This morning was one of those rare occasions - at this time of year, at least - when I experienced the sunrise. Got it in my head at about 3:30 am that it was the perfect time to zip up to the 24 hr WalMart in Harriman, NY... the SUPER WalMart. Yes, I shared the space with a couple dozen shoppers who found their way there... plus all the night crew. From time to time someone would get on the PA system and dedicate a Christmas song or another to a friend or relation.
At one point in my extremely leisurely stroll throughout the store I spent about 1/2 hr helping an Hispanic "associate" try to establish some order from the chaos that was unleashed in the wrapping and decorations section... the only thing I can equate it with is the routine state of my 21 yr.old student boarder Stephanie's rented room - everything everywhere, bags, boxes, accessories strewn hither and thither. I was really feeling for Vanessa - who had only tidied up in housewares before..... decorations aisles during the holidays are another animal altogether.
I spent hours reading labels and packages and looking through the significant "holiday"CD bins dotted throughout the sprawling floor plan. Got the bags for the Soup Kitchen give away Christmas Day? Check! Stuffing mix? Yup. 15 men's watch caps? OK! Picked up a headset for my new cellphone (misplaced my old one who knows where - haven't been able to locate it for 10 days), an inexpensive case to cut down on wear and tear. A Hanukkah 2-CD album for Rabbi Milgrom and Principal Baritz who will be volunteers at the Christmas Soup Kitchen dinner. OK. Final purchases to the register.... the ONE register open. The 'associate' there had come on @ 11pm and was looking to patch out of the parking lot ASAP.
Pulling out of the parking lot myself it's 6:45am... heading east there is a purple glow beginning to give definition to Bear Mountain, dead ahead. I take the entrance to the NY Thruway South... my little Honda and the 18 wheelers. Minute by minute the glow grows and grows, the sky begins that white/yellow/orange/red transition as it comes above the horizon. David Benoit is thumping through my surround speakers.... doing a poignant rendition of Christmastime is Here
from A Charlie Brown Christmas
. And who pops into my mind, but sweet Sr. Elizabeth Marian, CSJB of blessed memory.
In a start I recall..... on 27 December 1975 -- thirty years ago - I entered that community 'trying' my vocation. Truth be told, I was probably much more trying
to the community than my vocation was to me... at age 25 I admittedly (in hindsight) was a piece of work. Significantly younger than anyone there, decidedly more 'worldly' than the professed sisters, it was a bumpy ride. The pride, the self-assuredness that is often linked with youth, the idiosyncrasies that might be overlooked in a bigger pond were very, very pronounced here in a semi-cloistered environment. I went from doing what I wanted when I wanted with my own money, car, place to live, TV...... to a schedule broken down into 15 minute increments - things held in common, no personal money, little accept ones own habit. It was culture shock!
Had studies in New Testament, Old Testament, Prayer, Calligraphy, Chant. My instructor for chant was the aforementioned Sr. Elizabeth Marian. Not terribly tall and riddled with arthritis she kept the convent library and was well versed the new kids in chant. Pulling me from my musical comedy roots (extravagant, belting, with vibrato) to this form of song must have seemed to her akin to tooth extraction. I could read music, but these odd blotches, squares, diamond shapes with tails, squiggles that made up old chant notation were another language. The idea of giving value to a beginning note (rather than the note be a fixed pitch) - pitching it where one would - was a new thing. The elderly sisters really couldn't sing those high E's, even on a great day - so the "sliding scale" (as long as you kept the pitch and didn't go abysmally flat) - was a great solution.
It was the 6th of December, 1976 and Sister was attempting to teach me "the Great O's". These are the antiphons before the Magnificat during the Vespers office - in the early evening before dinner. They are majestic, symbolic, imposing and not easy to sing properly. (To get a background for the O's, please click on either/both of these sites: www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html
My delivery was choppy, inflection on the wrong syllable, much too loud and forced. Sr. EM tried quietly to correct me, frequently clearing her voice, her voice cracking often. Neither her dentures nor her breathing permitted her to maintain a lengthly conversation without some of it being a voiced whisper; though she pitched the note low enough her current state of health would not permit her to sing a long series of notes without it being punctuated by some coughing and throat-clearing. Finally, she let out a great sigh, coughed a bit into her standard issue large white handkerchief and slowly quieted herself, settling into the hardwood chair in the music/art room. Regaining her composure, she continued.
"Sister, I'm very sorry I can no longer demonstrate what 'O
Sapientia' should sound like. However, I can ask you to take the Antiphons and read them over and over. Pray them. They are full of promise and power. And then, when you are about to chant them, picture silk, beautiful silk in the breeze. It rises, it falls." Her crippled hands rose up from the sleeves of her black habit and became animated, elegant, smooth of movement, delicate, peaceful and expressive. "It seems effortless," she continued "yet it is the wind that makes the effort in a specific, rather contained way. It could blow mightily and tear the silk to shreds, but it will not. The silk floats, supported by the nearly still air - rippling, rising and falling. Just before you are about to precent (lead the chant) take the notes of the chant and let them easily come forth, supported seemingly effortlessly. " Her hands slowly came down, adopting their earlier appearance, until one rested in her lap and the other on the book of Office Music on the huge work table we both sat at. She continued, "Yet it took effort on your part: it took the understanding, wisdom, study, control and gifts that God has given you. And I am certain, Sister, that you will do fine.... just fine. (she checked her watch) Now our lesson is over. We'll practice in two days, shall we?" Sister slowly pushed herself from the table and maneuvered twice before she could place her feet to the side and steady herself with the table and the chair, rising slowly. Sr. EM had a Mona Lisa smile and she gave me a glimpse and a nod before she walked off.... "..... just fine, Sister. Just fine. The silk on the breeze.....".
O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High and, reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence.
The Community of St. John Baptist continues to recreate itsself and is a thriving religious community. Visit their website: www.csjb.org
Copyright © 2005 K.L.Joanna Depue and Deacon J on www.geraniumfarm.org