On the Feast of St. John, early in the morning, I turned a monastery car eastward on Highway 278 and headed toward the Carolinas to visit with family for a while. The sun lay tucked behind a veil of grey sky, the road fell and swelled with the undulating earth, and the gentle landscape of northern Alabama slowly gave way to the piney woods of central Georgia, and eventually to the Spanish moss-draped oaks of low country Carolina. Along the way, towns and cities rolled by like verses to a folk song being sung by endless generations. I passed through towns in which family members are buried, towns in which I’ve blown out birthday candles and ridden bikes, towns in which I’ve worked and lived and earned a paycheck… each town marked by the variegated tonalities of life – not just my life, but the lives of millions of souls who have sighed and sung their way across the land and the years.
Once here in Carolina, a family member put on a CD of American folk songs, songs with tonalities that ranged from whimsical to sad to heartbroken to festive. There were stories of courting and dying…of soldiers off to war and wayfaring strangers…of valleys and flowers and shady groves and landscapes of longing and love and loss and labor… The collection of songs, with their homespun lyrics and memorable melodies, was so evocative of the range of human experience that it made me homesick – not for the Deep South of my childhood or for the well-worn refrains of familiar tunes. It made me homesick for the monastery.
For those of us called to the monastic life, this is the place in which – and the community with whom – we sing the lyrics of our life. When we enter monastic community – a wayfaring stranger, each of us – we don’t forget the valleys and shady groves of our past. They are part of what made each of us who we are. Nor do we cease to walk through new valleys and fresh groves. We each weave our story with those of our Sisters, creating a community in which the variegated tonalities of life – joy and sorrow, labor and loss – can be experienced and lived with mutual support and love.
The daily praying of the Psalms anchors our stories. The Psalms convey the timeless human tonalities of longing and love and loss and labor. They convey the depth of human sorrow and the heights of human gratitude and joy. As our days fall and swell with the undulations of time and the rhythms of the earth and sky, the Psalms of the ancient Hebrews – better than any folk song, more memorable than any familiar refrain – are the song that we continue to sing.
Soon I will turn the car westward, traveling from the mountains of North Carolina back to Highway 278 and the gentle hills of northern Alabama. My refrain will be that of the Responsorial Psalm for today, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: May God bless us in His mercy. It is a refrain that has anchored the songs of millions who have sighed and sung their way across the land and the years. It is the refrain at the heart of every song of longing and labor and loss and love.
In this new year, may God bless us in His mercy.
Postscript: When we travel, we do not cease praying the Liturgy of the Hours. We each take a prayer book (or books) with us – one of mine is depicted above – and continue the daily liturgical cycle of prayer.