Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter IV. A Day at Holy Cross.

WE have described the ideals for which the Order of the Holy Cross stands, and have sketched its brief and uneventful history. Let us now see how the Community translates its principles into a practical form of every-day living.

We suspect that it would be an interesting and even amusing venture to secure from some of our friends their notion of how the members of the Community spend their time at Holy Cross.

Occasionally some one gives us, all unintentionally, a glimpse of what is in his mind on the subject, and we are startled by a vision of a group of monks, haunting a long cloister, gazing languidly out over the Hudson to the hills beyond, anxious indeed to be busy, but with not very much to do, save now and then when the arrival of a guest causes a flutter of activity, or the coming of the post arouses a mild expectancy.

If these friends would give us the privilege of entertaining them at the monastery, they would perhaps receive the same impression as that registered some time since on the mind of an up-to-date New York business man, who devoted a weekend to his first visit to Holy Cross. He wrote a few days later to [25/26] one of the Fathers: "I wanted to talk with you when I was at Holy Cross, but I was so bewildered (italics his own) at the amount of work you each do that I hesitated to take anyone's time."

And what is all this work that is so "bewildering" to an unsuspecting guest? The best way to answer this question would be to bring the inquirer to Holy Cross, and take him with us hour by hour through the day's routine.

If we should take this day upon which I happen to be writing we would begin with a scene of rare winter beauty. If you can, without too much violence to your feeling, imagine yourself abroad at so early an hour as 5130 a.m., you would find the air keen and still. The mercury is hovering a little above zero, and the frost hangs hoar on every limb, and silvers the long line of the farm fences and every forest tree with a million gleaming crystals. Around the eastern half of the horizon sweeps a belt of clear ruddy gold, the earnest of the dawn, shining through the lace-work of the trees that fringe the hilltops across the river. Dark shadows still lurk beneath the river-banks, and amongst the thickets of wild shrubbery; but the alchemy of the coming day is swiftly dissolving them, while the stars, undimmed by the least fleck of mist, are glittering pale against a turquoise sky.

"Morning and light are coming in their beauty."

Suddenly along the halls, through the stillness, as [26/27] the caller passes from door to door, there sounds the salutation with which for immemorial centuries Religious have greeted the dawn, "Let us bless the Lord"; and from within each cell is heard the hearty response, "Thanks be to God"; fitting words indeed to be the first that Religious take upon their lips with each returning day.

Lights glimmer along the passages and stairs, and by 6 the brethren have taken their places in the choir. The morning Offices then proceed, followed by the Masses. A more particular account of these services will be given in a subsequent chapter on "The Chapel."

Breakfast is then served, after which the housework is done, cells are cared for, and all with much expedition, as a little later begins the morning meditation, "the daily renewal of the Upper Room on the morning of Pentecost," as our Rule describes it.

Fresh from this blessing of the Holy Spirit, the daily Chapter of the Community is held every morning for the purpose of disposing the day's work, and arranging various programmes of the activities of the Community.

This would give our enquiring guest a still more bewildering glimpse, for here what is to be done for our Lord is canvassed, counsel is sought, brains, experience and knowledge are freely borrowed.

The Office of Terce is then sung; and a half hour later, as the morning silence begins, one would find [27/28] no languid group on a sunny cloister, but a corps of men, alert and intense, each claiming every minute for the manifold duties that are assigned him.

Everywhere are signs of activity. There are dishes to be washed, sacristy work to be done with reverence and despatch, dinner to be prepared, outdoor work to be superintended, for wherever it is possible, the dwellers in a monastery do all their own work.

Often our guests are able to be of much help in certain of these activities. Indeed, not infrequently the dawn of a vocation to the Religious Life is found in the practical co-operation of a visitor in the ordinary duties of the monastery.

And this has to be done with system in order to leave time for the minimum period of study which the Rule contemplates each day, and--more important than anything else--for the required times of prayer. In a Religious house nothing is so carefully guarded as the devotional life. Often the work has to be retrenched, but prayer never.

Time never hangs heavy on the hands of a busy man, and the morning period is drawing to a close before one realizes it. Each one is still deep in his task when a clear peal sounds from the great bell in the tower above the chapel. This warning signal tells us that we have fifteen minutes in which to bring the work to a close, and repair at noon to the Chapel for Sext and None.

These Offices concluded, dinner follows, and after a short visit to the Chapel, the Community recreation [28/29] is held in the common-room. This observance is universal in Religious Communities, and we shall hear more about it in another chapter.

Later in the afternoon, there is perhaps a walk. In summer, much work is done in the monastery gardens, for while some years ago we gave up conducting a farm, having found that the output was much more than the income from such a venture, yet we raise a large part of the vegetables we use on our table, and thus by the labour of our hands seek to [29/30] supplement, for our support, the offerings which our friends send for the upkeep of the mother-house of our Order.

By work and thrift we are able to raise not only our vegetables for the summer, but to put up a substantial amount for use during the winter.

Thus the pleasant and at the same time profitable work goes on in the garden, until the Chapel bell again sounds, calling all to Vespers which is followed by the evening meditation.

Supper is then served, and shortly after eight Compline, the last office of the daily round of prayer, is sung. This service, in many respects more than any other, expresses the confiding trust of the soul through the darkness of the night in the good God, and His tender compassion towards His people.

The final words of the Compline Office are: "The divine help remain with us always. Amen." With this appeal to God the "Great Silence" comes down upon the house, a silence not only from open speech, but "a silence of the heart." And now all through the night no word is spoken until across the stillness of the dawn is heard the summons: "Let us bless the Lord."

One by one the lights go out until only the heart of flame that throbs perpetually above the Holy Place where the Blessed Sacrament reposes, or that burns before the statue of the Mother of God, shows here and there a figure kneeling before altar or shrine.

Again the hours that are gone are passed in [30/31] review; the silent confession of the sins of the day is being made; the last act of adoration to the Most Holy is offered; the last Ave is spoken in love to God's Holy Mother.

Cor ad cor loquitur. At no other ' time does heart so speak to heart as in this holy silence when the oblation of the day's work is made at the feet of God, and the spirit is once more commended into His Hands. Kneeling in this worshipful place one realizes the deeper meaning of what our Rule tells us of silence:

"As the contemplative gazing up to the glory of his ascended Lord is the type of the perfect Religious, so forgetfulness of all about, and the hushing of all earthly converse and intercourse with others concerning transitory things, is the normal atmosphere of the Religious house. We are really never in such close intimacy as when we are drawn together in blessed stillness before our Lord in the Sacrament of His Love, communing one with another even while absorbed in loving adoration of Him."

[32] And so the day ends. In another hour the last light is out, and God's servants go to their rest signing themselves with the Sign of the Cross, with the prayer on their lips and in their hearts:

"O Saviour of the world, who by Thy Cross and Precious Blood hast redeemed us: save us and help us we humbly beseech thee, O Lord."

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