Magazine article U.S. Catholic

First Light

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

First Light

Article excerpt

"IN A REAL DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL," WROTE F. SCOTT Fitzgerald, "it is always 3 o'clock in the morning." Fitzgerald should have waited another hour. The dawn begins to break at 4.

That is the time when they pray vigils at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. And it was there, at 4 in the morning, that I saw the sun begin to rise, even though, outside, it remained pitch black.

I was in Conyers for a private retreat, three days at a Trappist monastery in a spare room with a bed, a desk, a chair, and a lamp. And books. I brought lots of books.

Settling in Friday evening, I leafed through the literature in my room, including a pamphlet with testimonials from others who had been there before me. I had planned to skip vigils and get up in time for lauds, at 7--much more reasonable, I thought. Wire needs to pray in the middle of the night?

Well, leafing through those testimonials, they made me feel like I did. Time and again, the former guests sang the praises of the night vigils. To miss that, they implied, would be like going to China and skipping the Great Wall. Reluctantly, I agreed to give this vigil stuff a shot. I set my alarm for 3:45, and clicked out the light.

A few moments later, I was shaken by a sound that burned my disbelieving ears: my alarm.

3:45? Already?

I could hear the thump-thump of footfalls tip and down the hall--other guests scurrying to church. I weighed skipping out, taking a pass. Wouldn't a couple more hours of slumber do me good? I waited for the answer. It didn't come. So I got up.

I threw on a T-shirt, staggered into the bathroom, splashed the sleep from my eyes, blinked blearily into the fluorescent light, and reeled dumbly downstairs into the church.

I slipped in through the side door. Other, hardier souls were already up and poised for prayer. Monks in their choir, guests in their pews. I padded to the rear of the church, sat on a squeaky bench, and gazed it a quiet world stirring awake.

"Unbelievable" is the one-word description Flannery O'Connor used to describe this very church, 40 years ago, when it was new. She was right. It defies mere belief.

This soaring abbey church is a prayer--a psalm in stone, grace in stained glass. Its arches bend above, like hands meeting in meditation, fingertips touching. There isn't a wasted line, an unneeded beam. It contains within it everything needed to attune the soul and focus the eye. It soothes and celebrates, all in one breath.

I barely had time to absorb this before the monks began their chant--a low murmur of praise and thanksgiving. …

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