The Praise of God at Silverstream

Silverstream GateOblate Brother Melchisedech writes of his week at Silverstream Priory:

Standing in the gatehouse, I said goodbye. Dom Finnian had made the first pot of what was sure to be several pots of tea that day. “Gallons,” Dom Elijah described it, and served with all the cheerfulness and holy hospitality of a character straight from an old Bruce Marshall novel.

Dom Finnian was in fact the first person I met at Silverstream. As I came through the gate after my encounter with the traditionally glowering customs’ agent, who merely grunted when I answered his inquiry regarding my stay; “I’ll be a week at a monastery north of Dublin, in Stamullen,” there he was, a young man in black habit leaning low over a railing, scanning the crowd for his charge. I recognized him from his internet likeness, and waived. He grinned, and we were off. We fetched my bag, and walked to the van, talking and laughing all the while. I tossed my luggage in the back, and walked naturally toward the “passenger” side of the door. Having been 27 years since my last and only visit to Ireland, like most Americans, I needed correction in that regard, which Dom Finnian gently provided. We were soon on the highway. If you’ve never visited Eire or the UK before, having vehicles hurtle toward you from the “wrong” direction takes some getting used to, but in my case Dom Finnian’s welcome chatter about the condition of Irish roads, Father Prior’s health, and the “neighbors” took the scare right out of me. As we passed road signs in both English and Gaelic, I suddenly felt as if I’d been transported to that trip of long ago, and had that conscious feeling that I was indeed in another country. That is until we turned off the main road, and Dom Finnian said, “We’re close,” and the feeling vanished.

Silverstream Irish SeaAs we turned from the highway, and the road narrowed, rolling hills lined with trees and sown with wheat stretched in the distance, and I was suddenly back to where I’d started 12 hours before, in Pennsylvania. During my week at Silverstream, I was continually struck by the sense that I had and had not left home (more on that) at all. Unlike the West and South of the country, which looks like a set from the Quiet Man, Meath, with its hills, crops, and dairy cows, looks precisely like where I live. And like where I live, cows here are always being herded up and down the side roads. So it was as Dom Finnian and I approached Silverstream. We slowed to a stop and Dom Finnian rolled down the window. As a lady with an orange flag approached, he exclaimed, “They’re our friends!” The woman then waived to some folks standing a little further up the road, and a very un-Pennsylvania thing happened; two border collies herded three cows up the road toward us, and turned them into another pasture. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Lancaster County anymore.

Later that week, Father Prior asked me, “So, is Silverstream what you expected it to be?” Given that I’d watched its transformation from across the sea, the answer was “yes!”, and as Dom Finnian and I pulled through the gate and rounded into the yard, it looked exactly as I’d seen in the photographs. So did the beaming man who strode toward us, as we met without benefit of the World Wide Web for the first time since we began our correspondence those many years ago, and my emotions got the best of me, and we embraced as father and son. Abba. Dad. Father.

Father Prior returned to his morning work, promising to see me at Terce, Mass, then lunch, and left me in the capable hands of Dom Elijah. The population of Silverstream swells and shrinks through the week, as visitors come and go, often as not Benedictines from another house, but when asked “how many monks have you here?” Father Prior invariably answers, “at the moment, we are four.” If he were to count accurately however, I believe his answer would be, “we are seven,” as Dom Elijah is more akin to three monks than he is one. As guestmaster and sacristan I saw him more often than any other face in the priory. One moment he would be in the guesthouse, the next in the bookstore gatehouse, then the oratory, then in the yard. As often as not I would walk from one place to another and there he would appear before me as if he’d been waiting for my arrival, while I had not the slightest idea how he’d managed to by-pass me in passage. With his seeming ability to bi-locate, I was wondering if he would’ve been more fittingly named Dom Pio! He was a constant source of helpful information, both to me and to any visitor who expectedly or unexpectedly appeared, and an encyclopedia of knowledge and hope for the future plans of the house, which he readily shares with anyone who asks. Not to go unmentioned is his very Midwest combination of calmness and wry sense of humor, something that I’m sure travelers from beyond the Pond find a homey and reassuring comfort. It was with great pleasure and fraternal pride that I learned he will be schooled in theology by the Dominicans beginning next month as he begins his study toward the priesthood.

