Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tailspin: A Modern-day Jeremiad, Chapter Two

Tailspin: A Modern-day Jeremiad

Chapter Two: Introit

Introibo ad altare Dei
  Ad Deum qui laetificat, iuventutem meam.
(I will go unto the altar of my God, the God who gives joy to my youth.)
- the beginning lines of the Tridentine Latin Mass

March 2000, Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Priory, in  the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Eastern Oklahoma

The mist hung heavy in the mid-morning air as the men knelt in the rocky field of what was becoming a Benedictine abbey. They worked together in silence, side-by-side, literally clawing stones by hand from the rich, black soil of the field, clearing the pasture for the monks’ flocks of European sheep – sheep bred for their unusual hardiness and resistance to pests. The French sheep would need every advantage if they were going to thrive in the extremes between the humidity of the Oklahoma summer, and the frigid snows of winter.

Today, however, everywhere he looked was suddenly – almost explosively – brilliant Emerald green – so much so, that the air itself almost seemed to glow in the misty fog of the daylight. The fields, the trees -- everything was green, and it had happened overnight  – the Earth itself bursting out from the grey of winter into new life, just as it undoubtedly had thousands upon thousands of Springs before in this little patch of verdant field between the ridges of this remote Eastern Oklahoma place.

(Mostly) new friends, laymen -- not religious; the men had come together through their shared Catholic faith and preference for the Tridentine rite – commonly known as the Latin Mass. They had been coming here to help in the establishment of a Benedictine monastery devoted to the old rite -- a monastery whose establishment was meant to last a thousand years,  and to preserve the Faith in what some were calling the dawn of the New Dark Ages. It was a living example of the Benedict Option in actual practice.

The Saint John of Egypt Watering Society’s members were men who  ranged from their early 20’s to retirement age; most were married, many had large families (a sociodemographic quirk of Latin Mass Catholics who still followed the Church’s precepts against contraception), but there were here and there bachelors and young marrieds among them who had only one or two children, as he had.

They took their name from an early mystic and hermit, Saint John of Egypt, who had lived in the desert and one day heard the voice of God speaking to him.

“John” said the Deity, “I want you to water my tree.” Startled, the 2nd century hermit looked around for the source of the voice but seeing no one, instantly knew it was God speaking to him.

“What tree, Lord?”

“John, water my tree” said God.

“But Lord,” protested John, “there is no tree for we are in a deserted place where nothing grows.”

“Water my tree, John.” God commanded.

And as John turned around he spotted a forlorn stick behind him in the desert wastes, improbably sticking out of the Egyptian sands of the Sahara. It had no branches, no leaves and no flowers. It was quite dead.

But John obeyed. From that day on, Saint John of Egypt watered that stick faithfully, day in and day out, for the rest of his life.

And then, one day, John died. The tree never flowered, never grew. Nothing miraculous happened. Nothing incredible occurred, except that John, the Saint, had obeyed faithfully and his obedience endured to the very last day.

***

As he worked among his fellow Waterers there in black soil and newly-green turf, he was overcome by the beauty and fraternity and God’s benevolence. He was happy; gloriously so. Thankful and instantly aware of his great good  fortune, he smiled and began to sing, and his brothers joined in, their voices swelling confidently, lifting the ancient Latin hymn between the everlasting hills:

Salve Regina! Mater misericordia
Vita dulcedo, et spes nostra salve.
Ad te clamamus, ex sules filii Evae
Ad te suspiramus,
Gementes et flentes
In hac lacrimarum valle….

As he sang, he marveled at the experience. Here he and a dozen or so mostly fellow Oklahomans – a state where Catholics, to say nothing of Latin Mass Catholics, were decidedly outnumbered at least 10 to 1 by their Southern Baptist friends and neighbors, and yet here they were, loyal sons of those everlasting hills and plains, but alsofiercely devout members of the ancient faith nonetheless – had come together in fraternity to help rebuild the Church.

But although the SJOEWS were individually pious, they were far from prude. Their gatherings centered on eating copious amounts of rare beef and drinking Scotch while reciting occasionally ribald poems and stories. These were not Church ladies, and they were far from strait-laced. Their Baptist co-workers and friends would not have been always comfortable in their company: if their overt if not militant Catholicism and devotion to Mary were not enough to scandalize their Bible-believing neighbors, their occasional overindulgence in single-malt Scotch, fine Cuban tobacco, and loose jokes and stories surely would have.

No, these men are not your typical bible study group, he thought to himself with a smile. Thank you, Father, he added in silent prayer. I have never been so happy or blessed.

***

In his tenth year of marriage, he was 38 years old. He’d been fortunate enough to have found his way into a classical education at a private liberal arts university, and held a professional degree. Like most of his friends, he was not a cradle Catholic, but a convert. Indeed it was a running joke amongst them, the prayer “Please God, don’t let my children grow up to be cradle Catholics!” -- that inside-joke revealing a divide between these devout adherents and their generally poorly-catechized fellow parishioners.

He himself had been an atheist, or at best agnostic for most of his life. No one was more surprised than he was to find himself becoming a believer – and a Catholic, of all the damned things! – in his 33rd year. Catholicism was decidedly not normal in Oklahoma. But then, neither was he.

But he was happy – gloriously so.

***

December 2001, Our Lady of the Annunciation Priory near Hulbert, Oklahoma

The morning sky was a brilliant blue against the dramatic whiteness of the snowy ridge outside the cabin door. Cloudless, perfect, so bone-chillingly cold that it seemed as if it might shatter into a million icy shards at too loud a noise.

As he stood on the porch of the log cabin guesthouse early that morning, the cold shocked him. His breath formed an icy cloud in the brilliant morning sunshine. Though the Eastern Oklahoma sunshine blazed as brightly as it had since the Earth first began to spin millions of years prior, it was still too early for the temperature to warm into even double digits. He gazed at the snowy ridges to the west and worried about the sheep flocks and how they could survive the sub-zero temperatures the last night. That’s kinda silly, he corrected himself. Obviously, they’re sheep and they’re built to endure the cold. Still …. Well at least the deer ticks that filled these wooded Ozark hills would be severely retarded come Springtime.

Just then he heard the bells from the temporary monastery tolling for Morning Prayer (Lauds) from across the fields, and he turned to re-enter the cabin and prepare for the ancient Divine Office that the monks prayed seven times daily.



                 

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