots of talking and eating and exploring and chanting the Divine Office, but the only time I had to pray alone was the few hours on Sunday afternoon before dinner. (It was really lovely with golden afternoon light filtering through the chapel windows.) Dinner consisted of Filipino vegetables and eggrolls-- one of the Filipino sisters had received a visit from her family and they'd brought lots of food.

And then Louise drove us three to the airport and our visit was over. As anticipated, it had been much too short. But wonderful!


James Bernard said...

Thank you, Rachel. I have been waiting for your impressions. I really enjoy your refections on the "Glory be". If you ever get the chance to chant at a monastery on the feast of the Holy Trinity, take it! Those doxologies will make you weep with joy!

James Bernard said...

Today, driving back from the Servant's convent, I thought of you every time I came to a speed bump and said a "Glory be".

Rachel Gray said...


That reminds me of something Fr. Fernando said, that if we get stuck in traffic, we should think of it as God's way of getting us to spend some time with Him. "He wants to talk to you so much, he stopped all this traffic to get you to pray!"