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Looking Back

The attraction of a monastic life

Forced solitude during Lockdown 2020 has enabled me to travel to the past and back to the future. The six years I spent in a Benedictine monastery gives me nostalgia for a changed world after the lockdown—a past that provides context for the present and hope (not despair) for the uncertain future.I am often asked what attracted me to the monastery, a life contrary to modern times and my seemingly outgoing nature. First was the setting. The Abbey Church of Our Lady of Montserrat, with its unique fully painted ceiling, remains one of Manila’s hidden architectural gems. Situated on Mendiola Street, close to the Malacañang complex, it lies on one end of the city’s University Belt. La Consolacion College, Centro Escolar University, and V. Mapa High School sit across it; Holy Spirit is on the left, San Beda on the right, and Arellano behind it a bit further off on Concepcion Aguila.

On a weekday morning, by the open church doors designed by Eduardo Castrillo, my senses were assaulted by the world and all its distractions. But when these doors closed behind me and I entered a second set of doors into the cloister, it was quiet inside. Silence can be terrifying to some, like those who turn up for a weekend retreat only to leave after one night, assailed by “deafening silence.” A monastery is a physical structure that protects and nurtures solitude.

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Reading was the other attraction of the monastic life for me. Benedictines are a reading order, with a life built around books and texts to express a love of learning and a desire for God. Monks read all the time, and if you cannot, someone will read to you. Reading punctuates the day: morning, midday, evening, and night prayer. Meals are silent except for a reading; here, food fed the body and the chosen reading nourished the mind and, hopefully, the soul.

Lockdown 2020 has led me to the iBreviary app, saving me the trouble of shuttling back and forth between a physical breviary and psalter with its confusion of ribbons and bookmarks that changed every day according to the proper memorials, feasts, and solemnities that dot the cycles in a liturgical year.

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Prayer in common was the third attraction. I find it difficult to pray alone, and looking back, it was during readings that I discovered the Old Testament had enough blood and gore to rival “Game of Thrones.” Once, during night prayer, a reading from the Book of Samuel related how David won Saul’s daughter Michal in marriage after counting out 200 foreskins from dead Philistines before the king. No wonder St. Benedict warned against reading certain biblical books at night.

I was shocked when I first sang out psalms that called on God to break the enemy’s teeth or dash the heads of their children on the rocks. I realized later that we prayed for a world that didn’t know or care we did. Somewhere in the world, someone was suffering and oppressed, and it was for them that you called out an avenging God. Psalm 57 and 108, unfit for prayer, are not included in the breviary, so I prayed these privately. Taking out Psalm 108 against the coronavirus made me stop to rethink certain lines that appear to resonate in our times. Am I overreading?

I leave these for your reflection this Holy Week:

“Appoint a wicked man as his judge: let an accuser stand at his right. When he is judged let him come out condemned; let his prayer be considered as sin. Let the days of his life be few; let another man take his office. Let his children be fatherless orphans and his wife become a widow. Let his children be wanderers and beggars driven from the ruins of their home. Let the creditor seize all his goods; let strangers take the fruit of his work. Let none show him mercy nor pity his fatherless children. Let all his sons be destroyed and with them their name be blotted out. Let his father’s guilt be remembered, his mother’s sin be retained. Let it always stand before the Lord, that their memory may be cut off from the earth. For he did not think of showing mercy but pursued the weak and the needy, hounding the wretched to death. He loved cursing; let curses fall on him. He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by. He put on cursing like his coat; let it soak into his body like water; let it sink like oil into his bones; let it be like the clothes that cover him, like a girdle he cannot take off!”

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, lookdown, Looking Back, Luzon quarantine, monastic life
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