March 13th, 2018
We just finished chanting vespers with the monks. The sun set a few minutes ago, and now there is clear, dark sky over Subiaco Abbey. It’s going to be cold tonight. We may be in the middle of Arkansas, but it still feels like we are in Wisconsin. There will be frost on the car windows when we get up 5:00 AM to go to lauds. I expect that I will be able to see plenty of stars in the sky when Karin and I walk from the retreat house to the church.
Karin and I have been coming to Subiaco for years. The abbey is located in the Arkansas River Valley, west of Little Rock. The Ozarks rise up on both sides of the valley. The terrain is rugged, and often wooded. The monastery is 140 years old. It has massive stone buildings, and a peaceful atmosphere. The abbey is nearly midway between our house and Hans’ home in Texas. It makes for a good rest stop when we travel to visit our son.
The abbey was founded by Swiss monks 140 years ago. Arkansas is almost overwhelmingly Protestant; most people being Baptist or some flavor of Pentecostal. There is a thin strip of Catholics along the Arkansas River near Subiaco. These Papists are descendants of German immigrants who decided to become neighbors of the Calvinist locals.
There is a cemetery at the abbey that dates back almost one hundred years. Some of the tombstones go way back. The oldest markers are written in Latin. For the word “born”, they used “natus”. “Ordained” is “ordinatus”. “Died” is “mortuus”. The graveyard is a solemn place, but not depressing. The men who are buried there gave their lives for a cause. Their lives meant something.
Besides the Benedictine monks, there are usually visitors at the abbey’s retreat center. Most of these folks are older. Monasteries tend to attract a more mature segment of the overall population. However, there is also a prep school located at Subiaco. So, there are scores of high school kids on the campus. To be honest, I prefer to hang out the young folks. Karin and I ate some of our meals in the cafeteria with the students.
I am not sure why all these boys are here. (By the way, the Subiaco student body is entirely male.) Some of the young men are from the local area. Many of them are from overseas, from China in particular. I get the impression that some of the parents just don’t want these teens at home. Nothing says “I love you” like sending your son thousands of miles away.
The Chinese kids are probably at Subiaco because the parents have business interests in the U.S., and they want the young lads to learn English and become familiar with the American culture. These parents also want to ensure that their little boys don’t get into trouble. God knows that there are not many opportunities for mischief around Subiaco. The closest town is Paris, AR. That burg can boast of having a Dairy Queen and a Dollar General store.
I observed the students in the cafeteria while we dined with them. The scene reminded me of my time at West Point. A lot of the boys were wearing their school colors: blue and orange. Some were dressed in tan-colored slacks, white button down shirts, Navy blue blazers, and fluorescent orange ties. It occurred to me that school uniforms and prison uniforms are similar in many ways, and perhaps serve the same purpose.
I am soooooo glad that I am not their age. They all had that look that told me they were simultaneously cocky and terrified. They have all sorts of things ahead of them, and they have no fucking clue. Sadly, their mentors at the school probably don’t have a clue either. I have already made most of my decisions: worked a job, found a spouse, built a house. As for raising our kids, that is still a work in progress. However, I have played most of my cards in life. Hopefully, most of the drama is in the past.
The church at Subiaco is an impressive Romanesque structure. It contains beautiful stained glass windows. Most of the windows somehow refer to the founder of the order, St. Benedict. Across from each other are two large rose windows: one depicts St. Benedict, and the other shows his sister, St. Scholastica. Under the image of St. Scholastica are three windows that display the three members of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The three windows below the image of St. Benedict show the three members of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I like that balance.
Karin and I prayed the psalms with the monks four times a day. The monks used Gregorian chant. There is an ancient harmony and beauty to those chants. The voices reach back across the centuries. There is a sense of continuity in the musical tradition.
It was good to be there.