Chapter IX. The Common-Room.
THE expression, "Recreation," in a Religious Rule is not used in the popular sense, meaning simply the relaxation and amusement in which one might indulge in order to unstring the bow. Recreation in a Religious house is that period of the day when the Religious meet together for mutual intercourse of an informal character.
Twice daily, immediately after dinner and supper, the members of the Community at Holy Cross gather in the common-room for a period of recreation. It is a time of relaxation but, as our Rule carefully states, it is not a time of "mere relaxation." Rather is it "a spiritual exercise, and a special opportunity for the mortification of self-love, and the development of a community spirit."
Another passage in the Rule of the Order reads as follows: "It might be said that our recreations are a [63/64] test of our spiritual progress, for if we are gaining in the life of prayer, of intercourse with God, we shall find that we are growing more simple and unobtrusive and charitable and edifying in our intercourse with others."
Recreation always follows the visit to the Blessed Sacrament after meals, which was described in the chapter on the refectory. The entire community comes directly from the act of adoration of our Lord, to the common-room. This exercise is begun with the freshness of sacramental worship in our hearts.
We are reminded of the character of recreation by the fact that it has a formal beginning. The brethren being assembled, the Superior, or the senior present, signing himself with the sign of the Cross, says, "God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ"; upon which the response is made, "By whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world." Thus, even the recreations of a Religious house are brought under the invocation of the Holy Cross, and these words of the apostle set the tone of our intercourse and conversation.
Before we consider what is involved in recreation, let us glance at the common-room. It is a room quite large enough to accommodate twenty-five or thirty persons. On the walls are sacred pictures, and dominating all is a bronze crucifix, the constant reminder of Him whom we seek to remember as the One who presides at all our exercises, be they grave or gay. [64/65] He who graced the wedding feast at Cana finds His joy in the pleasures, as well as in the serious labours of His people. A long table occupies the center of the room, while on the sides stand a piano and a bookcase. At the far end is a broad fireplace where on cool evenings in the early spring or late autumn we are cheered by the genial blaze of an open wood-fire.
A half dozen windows open to the south and east, the sills of which are bright with pots of flowering plants. On the south the spreading branches of a great tree come close to the windows, and through their leafy screen one looks far down the shining reaches of the river to Krum Elbow, and to the Beacon Mountains twenty miles away, while the spires of Poughkeepsie stand against the sky in the intermediate distance.
On the east the view is directly across the Hudson, a noble river indeed, which at this point is about three-quarters of a mile wide. On the further bank rises a low range of wooded hills which stretch away across the country until they merge into the loftier Berkshires, which lie not many miles distant beyond the Connecticut state line.
It is a pleasant room, full of sunshine on bright days, and in the warm season the windows open directly into the trees which ring all day with the singing of birds.
Perhaps our friends would like to know what we talk about at recreation. We could more easily tell you what we do not talk about. We try to find the [65/66] key-note for our conversation, as we have seen, in the words of the Apostle which warn us to avoid all boastfulness, all cynicism, all gossip and scandal; all heated controversy, or words that would wound. But the pagan dramatist Terence also gives us a motto for our recreation, "Humani nihil a me alienum puto--I count nothing that is human alien to me."
Could you look in on our gathering you might find us dealing with some burning issue of the present day; some question of politics; the world's news as it can be interpreted from the morning paper; social topics, in which everyone at Holy Cross takes a profound interest--unemployment, the blundering, hopeless efforts which are made to put the world right without God; industrial iniquities, and the selfish sins of capital and labour, or their virtues; or, what arises very frequently, the discussion of some Scriptural, theological, or moral topic. One or another of us often brings in some problem he has been seeking to solve in order to get the opinion of the brethren, or to draw upon their composite knowledge of the subject. Not infrequently permission is asked to read some extract from a book or magazine which throws a light upon some important issue we had recently been discussing. Or, again, we listen eagerly to the accounts of mission work that a recently returned brother has been doing, accounts of the blessing which God has sent upon some endeavour to bring souls to Him. It is in these discussions that the younger men are able to draw upon the experiences [66/67] of the older men and thus learn how the work is done. Letters of common interest are often read--accounts of the mission work in Liberia, striking incidents of the work in the mountains of Tennessee, or of the doings of the house or gardens.
But a sane Religious--and sanity must be an outstanding mark of an effective Religious--realizes also the truth of the old couplet,
"A little nonsense now and then
Is relished by the wisest men,"
and while we do not presume to set ourselves amongst the wisest, we try to follow their steps. Those in the house who may not be attending the recreation, but who are within earshot, are often keenly intrigued by the gales of merriment which proceed from the common-room. Not infrequently a guest will ask, "What was it the Community was having such a jolly time over this noon?"
In warm weather we take our recreation often on the cloister; or in the garden, sitting on the rustic benches or on the grass. Here we enjoy our quiet talks while the light of the sinking sun glorifies the hills beyond the river for a little space until the stars come out one by one to remind us that another day's work for God is done.
To go back to the common-room, however, it must not be thought that it, any more than the garden, is used only for the set periods of recreation. It is the "living room" of the monastery, and during the [67/68] afternoon and evening hours when the rule of silence is not in force, there the brethren foregather for consultation or reading, or, often for a quiet game of chess. One of the unwritten rules in every religious house is that "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," and a dull Religious ought to be a contradiction in terms. Those musically endowed may gather about the piano, and no one complains if young merry voices lifted up in song are heard through that part of the monastery.
Perhaps more than anywhere else is the community spirit fostered and developed in a monastic common-room. Here the possessions of mind and heart, so much more precious than any material goods, are shared to the generous enriching of the lives of all. It is a place which should be ever redolent of love and good-will, of good humour and happy fellowship: a place for quiet, subdued manners, but with nothing of stiffness or angularity, of peevishness or criticism, of morbidness or gloom.