Our Lady of The Holy Trinity Abbey, Huntsville, Utah
July 23, 2017
I am sitting vigil.
It is early afternoon. I sit in the back upper tier of the church, absorbing the silence.
I sit in meditative presence, my brain humming. Can I be so present that I etch this moment into my whole being, capture it so that it will never leave me? This moment, and this moment, and this moment?
I hear echoing and muffled movement of bodies in the pews below. Two others are here, sitting with me. I will never know their reasons for being here, though I can guess.
Light from the thirty-foot contemporary stained glass window of Mary and the Christ child at the back end of the round-ceilinged Quonset hut church falls on the pale linoleum aisle between the monk’s pews. Because the linoleum is old and the floor is not perfectly flat (as nothing is in this monastery), the blue with bits of red and orange reflection is rippled, like moonlight on water — but utterly still, like the white crosses I can see in the graveyard peeking through the cracked windows on this still July afternoon.
* * * *
I am sitting vigil for an American Trappist-Cistertian order of what started out as thirty-two and grew to eighty-four farmer/rancher/bread & honey-making monks who were sent out from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky just after World War II to homestead in Huntsville, Utah.
They have been working and praying, living and dying quietly here in this idyllic Utah valley for seventy years. Now, the six monks who are left are to leave the monastery by September first. Six weeks from today.
* * * * *
I sit vigil for myself as well.
At 55, I am in the late prime of my life. My body is healthy and strong — perhaps more so than it’s ever been. I have attained a certain kind of balance, a certain modicum of wisdom and maturity that allows me to hear what my soul wishes next for my life, and to guide myself in those directions, to the extent that any human, with her limitations of mind and beliefs, and the ever-present though not ever- conscious awareness of her own death can be.
Yet when I look in the mirror, I see a face that has age spots and wrinkles, whose jowls are starting to sag, whose hair is greying. It’s not the young and vibrant face I was sure I’d always have, forever.
It is clear that I am dying too.
Most of the time I don’t think about myself actually dying, for real. Why bother? It only stresses me out. But I wish to be awake to that reality. Now. Sitting vigil.
There is something about learning to live well that must take the gut-terrorizing reality of my own death absolutely seriously.
* * * *
I do not know what will happen to this place; 1,800+ acres of alfa and grain fields with a Quonset hut chapel and monk’s quarters, farming out buildings, a guest house and a hermitage hidden up in the hills behind, all set in rapidly gentrifying country on the east side of the Wasatch mountains.
There is a lot I don’t know. I am not Catholic. I’d heard tale of this monastery, but only got scooped into the place through a design job I took somewhere around 2003 or 2004, when I was hired (through an architect friend) to design a ‘beautiful brochure’ for them as part of a capital campaign they were undertaking to build a new monastery. They needed a new monastery, it seemed, if they were to grow and change, to attract new blood. They had been repairing and upgrading the original pre-fabricated metal quonset hut buildings for over 50 years, and had limited space for male retreatents —and no space for women who might want to come on retreat.
Doing this design job, I took the opportunity to learn all about the monastery. Under the loving wing of a lay brother, Michael Batten — who had come to the monastery to help rejuvenate it, and ended up staying, serving the monks until he died last November of pancreatic cancer — I was able to stay in the guest house for five days and chant the Liturgy of the Hours, seven times a day with the monks, beginning at 3:30 am. I saw their library and the illuminated manuscripts they had there, as well as beautiful old black and white prints of some of the young monks and their work in the early days. I saw where they ate meals as a community, and the A-frame hermitage up the hill. I planted flowers around the church building, along the “no admittance” side where white crosses marked the names of monks who had died.
And I met real, live monks! Father Charles who is a learned man and writer; Brother Bon who was very old way back then; Father Patrick who is still the one who offers solace and care to people who come for assistance; Father Allen who was tall and strapping like a real rancher and who leads the singing of the chants and is now at St. Joseph’s care facility in Ogden. And others who I’ve never spoken to, but have seen taking their place in the church pews at Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. And two precious times I had run-ins with monks who I swear had light coming out of their heads when they spoke to me.
* * * * *
The new monastery was never built.
But since then, I have visited somewhat regularly; then less and less . . . always taking solace in knowing that even if I don’t visit, I know this special place is there. As I know thousands of others do.
For another six weeks, that is.
* * * * *
It is early evening. I have been here seven hours. I have watched Father Patrick (eighty-nine years young now, and looking very much like Yoda) greet a young African couple and take them back into the private room for long chats, and later, a balding White man with glasses and a blue t-shirt. They emerge with hushed laughter and then quiet – I know he is giving them blessings.
The light has changed. There is no more frozen light reflecting on the linoleum floor. I move downstairs and sit in the pew I always sat in with Michael, and I wait for Compline with memories swirling through me. This is the end. I will never hear another Liturgy at Holy Trinity Abbey again.
It’s short and sweet. Four monks tonight. They don’t sing anymore. Just chant in ancient, muffled voices. They shuffle slowly in. And then they shuffle slowly out. Another day is over.
I sit and listen to the silence. Father Patrick is in his monk’s seat, the only one left; head bowed, silent, contemplating, as he often does. One other woman is also here. She has been crying; I can tell by her eyes.
I keep my eyes down. Father Patrick slowly shuffles toward me — I take a breath. OK. This is goodbye.
He embraces me and then I find myself crying. The beauty of this small, simple man who takes in everyone as a worthy and precious being overwhelms me. He tells me “You have a great feminine beauty, you know that?” “I love you, sweetheart, I love you.” Smiling.
Then he gives me a blessing, hand raised, serious, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, then the Mother Mary one and then silence . . . a transmission.
We speak of what may come of this church. He doesn’t know — the lawyer who bought the land doesn’t know. His eyes are clear and dry, his mind is sharp, he is quick to make a joke. The greatest of endings do not ruffle him in the least.
“I am so sad to see this place go.” I say. “I’m crying — and I’m not even Catholic!” A wide and genuine smile creeps over Father Patrick’s face. “Maybe you’re better off that way . . .”
And then he confides, “I have to go say hello to this lady . . . here’s some homework for you, ok?”
“The next time you look at your reflection in the mirror . . .”
“Give it a thrill!”
And with a wave, he’s gone.