I spent two days last week on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. I didn't have a reason for this, particularly; I'd been mildly curious about about the place since meeting one of the monks--and now that I'm working on a portion of Book Two that involves monasticism's afterlife in Protestant England, it seemed like the right time to check it out.
It was an interesting experience on a lot of levels. I hadn't expected any direct scholarly benefits, but there were several. Not only did I find a number of books I needed at the abbey bookstore, but wandering around in silence for a couple of days and trying to keep my mind blank caused some new and unexpected ideas to surface.
But there were more oblique benefits, too. I've always believed that being in certain places or making your body do certain things can make the past more present, and walking 3/4 of a mile back and forth through the fields to the abbey or getting up in the middle of the night to attend prayers did render more real the experiences of early modern worshipers. And it's one thing to "know" what a chantry is, and another to see one in action.
Because yes: on the spur of the moment I decided to forego some of my earlier plans and commit myself to attending the full cycle of the liturgy of the hours--meaning that at 2.25, 6, and 11.15 in the morning, and at 4.30 and 6.40 in the evening, I was at the abbey. Each service we sang a portion of the book of psalms. Over the course of a week, the monks get through all 150 psalms. Then they start over again.
I could say a lot more about that experience, but for the purposes of this blog what interests me is the routinizing of the transcendent--that is, the bringing down to earth, and making a part of everyday life, an experience that might otherwise get aestheticized or mystified into something inapproachable, something too perfect and beautiful for normal people to share. That strikes me as something we wrestle with as academics, too, especially those of us who teach and write about Great Works of Literary Genius.
Because on the one hand, the psalms are terrific poetry, sung in a melancholy and evocative plainsong chant (and the idea of a group of people interrupting their workday at regular intervals to sing poems together is bound to warm the heart of any literature professor). But on the other hand, the liturgy of the hours isn't a performance or a commodity. Though lay-people were present at the services I attended, the liturgy isn't done for an audience. Perfection isn't the goal. Sometimes a monk with a terrible voice led the singing, because it was his turn. Sometimes one would get up and leave in the middle of the service. And always they were there in their everyday clothes and ugly, sensible shoes, rustling their psalters and prayerbooks, clearing their throats, sneezing.
The message that I take away is the importance of letting the sublime into the everyday; the psalms become a part of the round of work and rest until by repetition they're absorbed and almost embodied in each monk. The liturgy of the hours, despite its odd, old-fashioned formality, is the opposite of what happens in most churches for the major solemnities, when the goal seems to be great seriousness and high drama: professional musicians, fancy vestments, elaborate floral arrangements, signs that This Is a Big Deal--but a Big Deal that takes place in an aesthetic and spiritual realm alien to ordinary experience.
I'm as susceptible to aesthetics as anyone, and prone to wanting everything to be just so. But participating in the liturgy of the hours as just another sleepy, ill-dressed layperson reminded me of what happens in our classrooms or alone in our studies. Though we write and think about literature for a living, our lives are mostly not about glorious aesthetic or intellectual triumphs or transcendent moments of illumination. Our lives involve worrying over one little bit of one little poem; writing and rewriting a single paragraph; teaching the same text over and over again. Now and then we do have a true, original insight; craft a perfect sentence; teach an amazing class. But in between there's a lot of plugging away, a lot of days when the spirit is most definitely not with us.
Except that it is, then, too.