Silverstream is not the first monastery in which I’ve stayed. One of my dearest friends has two brothers – his actual siblings, mind you – in a large monastery in Massachusetts. I’ve stayed there several times, and the accommodations there are a tad spartan, to say the least. Not so Silverstream. While appropriately simple, the guesthouse is a marvelous place of bright blond wood, cleanliness, and space, very much conducive to private prayer and rest. While constructed for retreatants and brief visitors, the guesthouse at times becomes the actual residence of individuals who, for one reason or another at Father Prior’s discretion, stay at the priory for somewhat longer duration. Currently there is one resident of that description, Father Tony. . . . Silverstream Dom FinnianVery much in his own way a part of the community, Father is present at the frequent conferences given by Father Prior, at the Office, in the guesthouse, at meals at the refectory, and a helpful and jovial presence at cleanup afterward. Although I’m sure he’s unaware of it, Father Tony exudes a uniquely Irish and Benedictine combination of cheer and humility that I believe would provide much consolation to the priests whose hearts and vocations Father Prior is seeking to heal. His presence is a real blessing to Silverstream.

As you all know, Father Prior didn’t make the journey from Tulsa to County Meath alone. Like so many foundations in the history of the Church, another has been there since the beginning, sharing both the hardships and joys. You know I’m speaking of Father Benedict Andersen, whom many of you were privileged to know back in Oklahoma. Fortunately for me, Father Prior has allowed him to retain that thread of contact we know as Facebook, and I’ve benefited from that, as Father and I have gotten to know each other through its ubiquitous magic. Sadly, Father was under the weather so to speak for much of my visit, as he had developed a sinus infection after wearing an ancient chasuble at a liturgy conference in Cork the week before. He was able to celebrate Mass several times however, and one day he and I were able to walk together when I was blest to have the penultimate Irish experience of having my confession heard by not only my spiritual father, but a herd of nearby sheep. Father Benedict strikes me as a man of solidity and erudition whose personal gifts along with the founding charisms of Father Prior’s heart will prove the cornerstone of this great effort, and I hope he’s not embarrassed and my brothers not chagrined to know that his is always the first vocation I pray for when imploring the Lord on their behalf.

Of course in speaking of Dom Benedict, I can’t forget the faithful Hilda. Having always had dogs myself, I know they belong to the “family,” but I also know there’s always one person in the family who has that special place in the dog’s life. Father Benedict is that person, and he only has to say the words “Benilda” and “walk” and the tail begins to wag. Seeing Hilda curled at Father Prior’s feet in the evening, or hearing her noisily rustle her bed outside the refectory while visiting French monks silently smile at her antics during dinner while the hebdomodary reads, are some of my favorite memories. So very like a real home. And Hilda’s not alone. There’s Zelda the chicken, a creature that lets one pick her up and scratch her neck like she’s a dog herself, and the newest addition, little Oscar Wilde, a feral kitten with black fur and white mittens that Dom Finnian has begun to domesticate. All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small…

I’ve often found it the case that when one spends time with someone, it doesn’t take long to discover the thing that is most pressing to their mind and heart. One doesn’t have to spend much time with Father Prior to learn that the thing with which he’s most concerned other than the praise of God, is vocations, and they so that the praise of God might continue. I was keenly conscious during my stay of the importance of both to his heart and vision. The very reason I was there, so graciously invited by Father Prior, and so graciously enabled by your prayers and generosity was my own vocation, my Final Oblation, the offering of my life, though in the world, for the constant Praise of God in conjunction with my brothers in the house of Our Lady of the Cenacle. And that on the blessed occasion of the Feast of Our Holy Father, St. Benedict. But before I get to that occasion, I’d like to say something about the Praise of God at Silverstream.

