“I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).
Saint Benedict’s Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks near Still River, Massachusetts, graciously extended an invitation to the students of Thomas More College to spend the Paschal Triduum in retreat at the Abbey. The College and Saint Benedict’s Abbey have had a long-standing relationship, and in the past few years the Abbey has hosted a number of evening retreats for Thomas More students. In addition, priests from the Abbey offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every Monday in the College’s chapel.
In response this invitation, eight students from Thomas More made their way to the Abbey in time for the Holy Thursday liturgy. The ancient traditions of the Benedictine Office—the recitation of the Psalms and other liturgical texts—and the Mass, preserved throughout the centuries, make the Benedictines the liturgical order par excellence.
At Saint Benedict’s Abbey, the solemn, beautiful tones of Gregorian chant fill the chapel with its simple benches, whitewashed walls, and wooden statues, dark with age and the use that comes from being well-loved. The Paschal Triduum, stretching from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, in which the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord are commemorated and made present in the august Sacrifice of the Altar, is the summit of the whole liturgical year.
Needless to say, the liturgy at the Abbey during these few days is exceptionally beautiful.
Although it would be hard to determine what the most beautiful of the liturgies offered during the Triduum at Saint Benedict’s is, there is one service that stands out as unique: the Office of Tenebrae. Taken from the Latin word for “shadows”, Tenebrae commemorates the darkness that came at the time of Christ’s death on the Cross, as well as his entombment. The central feature of Tenebrae is the chanting of the Psalms and other Scriptural passages while gradually extinguishing a fourteen-branch candlestick known as a hearse. The service is noticeably mournful: one of the key texts chanted are the Lamentations of Jeremiah, surely one of the most moving pieces of poetry ever composed.
Tenebrae is also a final Lenten penance, particularly for the Thomas More students who came to the Abbey. Why? Because it is held at 2:30 in the morning.
As well as attending the Triduum liturgies, the students also had plenty of time for silent prayer and reflection as they awaited the approach of the Easter Vigil. Advantage was also taken of the trails running next to the Abbey that led through the beautiful New England countryside. The hospitality of the monks was especially generous. Following the ancient dictum of Saint Benedict that “all guests are to be received as Christ”, they made sure that their guests were comfortable and well taken care of. The five young men that came from the College were even able to join the the monks for meals in the monastery, as well being allowed the privilege of assisting at Holy Mass as altar servers. They were joined by the Mitchell brothers, long-standing friends of the Abbey, one of whom, Liam, is currently a junior at Thomas More College. In addition to the students from Thomas More, the Abbey’s guesthouses hosted a number of families, some of whom got to know the students.
Following the rigors of Good Friday and the meditative silence of Holy Saturday,the time for the long-awaited Easter Vigil finally came. Gathered around the Paschal fire, the guests observed as Father Abbot Xavier blessed the new fire and inscribed the symbols of Christ’s Resurrection—Alpha and Omega—onto the Paschal candle. During the long procession leading to the chapel, all present stopped and knelt three times as “Lumen Christi” was proclaimed.
Finally, the Vigil Mass, the most ancient of all the Church’s liturgies, began. In the dark chapel the light of many candles flickered. When the last reading was finished, Father Abbot intoned the Gloria, all the lights were lit, bells were rung, the altar was prepared, and the servers brought out flowers to place on it. The sudden joy of Easter was overwhelming. “Christ is risen!” “He is truly risen, alleluia!”
After the Vigil Mass, the monks held festivities for their guests. The long discipline of the Lenten discipline gave way to feasting, and after making merry with the other guests, the students from Thomas More made a quiet exit to one of the retreat houses, where they opened a celebratory bottle of champagne and, exhausted, sat around on various sofas and armchairs trading puns and light humor. The joy of the night before was revisited on Easter Sunday: Mass was attended, followed by more feasting. All in all, the students found that their stay at the Abbey was a thoroughly blessed one. Thank you, Saint Benedict Abbey, for such a gracious invitation and such generous hospitality!