Thursday, 15 June 2006

A Time to Keep Silence

A visit to some parishioners meant that I only caught the second half of The Convent, the much-heralded BBC sequel to last year's The Monastery. The Poor Clares of Arundel came across fairly well (though it's sad they don't sing more of their Office) and it was good to see some shots of Fr Tim Madeley, the Dean of Arundel Cathedral, who joined our pilgrimage to Bavaria in February. But I must confess I began flicking around the channels - and a last minute goal by Germany against Poland meant I missed the close of the documentary. I wonder, if Pope Benedict had visited Poland after this match, would his reception have been less friendly?

However, this week I've been reading a fantastic book about the monastic life: A Time to Keep Silence (1957) by Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. The book, which is still in print, contains beautifully written accounts of the author's experiences at St Wandrille de Fontanelle (in France), the 'Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia,' and the famous houses of Solesmes and La Grand Trappe.

Here, for example, is his eloquent defense of the monastic life, which Joseph II would have benefitted from reading:

But what good do [the monks] do, immured in monasteries far from all contact with the world? The answer is - if the truth of the Christian religion and the efficacy of prayer are both dismissed as baseless - no more than any other human beings who lead a good life, make (for they support themselves) no economic demands on the community, harm no one and respect their neighbours. But should the two principles be admitted - particularly, for the purpose of this particular theme, the latter - their power for good is incalculable. Belief in this power, and in the necessity of worshipping God daily and hourly, is the mainspring of Benedictine life...With this daily, unflagging stream of worship, a volume of prayer ascends, of which, if it is efficacious, we are all the beneficiaries. (pp32 & 34).
Part of this prayer is Compline (my favourite hour):

The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night, a warding-off of the powers of darkness, each word throwing up a barrier or shooting home a bolt against the prowling regions of the Evil One.
'Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi,' the voices sing, 'et sub pennis ejus sperabis.'
'Scuto circumdabit te veritas ejus; non timebis a timore nocturno.'
'A sagitta volante in die, a negotio perambulante in tenebris ad incursu et daemonio meridiano.'
One by one the keys turn in the wards, the portcullises fall, the invisible drawbridges touch the battlements...
Procul recedant somnia
Et noctium phantasmata
Hostemque nostrum comprime
Ne polluantur corpora
The windows are barred against the lurking incubus, the pre-eighth century iambic dimeters seal up any remaining loophole against the invasion of the hovering succubi. (pp44-45)
Talking of which, I must sign off now and recite Compline. Tu autem, Domine, miserere nobis.


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