John J. McLain

I hurriedly vest for Mass, fingers fumbling over the unfamiliar cincture. I pick up the books of hymns and prayers and scurry out of the sacristy, moving through the ancient stone church and the outer chapel. Pausing to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament at a side altar to Our Lady, I shiver even under three layers of vestments; the outer chapel is cold as a meat locker. I pass through double doors and down some steps into the dimly lit, tunnel-like hall where we will line up for the procession into Mass. Flipping through the books to look at the chants, I nearly bump into someone and glance up to see Moby.

 

I do a quick double take to reassure myself that the man standing in front of me isn’t really the musician, and he isn’t. But the resemblance between Father Abbot and the techno artist is uncanny. Both are slight, short men with closely cropped, nearly shaved heads, bookish-looking with bright, intelligent eyes. Apart from the horn-rimmed glasses and heavy white wool monk’s habit, the two could be separated-at-birth twins—until they open their mouths to sing, of course. Then the difference between the nasal techno, processed voice of the modern world and the ancient, pure chants of the monk would dispel any doubt about who was who.

Seeing something pass over my face, the abbot asks, “Something wrong, Father?”

“No...it’s just.... No.” Between those two nos I think about trying to explain to him what I was thinking. I decide that it would take too long to explain who Moby is, let alone what techno music is. The other monks and a couple of other visiting priests arrive and we begin to process into the church. The monks begin to chant the entrance antiphon, and I am swept up in an ecstatic experience centuries older than any rave.

I came to Pluscarden Abbey to make my annual retreat because I needed some solitude, some silence and some time to pray. When another Jesuit friend and I started looking for a place to make retreat in Scotland, I used Google to search for “Scotland retreat” and after some Web crawling found the Benedictine abbey’s Web site. Of the options I presented to my Jesuit confrere, he responded most positively to this one. It was the one that attracted me the most too. When I sent an e-mail to a British Jesuit friend asking if he knew anything about the place, the only response I received was: “Scotland in January? Take your long underwear. You’re on your own on this one, mate.”

When I was learning to surf, a weathered, older surfer with salt-frizzed blond hair turned to me and said: “Man, you’ve just got to remember one thing: the ocean is bigger than you are and stronger than you are, so never fight her. Just go with the currents and don’t fight. If you fight, you’ll lose.”

The same was true for me at the monastery. Here the waves were not roaring in from the ocean, but waves of prayer built into the day that came in and nearly swamped me on the first couple of days. I kept trying to overlay my own rhythms and patterns on the day and ended up feeling unsettled and confused. It seemed that every time I turned around, another bell was ringing, calling me back to the chapel to pray again. Those bells interrupted my own carefully planned times for prayer, which was precisely the point of the monastic cycle. Because the rhythms were not mine, I ended up feeling I was not praying right; as if I should be praying more.

Then I realized that every time I stopped what I was doing and made my way to the chapel to attempt to sing the office, I was praying—maybe not in the way my modern and technological mind was used to, but in a way that pulled me out of myself. For 17 years I have prayed as a Jesuit, in a style of prayer that has its own beats, its own unique graces and modes. Now I was confronted with a song whose melody was as beautiful as the Ignatian way, but as different as the blues are from a Mozart opera.

I love music, all kinds of music. At last count my iPod had 6,403 songs on it. Those songs range from hardcore punk to smoky country to big band to classical to thrash metal. It is a wonder the poor device doesn’t explode in a musical fit of schizophrenia. But what I find more frequently, as I get older, is that when I listen to a new album, it isn’t usually the first listen that grabs me. It is still too new: the lyrics and beats, the guitars and pianos; trying to figure out what goes where and whether I like it. No; it’s usually on the second, third or fourth try that I decide, “Yes, this album will work.” So here I was, trying to decide if I was even qualified to judge the music that God was playing for me. It was so strange to me. So new. What if I wasn’t responding to it correctly? What if I couldn’t get it right? Would that mean that I was not praying correctly?

But God was not asking me to pray correctly (clearly God has heard me sing before) but to just show up and pray. Period. That was the insight that turned everything loose inside. I stopped fighting the ocean of prayer and just started riding the wave of the monastery. When I began structuring my day around the monastic rhythms, wonderful things began to happen. I was able to write for the first time in almost a year. I was not so distracted about whether I should be praying more or whether I was praying correctly. Just being open to God allowed me to see where God was already present to me, slowing down and forcing me into different cycles.

One of the things that touched me most about my time in the monastery was singing the Mass in Latin. This went pretty much against the grain of my being. But I loved it. Too frequently in our day the Latin Mass is used as an ideological football to advance the view that either: a) the church does not need such an anachronism and that we are too grown up for that or b) that celebrating Mass in the vernacular is wrong, and all would be right with the world if we simply started saying Mass in Latin again. I find both points of view invalid and, when taken to extremes, repellant. But here I was, on one of my first days in the monastery, being told by Brother Gabriel, the guest master, that the abbot’s expectation was that all priests in the abbey, visitors or not, would join the community at Mass, in singing the Mass—in Latin. Clearly Father Abbot had never heard my off-key warblings or seen my poor Latin grades.

But the experience was not at all what I expected it to be. There was no theological or ideological agenda to the eucharistic celebration here. Inside the walls of that abbey, singing the Mass as best I could, trying to follow the tonal lead of the monks was a graced experience. Here, in the ancient stone walls of the monastery, singing the Mass in Latin made sense. This is a place where it belonged, where it was in harmony with both the assembly of believers gathered and the place and the way the Mass was being celebrated. Here was God again calling me out of my preconceptions of what prayer is or is not supposed to be and showing me that God would provide abundant grace in places unlooked for and unexpected. If I would show up, if I would take a risk, if I would try to find and experience God in something outside of my own zones of comfort, if I would show up to pray—then God would meet me there with grace in plenty.

There are those who might want to believe that the 21st century has no need of the monastic vocation, that sitting behind the walls of the abbey and singing a prayer for the rest of the world is outmoded, that it is naïve or simplistic. I am a man who loves the perks of the 21st century. I am by no means ready to give up my cell phone, my laptop or my iPod and, most importantly, my Jesuit vocation in order to become a monk. I love my Ignatian ways of proceeding, that will always be my home: the mainstream rock ’n’ roll beat that I know best and love to play air guitar to. But the monastic way of life is no anachronism, nor are these men some group seeking to flee the 21st century. The song they play is a necessary one for our world to hear, and clearly our world would do well to stop and listen to the song they sing for us.

The architect Patrick Horsbrugh has a theory about the design and building of concert halls. He holds that you can bring in all the acoustic experts and sound engineers you like to try to “tune” the building, but in the end, it will do no good. Like great musical instruments themselves, these buildings require a seasoning, a period of aging to become great. He holds that what they require is that music be played in them; that the timbers and walls, the floors and ceilings be mellowed and rounded by the vibrations of the music played in them. Given the beauty of the sounds that emanate from the monks and suppleness of the sound within that ancient chapel, I cannot doubt this any longer.

John J. McLain, S.J., a former U.S. Army chaplain who served in Afghanistan, is assistant director of development for the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.

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