New Vocations, New Times

Br. Benedict Dyar

In the movie “Into Great Silence,” there is a scene where a new monk, after living in the monastery for several years, is formally received as a member of the order. It is one of the more memorable scenes in this unusual look at life in cloistered world. They leave their past behind and embrace a new life and new family, wholly devoted to prayer and work for God. We watch in awe, and perhaps why understand this special vocation for the first time.

It was a great privilege to see this very ceremony in person this past weekend at St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. The newest monk used to sing in my parish choir. The first time I had met him he was singing the office in English with a friend in the parish where no one else was present. He seemed to be at home most when singing and praying. Now he lives permanently in this home.

St. Bernard’s is a fascinating place. The Mass I attended had all of the monks and priests processing to the Gregorian introit Gaudete, customized for the feast of St. Bernard. The Mass ordinary was entirely Gregorian and not in a conventional way. It showed a great deal of sophistication. No more propers were sung, which I found regrettable, but the English hymn choices were solid. The readings were all sung and I’m pretty sure that this is the first time I’ve seen this in a setting that wasn’t organized by musicians!

This setting is not what one would consider “traditionalist” by any stretch. But there was the chant. And there were some 12 or so monks and another 6 to 8 priests. Most the brothers looked to be under the age of 40 or maybe around 30 years old. Many of the older priests and brothers probably remember the tumultuous years very well. I’m filling in blanks here based entirely on the experience of other such places, but I can easily imagine this place went through some rough times in the 1960s through the 1980s or later.

I have no evidence to back this up; I’m deducing this based on the experience of everyone else in these times. And yet here St. Bernard’s stands today, attracting young monks and it is very obviously these young monks who are pushing forward with the liturgical agenda of chant and solemnity throughout. The young are helping the young to rediscover what has been lost. It was actually very moving to see it all. There is a future here. Not all monasteries can say the same.

The very next day, our own full schola sang at Mass in my parish. We sang all three minor propers from the Graduale Romanum – only the second time we’ve done this. We sang them with mixed voices, which creates an interesting sound that it more like a parish than a monastery, and I’m starting to feel a draw to it. More and more I see the point to do a “suite” of propers in the same style to create a larger artistic arch for the whole liturgical experience. We also sang a gigantic and difficult piece by Thomas Tallis. We ended with a recessional that everyone knew, sung a capella in parts. It was all stunning, and all came about with the efforts of volunteers and no paid professionals at all.

Ten years ago, I could sense a feeling of some measure of controversy when we would sing these great music. It felt like an uphill climb, and there was a sense that the schola had to watch out for threats to our very existence. No more. It is now so normal and expected that the question of whether this music is right or now is completely absent. It is now regarded as the south of the faith.

Considering these two events back to back, I’m left with a strong sense here that we can get through this. The wrangling and bitterness of the past are receding in memory. The chant can be taken up with renewed vigor and without the fears and agendas of the past. In this sense, the freedom to progress is being purified of the mixed motives and politics that have held back the liturgical movement over the last decades.

Think of these young monks. The newest one was born perhaps 20 years after the close of the second Vatican Council. What does he know of the controversies of these years? Absolutely nothing. All he has known has been the instability and lack of seriousness of the liturgical framework of the 1990s and from here it was rather obvious where to go.

What had the Church done with all its beautiful sung liturgy? Where is the chant? Where is the polyphony? Where is the desire to sing what the Church has given rather than what someone has made up and tacked on?

This is how the enlightened young generation thinks. There is no where else to go but to beauty, because the attempt to purge it and replace it with groovy populism doesn’t come near satisfying the inner longings of the soul. It doesn’t come close to expressing the love and the holiness that the faith’s public worship otherwise inspires.

Clearly we need a match between the reality of the miracle on the altar and the art that accompanies that action. We need to stop thinking solely about how we might please people and start thinking about whether we are truly pleasing God, deferring to the ideals that the Church has given us that expressing theological truth. This union of faith and art provides the greatest and most solemn experience that can be had this side of heaven. Why should we eschew this in favor of a concoction of our own that is destined to fall short?

The controversialists and the agenda-driven ideologues haven’t completely vanished. They are still there and they are still in charge of many Offices of Worship at the chancery level. Publishers can still be uncomprehending about the changed times. There remain many people in positions of power who are still resisting, using every opportunity to ride their hobby horses. But it’s grown tiresome and dreary. The hope, the happiness, the willingness to work and sacrifice for the faith are coming mostly from the side that favors true progress, which, in our times, must necessarily mean recapturing the sights and sounds of timelessness.