Every now and again even monasteries must tend to the little things in the daily routine. As any astute observer of human nature can tell you, the devil is always in the details; and left untreated for long enough, little things morph into the big deals that come back to haunt us.
In that spirit the abbot posted a note last week, listing three appointments to responsibility within the community. For the next six months Fr. Bob will be acting choirmaster, while the current monk-choirmaster is away on sabbatical. Second, Brother Paul-Vincent will work with monks when they read or lead the prayers at the liturgy of the hours. And rounding out the triad, Fr. J.P. will serve as the “in-house pronunciation guide.”
The abbot didn’t have to justify any of this, but he hinted at its importance anyway. For one thing, he noted, we simply couldn’t get by for six months without a choirmaster. As for the quality of our public reading, most of us could always do a bit — or in a few cases a lot — better. We’ve come a long way since the 12th century, when Saint Bernard could preach to and be heard by 10,000 people. Today, with the marvels of modern technology, we’re lucky to hear anything at all. And as for proper pronunciation, perfection is always something for which to strive, but its achievement can be a mixed blessing. Perfection would certainly better the tone of our prayer, but could we live with the trade-off? Over the years we’ve compiled a short list of celebrated howlers and bloopers made by unprepared readers. Could we live without that mirth? There’s something to be said for spontaneous and pure laughter, even at prayer. So I’m not sure we’re quite ready to sacrifice all that.
So what does all this mean in practice? Well, on the day of the note-posting, Fr. Bob spoke to the community about the quality of our singing and our cadence in the recitation of the Psalms. He opened with the observation that while it’s true that individually we are each great singers, we can’t always say that about some of the monks sitting on either side of us. (Mirth.) He didn’t reveal the names on his list, “because we all know who they are.” (More mirth.)
Compounding that, there are monks who are never happy with the pace, and so they take it upon themselves to speed things up or slow things down. Innocent parties who prefer to go with the flow find themselves caught in the middle, not quite knowing how to handle the situation. And then there’s the larger issue of our collective recitation. The monks on the abbot’s side of the choir invariably sing too fast, while those on the prior’s side (my side, incidentally), tend to keep to a perfect pace. How does a good choirmaster deal with these and a myriad other issues? “Gently,” says Fr. Bob in more candid moments.
Public reading is something even Saint Benedict found to be a problem, and he warned that “not just anybody should take up the book and read.” I agree totally with that, and to that end I long ago compiled a list of monks who should not read in public, ever. I’m sure most every monk would concur with my selections; but since the abbot is hesitant to go that far, he promises help to those who need it. In brief, he wrote, if someone’s reading is “too fast, to slow, too soft, too anything,” then they can expect a helpful visit from Br. Paul-Vincent.
I have to confess that the appointment of the “in-house pronunciation guide” took me by surprise, and not because we don’t need such a person. We most definitely do. For one thing, we have a number of monks for whom English is a second language. Then there are the monks for whom English is not a second language. For years I’ve pointed out that Sweden and Minnesota are alike in so many ways, save that in Sweden everybody speaks better English. So never underestimate our capacity for improvement when it comes to our public reading. Still, Fr. J.P.’s appointment leaves unfilled the post of “out-house pronunciation guide.” We’ve never had such an official, but perhaps the abbot anticipates the spread of potty-mouth English in years to come. It’s best to be prepared, I suppose.
One can argue that there are enough problems in the world and in the monastery, and we shouldn’t nitpick over this sort of stuff. True enough. One could also argue that we should be grateful that people bother to show up for prayer at all, and leave them in peace. And that too is true enough. But Saint Benedict suggests that everything we do has a sacred character, and anything worth doing is worth doing well. And so it is that we need to pay attention to the little things, and not just because they can morph into big problems when we neglect them. Because it’s also true that the little things, done well, become the foundation for a life well lived.
It seems to me that whether you live in a monastery or not, this principle applies. So if we want the world to be a better place, the place to begin is with ourselves. And if we start there, the best approach is to reach for the low-hanging fruit. Focus on the least of things and go from there. That, it seems to me, is how we develop good friendships, good marriages, and good relationships with the Lord. Sure, it’s safe to say that other people, and even the Lord, are willing to overlook and even forgive a lot. But why test their patience? Why not bring out the best in ourselves each and every day? It can only help, I think.
It’s safe to say that choir practice and attention to reading will always be remedial actions. Twenty years from now a new abbot will post a list of new appointees who will tend to these same old challenges. But such is life for everyone. It’s why we get up each day to begin life anew. It’s why we work for improvement and pray for continued growth. It’s what makes life such an adventure as together we search for the Lord.
+On December 4th and 5th I attended meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.
+On December 6th Bishop Donald Ketler visited the Abbey and ordained Brother Nickolas Kleespie to the diaconate. This coming semester Brother Nickolas will work as deacon in Saint Joseph Parish, in Saint Joseph, MN. For those unfamiliar with the geography of central Minnesota, this is three miles from the abbey, and monks from the abbey have staffed this parish forever.
+In the days following Thanksgiving the decorating crew swung into action, putting up greens and ornaments all over the place. Pride of place belongs to The Great Hall, where the photos in today’s post were taken. Their preparations culminated in a Christmas concert on December 5th. But on the 4th the Trustees were privileged to hear a private concert, as student choirs rehearsed for performances on campus and at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, on December 6th.