By Karen Samuelson
It was 4am in northern Vermont as I stood on the deck of our cottage. The night’s darkness draped around me like fledgling crow feathers gave me neck prickles. With my bag packed and dog Sally at my feet, I was keyed up about my trip to the Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery 120 miles south. It had been fifteen years since I had gone to the monastery chapel with my husband for Morning Vespers. The experience had been so transporting that all these years later as I was writing a screenplay, I felt compelled to include a Benedictine monastery as an integral part. One late-in-life child, three dogs, two houses, and one script later, I was eager to revisit Morning Vespers.
In my youth I had climbed volcanoes in Guatemala and tramped along the Andes, but in my current life, a trip alone in the dark to a monastery was cutting-edge. I muscled the weathered cottage door shut… a satisfying click of metal into wood, the amen to a prayer, and held onto my flashlight, grasping it like the wrist of a good friend. I beamed its light up the stone staircase to the car and saw a hilltop afloat in fog. A deep reverence for nature notwithstanding, night in the country spooks me. Am I merely conjuring spirits? Sally velcroed herself to my kneecap punctuating my question.
Last winter, I began my script sitting before stacks of notecards and jotting down recollections of the monastery grounds and Vespers ceremony. Feelings I recall easily, but my brain’s memory-for-detail section has been on a cruise ship for years, departed from the left hemisphere and drifting somewhere between my amygdala and Aruba. To augment, I did some online research, visited other Benedictine monasteries, and visualized. Now that memory and imagination were comingled, I couldn’t parse one from the other and was keen to be present again body and soul at the Priory. I was on a mission.
I wound the three miles down to Route 25, hoping to have Orion and Venus as brilliant but silent company, but they were veiled in the cloying fog. I drive like a Boston cabbie in a well-lit city, but shapeshifting fog makes it difficult to see, as do emerging cataracts, the passage of milestone birthdays, and things I don’t want to think about. By the time I located Route 91 South 10 minutes later, I was a sweat ball and singing aloud for comfort, grateful that Sally, complicit with me in all things, never complains. I began to reframe my trip as a pilgrimage; instead of crawling on my knees like the hair-shirted Catholic saints, I crawled along at 48mph, white-knuckled and singing the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I tried to follow taillights, but they all vanished into the oncoming black hole of highway statistics. Zen—be Zen-like, I thought. Driving isn’t a competition—think of it as the Tao, the way, the pilgrimage that itself is more important than the destination. Taoism aside, I couldn’t see well enough. Was I on that one-way border crossing into AARP country? My stomach clenched every time I veered too far, the road’s safety grating screeching like a chain saw sending shotgun Sally and me into a frenzy.
For distraction, I imagined the chapel. Morning Vespers had begun at 5 AM in the dark, but this morning, according to their website, it would be 6 AM. It had felt magical to sit in candlelight with the chanting monks as the chapel slowly illuminated with the sun’s rising…. a dream state gently awakened. Too subdued, I veered and the highway screeched. I stared harder, as if that helps vision; instead what came was an intrusive thought: what if I hit a deer? I tried to hear the monks’ voices as they chanted the 23rd Psalm but imagined only crashing and splintering. I had slowed down without knowing it. I hate being out of control. I don’t even like other people driving and here I was groping for glimpses of the white lines. Don’t bleed ‘til you’re shot, I reminded myself. I wanted to feel my old adventurous, uncensored, skinny-dipping self, not a neurotic, myopic middle-aged version. I recalled feeling a deep peace in the Priory chapel, its stone walls infused with decades of chanting and prayer, and tried to breathe in that image.
I have always found monastic life alluring in its virtuous but gentle rigor, meditative silences, contemplative prayer, and back-to-nature lifestyle. The Priory is set in the woods with a lake to the east and fields behind it. Living just outside of Boston elbow to elbow with the maniacally goal-oriented, and traffic forever stuck on pause, I wondered what it would be like to spend days in prayer and song creating a balm to the earth’s mounting madness rather than reading Yahoo news clips. I’m sure I romanticize, yet monastic life is a calming thought.
After driving for a hellish hour of purgatory, the sun started to rise, and I sank lower in the seat loosening my sweaty death grip on the steering wheel. I sighed as fog and darkness folded into the morning light and gave way to the edges of trees and buildings. I turned off the radio and cruised in the ensuing quiet. Depth and color revealed Vermont’s beauty: hills of maple and oak and slumbering quaint villages. I had followed my map to Route 100 but close to the Priory, had missed the sign and turned south. I really wanted to be there on time, to arrive at 6. I turned north, drove a bit and saw the sign to my left. As I wound up the driveway, I felt giddy and not just from lack of sleep or a survivor’s high, but because I would finally see Morning Vespers for myself.
I entered the chapel nervous as a bride as the bells tolled 6. Looking around, I felt like I had entered door number three instead of two and a consolation prize was the best I could hope for. For one thing, it was already daylight, all darkness and mystery, poof, vanished heavenward without a trace. The altar or upper platform was a long rectangle, not a square as I thought. I sat in a pew and felt the hardness of the floor as flagstone, not wood: slate gray, not warm brown. Then the monks, as I remembered it, did enter through a side door, procession-like, but most were wearing beige pants and light sweaters without the monkish appeal of hooded robes. They sat along the two walls in the upright brown wooden benches built just for them, not in the circle I had apparently imagined. The windows had lovely arches but were made of household glass that exposed everything too readily. They chanted and prayed and I joined in and tried to feel the ephemeral but it shrank from my grasping. I felt unsettled, not transported. And then a monk began playing a guitar and his voice was lovely enough, but it didn’t reach into my soul like before. I was longing to connect to a memory that no longer existed, replaced by the scenes in my screenplay, and it was confusing. I felt untethered, like when you try to puzzle dream fragments together, but the images like overexposed photos float away.
I drove home grateful to be in one piece and more confident of setting out on solo adventures. And I did feel some sense of mission accomplished, discrepancies and all. Now, sitting in front of the computer open to my script with Sally at my feet, I re-read the description I wrote before my trip.
The stone chapel shone from within, a large white candle beckoning in the center of the altar. Warm brown wooden pews and floor invited quiet. Ten monks entering from a side door in earth-toned hooded robes continued around the altar into a semi-circle. Inside this flickering womb the monks chanted in Gregorian call and response. Most were older with graying or balding heads, but one young monk had brought his guitar. He sang with a lovely Irish lilt heralding the first glimmer of light through the stained-glass windows: voice and light soft and ethereal like angels’ wings. His last note signaled the start of silent contemplation. The light gradually awakened the monks’ features giving them and the chapel lines and depth. Figures in the stained-glass windows emerged: John the Baptist; Jesus guarding his sheep; and Mary, beatific, feet draped in clouds. Beams descended through the verdant, rose, and sky blue glass illuminating our way from a dream-like fugue into waking, a gentle shaking off of the night.
I made myself a cup of tea and sat down again. Why was the impact of my first Vespers experience so much stronger than my recent visit? …. It began before dawn in the mystery of darkness. Surrounded in community, we assumed daylight would come and, bound close in prayer and song, shared the magic of illumination, the descending crescendo of light.
In my final draft, I fused reality, remembrance, and imagination the way we each create unique memories we then come to depend on.