Posted by: Peadar Ban | February 15, 2013

A Happier, Gentler and More Enlightened Age

In Glendalough, a little village in the Wicklow Mountains less than an hour south of Dublin, there are two small lakes at the head of a valley beneath a waterfall.  A swift and clear stream runs from the lower lake down the valley.  It was here, more than a thousand years ago, that St. Kevin (his name means Gentle One) came — to live and work and pray.  Soon others came to join him, men, women, whole families.  A monastery was founded, a church was built and a community grew around.  It was said that the place flourished because of Abbot Kevin’s holiness.  Even the cows gave more milk and their butter was the richest around.

The Round Tower at Glendalough

Well, that monastery is a ruin today though the walls stand.  The crumbled church and tower keep watch over gravestones of the deceased who now “people” the grounds where crops once grew and crowds met exchanging goods, where monks taught and prayed, where life was abundant and that abundance was richly blessed.  Still, birds sing.  Fish swim in the lakes and sheep graze on hills around.  Though the place may seem empty, to some, it is not.  We’ve been there thrice, and would love to go again.

Last week we were down on Cape Cod.  One of the reasons for our trip was to visit a modern-day place such as St. Kevin’s might once have been —  The Community of Jesus in Orleans, MA, a decades old monastic community of men, women, and whole families — fertile, fruitful, peaceful and full of life.

After a terribly stormy night that drove water right in through the wall of our hotel room facing the bay, the very nicest day of our week on the Cape dawned as we set forth for our destination.  The sun was brilliant, the air spring-like, and sparkling white clouds sailed a lively blue sky.  Mariellen read to me from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Chronicles during the highway portion of the ride, then helped out with the directions as we got close.

Once on the last leg, the place really wasn’t hard to find, as the only thing beyond The Community of Jesus on Rock Harbor Road is the harbor itself – and when we got that far we found that we knew the place, having travelled the road before on a previous excursion while touring Brewster.  It was the harbor we knew, though – a famous spot for watching sunsets.  Before we reached the harbor, this time, something altogether new had arrested our view – an angel-capped bell tower built, as we later learned, only two or three years ago.  Circling in upon its lure we soon found a beautiful stone basilica-style church, the white wooden buildings of the Priory and convents where celibate members of the vowed community live, and in the environs surrounding homes of lay community members with and without children.

The Bell Tower at the Community of Jesus

Once parked and upon the grounds, our first stop was at the Priory Books and Gifts store, where we browsed happily during a short wait before being connected with one of the Community’s long-time members named Treva Whichard.  A former Oblate director for the Community and also formerly employed at Paraclete Press,  Treva is currently serving the Community as docent, among other duties, and proceeded to give us, along with another small group of four or five people,  a little tour of the Church of The Transfiguration while telling us something of the history of the community.

The Community of Jesus began to emerge about 50 years ago, Treva recounted, around two women – both married — who felt a call to teach about prayer and healing.  From that informal start it has developed over decades until it now numbers almost 275 people consisting of 40 vowed celibate men, 75 vowed celibate women, and affiliated lay persons, some with children (there are about 50 children resident, at present, in families).  To borrow phrasing from the brochure we were offered:  “Members of the Community of Jesus,” an ecumenical community in the Benedictine tradition whose purpose broadly speaking is to show Christ’s light to the world, “come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds and occupations and make professions of commitment … including vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life“ according to the Rule of St Benedict.

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Our tour began in the courtyard before the main doors to the basilica – where the stones underfoot were damp, Treva told us, because the center holds a recessed fountain that is “on” before the major Church services.  The water doesn’t freeze in winter before drying after each use because the stones are heated!  She then took us inside on a tour of the church itself, a beautiful building filled with some of the most vibrant and lively frescos and mosaics I have ever seen.

It is a work of art from the ground up; a work dedicated to showing and teaching about the story of Man’s salvation and the salvation of each one of us from the Fall to the Resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ; from Genesis to Revelation.  We were thrilled to be there.

