June 9th, 2020
I am staying in the retreat house at Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas. I have been here many times in the past. One of the joys of being here is the opportunity to pray with the Benedictine monks who live in the monastery. It is always a pleasure to sit in a choir stall next to them, and to listen to the chanting of the psalms. It is a very moving experience.
I probably shouldn’t use the verb “is”. I am actually describing something that “was”.
This is my first visit to Subiaco Abbey since the before the COVID-19 pandemic spread everywhere. Subiaco is in a sparsely populated area of the Arkansas River Valley, not far from the Ozark Mountains. So far, this little section of the world, with its trees, pastures, and old pick up trucks, has been spared the worst ravages of the disease. However, things have still changed at Subiaco.
When I arrived in the afternoon at Coury House, the retreat center, I had to wait at the entrance until somebody took my temperature. Susan came and did that for me, and then she let me inside. She was wearing a mask. So was I. Susan gave me my room key, and asked me how I liked the idea of having a couple more grandchildren. We chatted for a while, but it felt weird. I still find it difficult to have a conversation with somebody if I cannot see their facial expressions. It’s like I’m missing important pieces of emotional information.
I went to supper in the guest dining room. Meals there used to be served buffet-style. No more. When I arrived there, I found that my food was mostly pre-packaged. I took my tray and sat at a table by myself in the little dining area. Four other people showed to eat. They all wore masks, and they all went to separate tables. Almost every person drifted off to a position as far away from the others as possible. Only a married couple sat together. The room was silent.
On impulse I asked the married couple,
“Where are you from?”
My words sounded as loud as a pistol shot in that small space.
There was a brief pause, and then the woman said, “West Palm Beach. And you?”
I replied, “Wisconsin.”
End of discussion.
Now, I will grant you that often people come to the retreat center specifically to get peace and quiet. Idle conversation is frowned upon. However, in this instance, I felt a certain wariness or fear in the room. Nobody wanted to get close to any other guest, physically or emotionally. People were actively keeping their distance.
The following morning I went to Mass. During previous visits to the monastery, my wife and I always sat with the monks in the choir, and we celebrated the Eucharist together. No more. Now the only the monks sit in the choir area. The laity sit in the pews in the nave, and are physically separated from the monks by the altar. The only part of the church which was lit was the choir. With a couple people I sat in the dark. There was no light in our section of the church, except for the lamps in the baldachin. The lights there illuminated the upper portion of the crucifix that hangs over the altar. On the golden baldachin I could read the words “Rex Christe, Redemptor” (“Christ the King, Redeemer”).
The priest said the Mass facing the monks, with his back toward me and the other guests. It was like a throw back to the pre-Vatican II days. It was very difficult to hear the words of the liturgy, especially the Scripture readings. All that was tolerable. However, it really sucked when the priest did not offer any of the guests communion.
That was a big deal, at least to me. Non-Catholics probably wouldn’t understand this, but receiving the Eucharist (the Body and Blood of Christ) is the whole point of the liturgy. Sharing communion is everything to a Catholic. People that go to Catholic retreat centers want to share the Eucharist in an intense and visceral sort of way. Being denied communion, even for valid health reasons, is literally painful.
At one point during my stay, I spoke briefly with Brother Francis. He is the retreat center director, and he is a warm and friendly man. He has a good heart. He told me about their two month quarantine, and he explained to me how all the new rules and procedures were designed to “protect the monks”.
The Benedictines take the pandemic very seriously. They should. Most of these men are old. By most objective standards, I’m old, but in comparison to these guys, I’m just a young pup. If the virus strikes that religious community, it will likely decimate the population. The monks know this. When they stay separate from the guests, even at Mass, they do so reluctantly. They simply do not want to die. They don’t want their entire community to die.
Subiaco is still a beautiful place. It is still a holy place. Even during this modern plague, there is God’s love in the monastery.
Sometimes pain and love exist together.