Okay, here’s a story for you this morning. A young man in a Cistercian monastery tells it to me. He’s a brother, seven years in, still essentially the new guy, although as he says there actually are newer guys, but basically in our monastery any guy under the age of ninety is a new guy, which gives you a sense of the long-term attitude here; I mean, our monastery is more than sixty years old, but our sister monasteries elsewhere in the world still consider us a ragged outpost in the wilderness of the New World. One great thing about us Cistercians is that we have a good sense of scale; if the Merciful One chooses to appear again in human guise in twenty thousand years, there will certainly be a Cistercian who will grumble that He sure was in a hurry. You have to laugh. Anyway, the story I want to tell you is about one night in choir practice when things got hilarious and sweetly crazy for a while. We still laugh about it and I think maybe the story will be told here for, well, twenty thousand years, until the Merciful One slips in the chapel door and joins us Himself. You think He’s a tenor or a baritone?
So here’s the context: we warm up for choir practice by stretching, bending at the waist, swinging our hips from side to side, waving our arms like we are doing the wave, jogging in place. It always knocks me out to see guys nearly ninety years old shaking out their muscles like they are on the sideline getting ready to enter a basketball game, you know? Then we do some vocal calisthenics, some yawning, some mouth-stretches, just rattling off strings of nonsense words and numbers to get your lips loose, and on this night one of the guys started us off with a run of syllables like nu wah nu wah nu, and that slid right into do wa do wa, and then one of the older guys riffed on it as do wa do wa diddy, and that set us off. He had been in the Army, this guy, and he said later that his mind still naturally falls into cadence if he’s not paying attention, and do wa diddy has a parade cadence, I guess, because off we all went, singing one do wa do wa song after another, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens, and “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins, and “Earth Angel” by The Penguins, and “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler, and “Maybe” by The Chantels, although that one was hard because none of us can quite get up to that highest range. By then we were all laughing too hard to sing well anyway, and we were supposed to be practicing Ascension and Pentecost hymns, after all, and it’s not like we had all the time in the world to fool around, you would be surprised how clock-bound monastic life is, and don’t forget that we are all up before four in the morning every day to chant the first of five offices for the day. So we all sort of collected ourselves and got back to work, but at the very end of practice, just as we were about to head off in the four holy directions, the guy who had been in the Army said quietly one more, fellas? So we sang “Tonight” by The Mello Kings, which is a really lovely song anyway, but imagine how lovely it sounds when sung by a gaggle of Trappist guys of all ages in a wooden chapel in a fir forest on an evening in autumn, one of those crisp clear starry nights when you can hear owls and crickets for a mile. I have to say it was one of the most beautiful and holy musical moments I have ever experienced. Who would have thought that a song by The Mello Kings would be one of the most haunting spiritual moments guys in a monastery ever experienced? But the ways of the Merciful One are mysterious and often very funny, if you pay attention closely, it seems to me. Also I think He is totally into music. The more I think about it the more I am convinced the most direct road to the One is music. Everything’s music, if you hear it right, you know what I mean?