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After the church tour we were graciously handed off to Sr. Estelle Cole who was just getting out of rehearsal with the Community’s famous choir, Gloriae Dei  Cantores.   Sr. Estelle’s current assignment is as sheet music publicist at Paraclete Press, the first among a number of companies we work with in our online business The Christian Book Corner, and the publishing arm of The Community of Jesus.

Sister Estelle invited us to stay for Mid Day Prayer which would commence in just a few moments.  “It is all in Latin,” she said, as we thanked her and said we would very much like that.  As the Community members arrived and took their places in the choir, Sister Estelle joined us in the visitor section, armed with a couple of choir books.  Out of silence then the lovely chant blossomed forth, led by the men and answered by the women, and for the next dozen or so minutes we listened, as might have done the local lay community in Glendalough, or in any number of places past and present where nothing is preferred to the work of God.

We bowed the last “Gloria tibi Domini” and then left the still, quiet church.  Outside Sr. Estelle spoke a little bit more about the community of which she is a vowed member and after we had all gotten into our car directed us to the offices of The Paraclete Press, a few miles down the road.  We learned that The Community of Jesus is engaged in a number of apostolic works;  the Press through which we ourselves had come to know of them is merely one.  Our destination proved to be a neat building surrounded by woods and a vineyard.

Upon entering the thing that struck me first was art work on the walls, all of it, she said, done by members of the community. As we passed by the receptionist, who came from her little office with a big smile to greet us, I noticed this, and the shadow from the window above:

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I wondered aloud if it had been placed there intentionally to catch the shadow cast by the window, but no one seemed to know.  Certainly if not deliberately planned, I thought to myself, it was a most happy “accident” that we appeared just as the sun was making the sign of the cross for us!   And it was just the beginning.    There was art of all kinds to follow, and folks of all kinds as well.  Just ordinary folks.  But I guess, so, too, were those monks of long ago, just ordinary folks who copied things like the Book of Kells and built the Cathedral at Chartres and developed champagne and other delectable brews.

Sister Estelle introduced us to Sister Antonia Cleverly, who was our first and is still our primary contact at Paraclete,  and for the next forty-five minutes we in company with these two young religious women wandered in and out of offices all over the building chatting with busy but very friendly people whose constant refrain seemed to be, ” You can ask me anything that is on your mind.”  We did, finding that this invitingly open attitude was apparently also something that had simply emerged, organically, within the body of the maturing community.

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What you see here is the department at Paraclete that designs all of their book covers and art work.  Eight people work here if my memory serves.  They even manage the blogs of some of their authors for them!  The sales/customer relations office, just a door or two down, was busier and more bustling, but never so much so that almost everyone didn’t stop to smile and tell us what they were doing and why.  Our guides conducted us through every part of the building until at last we met the friendly old dog, an ancient Lab, who welcomed us to the basement where they used to do their own printing.  Now the basement is used for shipping, with some of the space reserved for the sisters who make the candles the community sells — and they are mighty fine ones, too, made with beeswax from their own hives.   Paraclete does a thriving business in music, too.  In yet another part of the basement they are in the process of constructing a sound studio for their own audio and video recordings of chant and other sacred music by the Community’s several renowned musical groups.

One of the first people we met at Paraclete works in the sales room with Sisters Antonia and Estelle and was introduced to us simply as “Sharon, who works with music”.  When we mentioned our church tour and the fascinating organ we saw and were told about, Sharon immediately offered to play the organ for us later that afternoon.  “A private concert,” we wondered aloud, surprised and delighted at the opportunity.  Smilingly, she said that she would be happy to do so, and proceeded to expand a little on what we had already heard about the instrument.

