From my very first visit to Collegeville, Minnesota, I’ve been smitten by the place. It was the summer of 2008, and I’d been given the opportunity to attend a Collegeville Institute writing workshop. Since that first visit, I’ve returned four more times, including a month-long sabbatical stay in 2011.
But the Institute is only one of many things that draws people to Collegeville. The place isn’t a town or a village, at least not in any conventional sense. At its heart lies St John’s Abbey, which is the largest community of Benedictine monks on the continent. That Benedictine heart is at work in everything else that is part of Collegeville, including St John’s University, St. John’s Preparatory School, The Liturgical Press, and The Hill Manuscript Museum. It is all set on some 2000 acres of property set aside as a wildlife reserve, which the monastic community protects and treasures with great care.
That diversity is an expression of a Benedictine ethos of balance, learning, generosity, and hospitality, an ethos learned in the school of life that is the monastic rhythm of daily prayer through all the seasons of the year. It was during a 2009 Eastertide writing retreat that I unexpectedly learned something from that Benedictine school of life, namely, that Eastertide is a fifty day festal season.
Don’t get me wrong. I was aware that the Easter season runs from Easter Day through to Pentecost, and I was accustomed to setting adult baptisms and confirmations within those fifty days. I’d often made the point in my preaching that after the forty days of Lent it was right and good to observe fifty days bathed in the resurrection light. But quite honestly, aside from the addition of all of those alleluias, I think I treated the fifty days as being little more than “Ordinary Time plus.” The monks of St John’s turned me around on that count.
We were coming up on the fifth Sunday in Easter when the Institute residents were invited to join the monastic community for lunch following Sunday mass. As the liturgy came to its close, Fr. Kilian McDonnell escorted us into the monastery. We stopped in a small reception room, where Kilian — a monk of the Abbey since the late 1940’s — served us appetizers and modest little glasses of wine. He raised his glass and wished us all a happy Easter season, and I thought to myself, “Now isn’t that a gracious Benedictine touch, to offer guests a bit of Easter wine before lunch is served.” After a few minutes of conversation, Kilian had us follow him into the dining room.
I’m not sure if my jaw literally dropped when I saw the feast that lay before us, but that was certainly what it felt like. The long serving tables were set up in a “T” shape, at which members of the monastic community were happily filling their plates. To my left, I saw steam trays filled with all of the breakfast staples: eggs, sausages, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, Belgian waffles. To my right were all manner of cold options: salads and pickles, olives and cold cuts, as well as steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes. The table down the centre held roast turkey, roast ham, and roast beef, each ready to be carved. Just across from the very base of the “T,” another table was set with bottles of wine, cold beer, and an array of juices and soft drink options.
Having filled my plate and poured a more generous glass of wine, I settled in at the guest table, where I was soon joined by Father Kilian. He smiled and said, “We don’t always eat like this, you know. But it is Easter, and Sundays in Easter are always real feast days in the Abbey.” That’s the moment I saw it; the moment I realized that Eastertide really is meant to be a fifty day festal season, not just a set of Sundays with a lot of alleluias added to the communion rite. There in the Abbey dining room I saw it — and tasted it — for the first time.
Sundays in Easter are always real feast days, Kilian had told me, but that is partly because his community knows something about the fasting and restraint of Lent and of the work-a-day ordinariness of Ordinary Time. In that is the gift of the liturgical year, a gift we do well to receive.
Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia!
[box] Jamie Howison is the priest at St. Benedict’s Table, Winnipeg[/box]