The wheel of the monastic day turns on the axel of the Divine Office. At Our Lady of the Cenacle, this means the traditional Monastic Breviary, sung eight times a day. Brother Finnian rings the bell at four-thirty am., summing all to the day of work and prayer. In Ireland in July, that means the sun is just rising, and Matins begins at 4:50. The Hour lasts nearly an actual hour. . . .  Already, as the  day begins, the monks and those fortunate enough to join them, lift their minds, hearts, and souls to the Lord in the very words He’s given us. No effort but joining one’s self to it is necessary. The words, the thoughts, the sentiments, the doubts, fears, joys, and longings are His, and they are all that’s needed. After Matins, there is the hour for lectio divina in the cell, and for readying oneself otherwise for the day. At 7 comes Lauds, followed by what I considered one of the greatest privileges of my stay, which was as an Oblate to join the monks in Chapter, and hear Father Prior’s reflection on the Holy Rule for that day. I wondered at first how he could possibly unwrap these nuggets so delicately every morning with so much else to do during his day. Then I realized that after more than thirty years in monastic life, having read and re-read the Holy Rule countless times, that what flowed with so little seeming effort was the result of decades of reflection and prayer, and my feeling of privilege, and indeed envy, for Dom’s Finnian, Elijah, and Benedict, who are able to hear Father daily, was aroused to a nearly sinful degree.

After Chapter, we repaired immediately to the Oratory. Prime, hallowing the coming hours of the day’s work, follows hard thereby, then three to four hours of prayer and labor. Terce at 11 (sometimes 10), and the Conventual Mass immediately after. Sext is briefly afterward. Lunch comes at 12:45. More work of the day, then None divides the afternoon at 3, Vespers at 6, supper thereafter, followed by one of my favorite parts of the day, an evening convivium between all in the presence of Father Prior, when tongues are loosed and companionship is consumed like a wine (and sometimes wine itself!). Then Compline, bed, and the Great Silence. The day begins, echoes, fills, and ends once more with the Praise of the Most High. Whether one can participate with gusto, or only with the silent passion of mind and heart, it matters not. God is adored, and His presence among men magnified. If heaven differs, I can’t imagine how.

The day set for Oblation of course was July 11th, the Feast of St. Benedict. The evening before, I was able to meet Brother Luke, otherwise known as Dr. Cathal Steele, of Belfast, who was making his Final Oblation with me the next day. He pointed out, as I’d already guessed, that Father Prior had arrived at the name “Luke,” as he, like St. Paul’s companion and author of so much of the New Testament, is a physician. I found him a man of a pleasant smile and quiet dignity blessed with a charming wife and young family. As many of you know who have made your final Oblation yourselves, during the ceremony you read out your Charter of Oblation for all to hear. When my moment came, having gathered my courage in intentional affirmation, I read mine out in what in retrospect I’m sure sounded to those present like typical American boldness. Brother Luke’s turn was next, and he read instead in a touching commitment of the heart, with belief and love for his Lord sounding in every gentle syllable. How honored I was to kneel there beside him.

Some thirty or forty people were there that day. The food was delicious and the cheer flowed freely. They were there to celebrate not only Brother Luke’s and my Oblation, but to join Father Prior and the brothers in commemoration of the Law Giver and Father of the West. They were there to pray with us that his mission of bringing the light, hope, and healing of the Gospel might be revived, shining forth in particular from Silverstream, nestled there on the edge of the blessed island that once brought, and will bring again, the Good News of Christ to a darkened world.

Standing in the gatehouse, I said goodbye. Dom Finnian, my dear friend of seven days, had made the morning tea, and together we had drunk it. Dom Elijah emerged from the enclosure, and told us Father Prior would be there in a minute, and in a minute he was. Father Tony stuck his head in the door to let me know he was outside. A few minutes before, Dom Benedict had made his appearance. More handshakes and Godspeed all around. I told Father Prior I would be going home again as soon as I could. I’m not sure he understood. I didn’t mean Pennsylvania. Then the room was empty. It was time for Lauds.

With fraternal affection in St. Benedict, and the deepest gratitude,

Brother Melchisedech