24 December, 2006

Finding Bethlehem

I went to find Bethlehem on 24 December. Because I left out one step of the directions, I arrived thirty minutes late, instead of a mere fifteen.

By "Bethlehem", I mean the Bethlehem monastery of the Poor Clares north of Williamsburg, VA. Their monastery used to be located in Newport News, in a neighborhood that included Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish and Our Lady of Mount Carmel school. The sisters decided a few years ago that they would have to move away. A priest told me that the city had become too noisy for their likings. Their monastery would once have been in one of the many quiet neighborhoods of Newport News; now that building lies between the raucous interchanges where Harpersville meets Warwick (to the south) and Jefferson (to the north). The priest was of the opinion that they were making a mistake, because—his words—the intent of St. Clare had been that the Poor Clares should live in the middle of the city. Curiously, the monastery she actually lived in was located outside the walls of Assissi. Whatever the reality, these sisters were resolute that they belonged in a more rural area. So, off they went.

It had been some years since I had visited their Mass. I first went because of an announcement in the parish bulletin that they would pray the Office of Readings immediately before Midnight Mass. I love the Liturgy of the Hours, so off I went. What followed were two or three of the most beautiful hours of my life: led by a capable Cistercian monk, the sisters sang the Psalms and Canticles sweetly, angelically.

As long as the sisters remained in Newport news, I visited frequently. I was never disappointed. So, when I came back to Virginia to visit my folks for the Christmas holiday, I resolved to to visit Bethlehem. My wife, who is even less fond than I of the casual approach to liturgy in the diocesan parishes of the area, trusted my assurances that the monastery's approach to the Mass would appeal to her. And what appeal it held! An air of stately dignity greeted us.

Dignity deserves more than the lip service it usually receives. The nuns' chapel is large and beautiful, but simple. Absent were both the chaotic flamboyance of a typical Italian parish and the empty "multipurpose room" architecture which many modern American parishes boast. The chapel at Bethlehem monastery has a sacred purpose. It doesn't hide it, but neither does it throw it in your face.

Wooden beams outline the frame, while stone lines many walls. As with their previous urban chapel, I do not recalling spying many images upon entering. Wooden pews and kneelers, bereft of cushions, sit on a ceramic floor. Small, square brass images narrate the way of the cross along the side walls. A large creche awaited its Baby Jesus near the grille.

That black metal grille separates the sanctuary from the laity. It bows elegantly outward, as if something holy grows inside, and is pushing its way out. The gate in the middle of the grille is decorated as a bush, meant to symbolize the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses.

The sisters sit in a different wing of the same chapel. This wing is perpendicular to that where the laity sit. The sanctuary sits in the intersection of these two chapels, visible to all.

The priest faces the nuns during the Mass. No grate separates them. When it was the laity's turn to receive communion, a gentleman in the front row rose and pushed the grate open, so that we could approach communion. The priest distributed communion to us on a step just inside the grate. I doubt this was the intended effect, but again I had the feeling of being on the doorstep of my true home.

The sisters still sing sweetly and angelically. I don't have to hear chant to enjoy the Mass; I actually like the much-derided "folk" Masses. When they're done properly, they also can lift the soul to God. Nevertheless, no Mass of the Roman Rite sung to contemporary music, rock music, or what-have-you, has lifted me half as near to God as the way these sisters sing the Mass, or the way the Norbertine fathers of St. Michael's Abbey sing the Mass, or the way the Dominicans at the House of Studies in Washington, DC sing the Mass. De gustibus non disputandum, I admit, but I hope the reader will allow me to state my tastes without disputing others'.

Modern sensibilities dictate that the presence of the grille and the absence of hand-shaking and chatter should have made us feel unwelcome. Not at all! Hand-shaking, chatter, and familiarity among strangers makes me uncomfortable. I'm one of those people who, upon arriving at a party, bolts to the furthest corner and hopes no one will look at him and wonder what a person like him is doing in a nice gathering like this.

I felt the same in Bethlehem's quiet anonymity as I did when I walked into Nativity Church almost twelve years ago as a seeker, and knelt down in the presence of God. I felt as if I had arrived at the doorstep to our true home.

My wife also liked the monastery, and its tranquillity.

After the Mass, a woman walked up to my family and talked with us briefly. It was very low-key, and very nice. We felt welcome.

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