Just after Christmas in 1999, I flew from Rome to Brussels. When I got off the plane I was met by a monk from Chevetogne Abbey (also known as the Monastery of the Holy Cross). The community was founded in 1925 by Dom Lambert Beauduin and moved to its current location about an hour outside of Brussels in 1938.
I had a couple of purposes in visiting this obscure monastic community in rural Belgium. At the time, it seemed likely that I would pursue a doctorate within a few years, and I thought Dom Beauduin, who was a respected thinker as well as founder of a very unusual monastery, would be the perfect subject. I had already come across some of his writings and was well on my way to becoming a devotee. As it turns out, I never did the doctorate.
But I was also at Chevetogne because in about six months time I was to be ordained deacon on the path to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. It’s considered a major step and consequently Church law imposes a formal retreat before undertaking such an ordination. So I made my retreat under the auspices and in the company of a group of serious and dedicated but joyful Belgian monks.
As I mentioned, the abbey is rather unusual, as it brings together two different groups of monks under the roof of one community. It’s a bi-ritual monastery, which means some of the monks follow the Western, Roman liturgy and some follow the Eastern, Greek liturgy.
My visit fell during the New Year period, which was inspiring fear that year as we were passing into the year 2000. While my father was back at home on-call in his office in case there were computer or technology problems, I was among the monks chanting in Latin and Greek their usual prayers. At 10 pm on December 31, 1999 we sang the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, then each of us went to his respective cell (bedroom) and went to sleep. There was no hoopla, no fireworks, no champagne. While the rest of Europe was either hunkered down in fear or in the streets wildly partying, we went on with life as normal. That’s what monks do. If it were the end of the world, they would still keep their usual schedule.
Today as I awoke and saw news of the deaths and terror in Brussels, I thought of those monks. Naturally, they will mourn the dead and console the living, but as all of us are lost in fear, the monks will continue on with their normal schedule because their community, their lives, and their example exist, in part, to help the rest of us gain perspective that we altogether lack in moments such as this.
March 22, 2016