The organ at The Church of the Transfiguration is unique in the world — reclaimed from the works of twelve  E.M.  Skinner organs and rebuilt so that the pipes and all the “choirs” of the organ do not stand in one place behind the console;  rather, they advance on both side of the church from the back to the front.  The effect, then, is to be able to “process” the music with the celebrants and congregation as they enter.  So far, it is the only organ built this way in the world, and when finished, Sharon told us, will contain 12,500 pipes ranging in size from that of a drinking straw to a that of a telephone booth.  We made a date for 2:30 p.m.

Over lunch at a nearby eatery we asked all sorts of questions of the two sisters who are our sales contacts at Paraclete Press, questions about the Community of Jesus, and their personal history with it.  Both of them have family in the community, we learned — another echo, I thought to myself, of the way things used to be.   And both of them reminded me of Catholic nuns I have met over the years.

One word can best describe both our impression of these women and the feeling our conversation with them inspired in us:  happy.  Filled with light – lightness of heart, clarity of mind.  As our meal ended I found myself wishing we had more time to spend in their company.  We took them back to the Press offices and said goodbye… That’s Sister Antonia on the left, Mariellen in the middle and Sister Estelle on the right.

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Back at the priory grounds for an hour or so, we walked about taking some photos, too many to share here, and I then went into the church to wait for Sharon and our little demonstration and concert while Mariellen browsed the Priory Books and Gifts some more – where she overheard the woman behind the counter setting up an impromptu tour of the church for a Catholic priest, a longtime friend of the Community, who had shown up with some friends of his, upon an impulse.

While they were waiting for their guide, Mariellen walked over to join me and, right on schedule, our new friend Sharon arrived — with another visitor, a relative of hers as it turned out – to give us the promised demonstration concert.   Happily, we had time to ask Sharon how she ended up in the Community and she said that she was organist in a church far away and was sent to a music symposium hosted by the Community –quite some years ago, long before the Church of the Transfiguration was built.  “As soon as I arrived,” she recounted, “I felt a drawing I did not like at all.  I was an organist!  And there was nothing here then, nothing but a bare looking patch of ground.  But the feeling didn’t pass.  So I went home and talked to my husband and he came back with me to visit and a short time later we moved here with our children.”  (This is my paraphrase of what I recall her saying and not a direct quote.)

Turns out, by the way  — and this we found this out by reading the brochure after getting home – that “Sharon” is Dr. SharonRose Pffeifer, one of the three resident organists at The Community of Jesus today.   Mariellen googled her and found this video clip which will give you your own taste of the joy we experienced while listening to her.

I am no critic, nor a student of sacred music.  I can only say that what we heard that day was a marvelous piece of music that exercised me physically and mentally and spiritually.  I walked about the church listening, as Dr. Sharon had advised, to the different sounds coming from different places.  I felt the power of the piece, physically and mentally, and believed for a few moments that I was in the presence of God who was allowing me to understand, just a tiny bit, what awaited me above.  It was one of those “eye has not seen, ear has not heard” moments that always leave me with a longing for the yet to come.

Our little concert finished a bit more quickly than we might have wished since – as Mariellen suspected might happen – the impromptu tour group came in while Sharon was playing and enjoyed her music right along with us.   When she finished the piece she was playing Sharon was quite delighted to see the priest, and also happened to know some of the people he was with, so we said goodbye and left the church, spent a few more minutes walking around the grounds and then made our way back tour hotel. We will return I have no doubt.

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In the photo above  you can easily notice what look like cabinets running the length of The Church of the Transfiguration walls on either side.  These cabinets house the organ’s pipes, and allow the sound to “move” along with the movement of the celebrants, to move from place to place as different choirs of pipes are called upon.  The view is within the great bronze doors that lead into the church, standing near the ambo and gazing down the side of the church.

I know that it is popular to think of full community monastic times past as the Dark Ages.  But, I might wish we would begin to think of them as in many ways a much more enlightened time than this!  Thus I offer for your consideration the example of these people we have recently met and the way of life they are building and have built.

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