Life & Soul Life and Soul

An abbey is a glorious place to spend Easter

The introit for Maundy Thursday, Nos autem gloriari, seems ages ago, yet it still sounds in my ears, as does the Christus Factus Est and the Haec Dies and the Easter Vesper hymn Ad coenam Agni providi. If you could distil the essence of Easter joy into a chant, the latter would be it. Liturgists tell us that the Triduum is actually one liturgical action, and it feels so in a monastic setting, and, on this Easter Sunday, as though we have been on a journey and now we are home and safe. In the course of that journey there have been places where I have wanted to pause, and times when it has been sorrowful or tiring, but there has been an ineluctable momentum which allows all stages to cohere in the joy of arrival and the sense of peace.

Only by arriving do I understand the full import of what we have been celebrating and what the stages signify, so that I will be able to recognise them when they occur in the pattern of my own life and have the faith and courage to persevere. The Vesper hymn explains that journey: with Christ as our Pasch we have safely crossed the Red Sea.

I have again been privileged to celebrate these holy days with the Benedictine community of St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. The beauty of the liturgy, especially the chant, is a powerful aid to devotion. It is moving precisely because none of it is trying to elicit an emotional response. Immense effort goes into seeing that the liturgy is carried out beautifully but in way that is unselfconscious: ritual not performance. Christ is the focus, and the Divine Office gives him a voice in the psalms, both in his suffering (“My heart is poured out like wax, I can count every one of my bones”) and his joy (‘‘Even my body shall rest in safety, for you will not let your beloved know decay’’). Plainchant ensures that it is only ever the biblical word that emerges spectacularly, not some musical or poetic climax which is relied on for emotional impact.

From the intense experience of these days the following vignettes retain particular power. In the darkened church watching before the altar of repose the church is still heavy with incense. I am aware of unseen watchers in the monastic choir behind the grille. The light of the candles catches and shows up the incense lingering in the air and the silence reveals the presence of the Lord. The crotalus, or rattle, rasps out the Angelus at the end of Compline. A cry of love rejected, stricken, in the Good Friday Reproaches, “My people what have I done to you?”

Meals in the parlour, served with care by an extern sister who seems endlessly to attend to the demands of others with such patience. The faces of the community by the light of the Easter fire and the silhouettes of the nuns in stalls in the choir with their candles as I sing the Exultet. The processional chant Salve Festa Dies ebbing and flowing as the nuns process round the cloister on Easter morning, blessing the various rooms in the monastery, the joyful melody growing stronger as they move into the choir for the Mass of Easter Sunday. And Ite Missa est is sung and I am processing in my white robes through the cloister with the Blessed Sacrament in a ciborium, taking Easter Communion to an elderly Sister terminally bedridden in the infirmary, a nun preceding me with a candle and ringing a bell.

The sunlight casts the outlines of the cloister windows’ tracery onto the tiled floor. I hear a burst of birdsong from the cloister garden and then stillness and I hold the Real Presence to me and know that Christ is risen.