There are different kinds of young geeks in this world. I was the kind of a young geek who got up at dawn one Saturday morning to stuff myself into the back of a station wagon, one among a convoy of vehicles making an eight-hour driving trek to hear monks chant.
That year, I was taking a university course in medieval and renaissance music and our professor organized this voluntary weekend trip from Waterloo to Quebec’s Eastern Townships to visit l’Abbaye-Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, founded in 1912.
This community of about 50 Benedictine monks has distinguished itself by continuing to sing what’s known as the “Liturgy of the Hours” in Gregorian plainchant in Latin while other monasteries in North America have switched to the prevalent local language.
There’s a practical reason behind this: the abbey has historically attracted French-speaking men from Quebec and English-speaking men from nearby Vermont and other U.S. New England states. The community decided to continue to worship and singing their daily offices in Latin, rather than switch to either French or English when the Catholic church in the 1960s allowed / insisted its communities move to the vernacular (local language) in religious services. The abbey has since become known for its singing and preservation of a musical tradition that goes back to 9th century.
Monks and others devoted to a Catholic religious life pray communally. A lot. They gather several times daily in chapel between times of work, meals, and sleep. The trip we took as students had us arriving in time to attend Vespers (6 p.m. evening prayer), Compline (9 p.m. night prayer) and Prime (early morning prayer, around 6 a.m.), followed by a Sunday mass mid-morning, all with the monks singing prayers and psalms using “plain chant” musical lines that would have been recognizable 1,000 years ago.
During my student weekend visit, the male students got to stay overnight in the abbey with the monks and shared dinner with them, albeit in silence as is the order’s tradition; female students like me stayed in a nearby guest house and were allowed to talk during dinner with the guest house host.
The quiet and orderly rhythm of the place lets you think about life and its meaning in a way that I, at least, don’t find possible amid the bustle of daily life and urban living. This is not cottage-deck-sitting mind-wandering-with-a-gin-and-tonic time. You quickly become aware of the discipline of a life where the schedule is tuned to such-frequent gatherings to contemplate, pray, and sing. It is contemplation within structure. The individual subsumes to the collective. That doesn’t mean the monks lose their individuality or personalities; only that the group life, needs, and rules take precedence.
My student trip took place in winter. The drive there was through some nasty weather but, when we finally arrived, the muffling of snow and the shortened winter days added another layer of quiet, and contemplative focus, to the experience.
The monastery is nestled on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, with hills rising around it. This area is particularly beautiful in the fall when the forests surrounding the lake and abbey are ablaze in yellows, reds, and oranges. That season was in its full glory when I returned to Saint-Benoît-du-Lac many years later while on a vacation in Quebec to enter the monastery church for just one office, this time, and to pick up some fruits of the monks’ labours.
For there are apple orchards and farmlands surrounding the abbey buildings: the monastery produces a line of apple products (ciders and jellies) and delicious cheeses. These are sold at the monastery and some products have wider distribution, all of which pays the monastery’s bills. A particular favourite of mine is Bleu bénédictin cheese, which blessedly I can get in Toronto, where I live, from the “cheese wall” at the flagship Loblaws store, located in what used to be Maple Leaf Gardens arena.
And as much as I’d like to visit Saint Benoit again, I’m happy in the meantime to unwrap one of the monks’ cheese wedges, add some fruit to the board, pour a bit of wine, and remember as I eat and drink this special corner of contemplation on Canadian soil.
Main photo: John Lederman