The monastery’s Vigil bells awaken me at 3 am. The hour of souls. Coming in the darkest of night, they are persistent, haunting, urgent. To me they sound like the Bells of Death, summoning me to Final Judgement. The bells themselves will be a constant companion throughout the whole of my retreat, sounding every few hours or so, to announce the next event of the liturgical day: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. This particular evening, I try to ignore the call. I only want to roll over and sleep. But eventually something propels me out of bed: Sheer curiosity.
Prayer in the dead of night—what a concept. I’m curious to see who else shows up. I take my seat in the retreatants’ area of the church, along with three other brave souls. The monks filter in, one by one, all in white. I’m beginning now to tell them apart, and recognize them as individual men. There’s perhaps thirty or forty of them, and it seems as if they are all here, no sleepyheads among them.
The church itself is astonishingly simple, stark, almost Shaker-like. Soaring white-washed brick walls and thin slats of stained-glass windows, in muted shades of gray and beige and opaque white, a modernistic design. Mary, the Virgin, holding her child, presides up front, and seeing her reminds me of all those middle-of-the-nights nursing my own baby, all that long-ago exhaustion and joy and frustration. I’m surprised to be the only woman present: this service seems tailored made for mothers, who are no strangers to interrupted-sleep activities. Are there no other moms on this retreat?
The monks sit in pale-wood pews facing each other across the aisle. Every day, seven times a day, they must face their brother monks no matter what; every day see the same forty other faces or so, and yet they all look serene, almost nonchalant, striding to their seats in clunky athletic shoes, or sandals with socks. They are endearingly normal men, with a variety of features: None stand out as particularly handsome or striking, and their singing is touchingly imperfect—many are laborers, they work as farmers and bakers, ordinary men, and yet touched by the extraordinariness of their call. I think of my newly found friend, the West Virginia priest, and reflect on the mystery of vocation.
The prayers begin: Songs and psalms, plaintive calls to the Lord in the night. My female voice sounds strange mingled with theirs, as we sing alleluias. How extraordinary to be the only woman among forty or so men in the middle of night, and yet feel so completely safe and unthreatened…indeed, genderless, if for a moment. Also a bit joyful and calmed now, my physical distress melting away with the music and prayer. I belong here now, I think, my doubts and concerns also fading away into the dark. I am letting go of my clenched, tense inner self and easing gently into the rhythm of the monks’ cycle of daily life. And the only question now is how to bring it all home with me.
There is a small price to pay: In the morning I sleep right through the Lauds bells…and breakfast. I struggle groggily downstairs to the kitchen, and find that the kind souls there have left the coffee machine on, along with some fruit. I encounter some of the others who had joined me earlier in the day at prayer, exchanging sheepish, sleepy smiles: We share a secret, linked to the dark sky of a Kentucky night, and heaven above.