I have put off publishing these notes for a year, because I thought they might serve as the basis for some larger more formal work. That larger, more formal work has been summarily rejected by those who could potentially publish it, so I offer you my notes (in the raw, only slightly edited from the handwritten originals) from my visit to Clear Creek Monastery on November 3-4, 2012. The picture attached is the notebook that originally contained them. The other pictures attached are of the monastery, my room, and the path between the monastery and my room. These sketches are unpolished; my brain is unpolished. They read like a stream of loosely related thoughts; I live in a stream of unrelated thoughts. You want realist writing? Here it is. You want smooth prose? Beat it.
Arrived at the monastery. The silence is incredible. No trains; no sirens; no cars roaring by; not even an animal sound. Maybe they respect the monks too. But even in the silence, my mind is running with endless changing and ridiculous images, words and songs with which I’ve filled it. That true silence, inner silence would take time. But the quiet is lovely. I slept like a workman. God has made all things good in their time and place. Praise be to Him.
At 7:20 we walked the two miles to the monastery itself (later we found out about a shortcut). The sun was just coming up and the trees were every shade of orange and yellow. Death is never more beautiful than in the Fall. The Sun through bare branches made them look like the most substantive objects on earth—perfectly black. There were deer jumping across the road and a little breeze rustling the leaves. The air was cool and delightfully sharp as it should be on an autumn morning. I wish I knew the names of all the trees.
The monastery is a work in progress, but complete enough to be grand and beautiful. It is all stone with round spiraling stairwells, pillars, courtyards, arches, stained glass and cupola windows letting in the morning light. I’m glad the monastery is still under construction. It gives a fresh, living feeling and even smell. Inside all his hushed. They talk quietly; they sing their Gregorian chants quietly; they move quietly; they open and close doors quietly but the quiet makes all other sounds ever so much more piquant. I hear every footfall, sniff, cough and rustle of clothes. The sounds of life are not drowned out here. Even as I write, back at my cell, the only sound is my pen scratching this page and my hand squeaking on the desk. I am noticeably calmer here, out of subconscious deference to my surroundings, no doubt.
We ate a wonderful breakfast in silence with the monks: homemade bread and peanut butter, coffee, cold cereal, milk only a day or two out of the cow, jellies and apple butter. I remembered to thank the LORD for the meal; the silence made me enjoy it all the more. Again, the sounds of pouring coffee, peanut butter being spread and scraped onto bread, clinking plates, steps down the corridor and even chewing were noticeable and made the meal seem more real and nourishing. The monks were younger than I expected. Their heads were shaved and they looked, for the most part, pensive and grave. They ate standing. I hope the joy of the LORD tempers their obvious respect, reverence and fear for Him. They intimidated me at first—mostly their black robes that flowed and rustled terribly as they moved.
In all this quiet, a sneeze is a significant event!
The service (High Mass) was beautiful: incense, Gregorian singing in Latin, sunlight streaming through the windows revealed by the smoke of the incense and suspended dust particles—little planets in a sunbeam. The Kyrie was unearthly—or hyper-earthly (the earth as it should be, that is). Some might scoff and call it pageantry, but done with a heart of worship, all the ceremony is fitting, proper and worshipful. Protestants don’t always reverence God like this. Fear of pageantry and “show” has killed much of the beauty in worship.
The monks, with their shaved heads, look extremely healthy, pale, but ruddy; not too skinny—never fat. They are models of balance and discipline—at least outwardly. Our little group seems unsettled, even frenzied in contrast. When it gets too quiet, we get restive and fidgety. Of course Luther could not find inner rest, even as a monk. Brother Lawrence did. These monks work eight hours, pray eight hours and rest eight hours—most likely the key to their health (spiritual too).
I could write a whole page on the incense. What a shame the sense of smell is not exploited in most protestant worship! (I don’t use that exclamation point lightly) We use two senses (sight, hearing) but what about the others? (An exclamation point and a rhetorical question in one paragraph! What would Stuart Busenitz think? -ET) During mass I was surrounded, even overwhelmed with the worship. Had I understood the significance of all the gestures and smells and words, the effect would have been stunning.
I’m sitting now in a courtyard of the monastery, wood fenced with clean-cut, thick grass, and one lonely small tree (someday to be a great oak). Past the fence, all that can be seen are deciduous trees crowning a little hill and looking more like a painting than any painting I have come across. I’m sitting in an archway at the edge of the courtyard—one of ten brick archways. Between it and the grass is a border of white pebbles and rocks, presumably a drainage buffer. The whole scene is presided over by a stolid, grave saint standing on his pedestal, unmoved by his surroundings. I can’t help but think he would be happier if he were in the sunlight with a bird perching on his head rather than supervising a brick causeway from a corner. But I probably shouldn’t move the statues . . .
One wonderful thing about monasteries, and castles for that matter, is all the windows, line upon line of them. For where there are windows there are rooms, seemingly hundreds of them bustling with monastic activity—filled with relics or precious documents, translation work, barrels of monk made beer, crates piled cheese curds or prostrated, praying men—the bigger the monastery, the more mysterious and wonderful the thought of its rooms. They become less like rooms and more like caves to be searched and discovered. In a place this colossal, the chance of secret tunnels and rooms goes up exponentially!
Silence isn’t really silence after all;
It only hushes bigger voices so we can hear the small.
The sacred and the secular are touching here. No calling church spiritual and a meal worldly. God is revered and thanked equally at both. There is only one thing lacking—mirth! Joy! Do the brothers ever laugh with happiness? I sure hope so (Not if they are taking their cues from this ever-serious statue). You might say he is serious as a statue.
Lunch: Fish, local vegitables (green and yellow) a light bisque, homemade bread, bottled lemonade, creamed spinach sauce over cuscus, a green apple, a creamy spread over wheat or white bread slices, coffee and water. We ate in silence and chanted a Latin prayer (bowing at intervals) before and after the repast. The food was filling and satisfying.
I saw joy on a monk’s face this afternoon. We were working in the woods around the abbey, and the monk assigned to us was all kind smiles and cheerful words. He seemed genuinely happy. What a relief! The number one enemy of contentment in a monastery would be curiosity . . . though that may be the number one enemy of contentment. (Period) Or at least number two.
These monks really do have a splendid life here, but I’m worried they have no way of knowing that, having nothing to which they can compare their lives. Curiosity could kill the monk.
The trouble with being fashionable in a monastery is finding someone to notice.
Eating in silence makes the fare something for which you want to give thanks. It focuses your gratefulness on the fruits of the earth and the stunning variety of the produce to be had by the industrious. A good or bad meal can encapsulate the character of a country, city or even house. The meals here—with all their home-grown goodness—silently sing God’s praises and embody the work of the men eating them.
I sure do like my little cell here. No clutter!
A modest simple room with little in it’s all I need.
A desk, a chair, a bed, a lamp, a sink will do indeed.
But now I see I’ve left out something vital to the place,
My wife, my love must be there—with a smile upon her face.
(Sunday) Breakfast was the same as it was yesterday: bread (wheat and white) with jams and homemade peanut butter, cold cereal, coffee poured from large tin pots and unpasteurized milk in sweating tin jugs. Supper last night was much like lunch—silence, but with a monk reading from “spiritual” literature, all in chant. There was lemonade, a bisque, pasta covered in monk-made gouda cheese, fresh bread, water in glazed clay jugs, and a bread pudding served with applesauce.
The monks have a brewer. Sadly, I have neither seen nor tasted the fruits of his noble labor. I’ll have to look into that.
This monastery is much like an empire—large, multifaceted, full of produce and varied labor, mostly self-sustaining and fiercely proud of itself (in a good way). They make gouda cheese, wine, beer, peanut butter, raise cattle and sheep; have large gardens for fresh vegetables. There are monks who paint, write, forge metal sculpt, garden, serve guests and dig ditches. It is like being in a one thousand acre city-state of seventeenth century Germany. They care little for Washington politics (as far as I can tell) because they have no need for most of what Washington has to offer, outside of defense and liberty to function as they wish. This empire in the mini, committed to prayer, is the foundation of every local church whether they acknowledge these monks as Christian brothers or not. What a comfort and solace to know these men are constantly praying for believers throughout Christendom.
One more high mass, another service, lunch and off to Kansas and all the noise.
R. Eric Tippin
November 3-4, 2012
Clear Creek Monastery, Oklahoma