Easter celebration began before dawn. The turnoff was easy to miss but I saw the sign pop out of the woods before we got there. My sister and I had gotten up at almost four a.m. to make the five o’clock Easter Sunday vigil held by the Benedictine Monks at the Weston Priory.
It only takes a half hour to get there, from my family home in Rutland, if you know where you’re going. Making a quick right turn off highway 155 in the central Vermont town of Weston, I found myself going up the tree lined road that ended with a dirt lot adjacent to a small scattering of simple, one story wooden structures that is the priory.
We found a parking spot right away even though the lot was full. The moon was nearly full, illuminating the clouds swirling above the unpaved parking lot and the puddles left over from the chilling rain earlier that night. The priory seemed deserted even though there were a lot of cars. The moonlit horizon revealed that the mountains dominating the outskirts of the priory, situated amidst the verdant Green Mountains of Vermont.
The sky between the silvery clouds, mountains and rooftops gave us enough light to find the dirt path we followed. It turned into a wooden pathway that led to a small cluster of buildings. I couldn’t tell which one was the chapel, so we skulked about the buildings until we heard the musical Sunday worship.
Following the distant melodic chant of voices and sounds of prayerful intonation, we located the enclosed outdoor chapel. Another late arrival, an older woman wearing a baseball cap, walked up to what appeared to be a solid wall and pulled open a large wooden sliding door. A puff of earthy aromatic incense slipped out. I would never have found that.
The Priory is nestled in the Mountains of Vermont, with only dirt roads, stone fences and the rustic natural setting secluding it from the outside world. We found the chapel in the early morning darkness by following the melodic chant of voices.
All three of us slipped into the dark fire lit entrance and I pulled the door closed behind us. The earthy incense was the result of the ceremonies centered around the log and the fire I couldn’t quite see around a bend in the chapel. It was dark inside but my sister spotted two aisle seats right away.
There was a pretty big crowd for the small space. Someone handed us small candles with a circular disc of cardboard to protect the hand. The ambiance bore more resemblance to ancient practices than either pomp and circumstance or clinically unaesthetic gatherings of most modern church services I’ve been to. The wings centered around the alter in a simple bare wooden chapel that converted into an out door area for the summer.
Golden plastic drapes kept the early spring wind and morning frost outside. The smoky interior centered around a log display. The ceremonies utilized fire and holy water, symbolic elements ancient worship. The tradition in this ceremony incorporates fundamental symbols that have spiritual significance of renewal and rejuvenation.
A celebration of eternal cycles of death and rebirth tie in with the spring equinox, one of two great doorways of the Celtic year. The Celts divided the year into two seasons, light and dark. Beltane on May 1st is the celebration of life, while Samhain has become the basis for the popular holiday, Halloween.
Perhaps it is the unfinished bare wooden frame of the outdoor/ indoor venue, or the monks in traditional plain brown robes instead of priests in their starched white and often ornate dress. The wholesome quality of the place struck me from the moment I set foot on the grounds.
Instead of separating itself from these time honored traditional forms of worship, the sacraments undertaken here honor our heritage as humans. There is a six foot tall candle from which all parishioners at the service light their own candles. As the flame is passed from one person to another, it spreads its way around the congregation just as brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe. Each person receives the flame, as at Beltane for the Celts, it marks a time of beginnings, a kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.
The ceremonial fire log was ablaze when we arrived. Ancient Celts also used fire to celebrate Beltane, and to welcome the new year of rebirth and renewal.
The log ceremony, takes place at the beginning of the mass while it is still dark outside. The ambiance of the early morning vigil inspires a spirit of rebirth, a turning of the blind corner, from darkness to light. It has a hopeful quality, yearning for the fruits of the upcoming summer yet satisfied with being over the hurdles of a long and cold winter. It is a type of energy that exonerates the season of spring, a reward for letting go the difficulties, the winters of life, promising abundant rewards in the golden warmth of summer ahead. The service is unique in its freshness and vitality, lending intensity to the celestial inner strength of the soul.
The darkness outside literally tuning to light during the service brought with it the magical element of transubstantiation. The metamorphosis of a dream-like atmosphere into one of fresh reality symbolizes an important element of the worship. Jesus’ transformation into the eternal spirit of the Eucharist, which is eaten, and therefore resides in all mankind. This is the Christian sacrament of spiritual recognition for each of us in everything.
Music and songs accompanied the prayerful intentions of the hymns. Rejoycing in the moment with vibrance to the traditional folksy rythm of the Green Mountains.
The unique combination of ancient wisdom with contemporary values and language in the baptismal reading makes this a more meaningful celebration. The unity of spiritual awakening for all the brave folks who are gathered here on this cold Sunday morning in April was substantial.
In closing, the circle of prayer is established, and with it, the long and dreary winter comes to an end, with the birth of new light. I can feel that within the entire body of people gathered for the service, to behold this powerful visual imagery inspires strength and the vitality, the energy of the new season becomes tangible. That and being willing to arise and be here before first light on this chilly Vermont morning does something for the soul.
The initial ceremony with the log started off the morning as I walked in to a dark and smoky interior. As always, the Eucharistic sacrament worshiping Christ’s transubstantiation is the climactic event of the mass. The brothers of the priory used traditional unleavened bread and real wine from a sepulcher, and the gesture of “peace” and shaking of hands throughout the congregation provided a unity in the fraternal and sororal of man. Faith is indeed divine when the belief system is for the good of all, not materialistic intention, and furthers the development of spirituality for mankind.
The spiritual effect of the service had a bonding effect on the congregation that showed in the smiles and handshakes that followed.
I was moved. The monks have brought spirituality to the fullness it deserves and so rarely achieves in organized religious services. This is just one of many ways the vigil here abandons the trappings of scripted plasticity, commercialization and showmanship of what passes for religion nowadays. That does not exist here in any way shape or form. The most poignant example is the lack of tithing. At no point during the ceremony or service did anyone request funding or donation. The priory is singular in this uncharacteristic oversight. Instead, the only way to give them money is to leave it in an unobtrusive wooden structure outside, which at first looks like an ashtray or a garbage can. I was more impressed than suprised.
After the services, I spoke with Brother Daniel about the origins of the Priory and some of the missionary work he has done in different parts of the world. All the while, thinking that it is amazing for him to be here, as a monk, in this small northeastern village in America. His wonderful Spanish accent gave his descriptions of travels around South America an exotic appeal. Brother Daniel spoke with enlightened eloquence about the exotic exploits of Brothers in South America.
The ceremonies, he told me, go back to the founding beliefs of the church. Ancient practices that predate the Romans were incorporated into early Christian liturgical services. Just as the sharing together of the baptismal promise is a commitment renewing vows, so to speak. We call forth the spirits of the dead to help and guide us, an honorary system that still survives in cultures around the world such as Native American Indians, Aborigine tribes in Australia and Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe.
Benedictine Monks, performing a liturgy honoring the dead with melodic intoned chant of names, start with “Abraham and Sara, Moses and Miriam…Joseph of Nazareth,” with a refrain sung back by the whole congregation, “Be with us.” Some of the notable honored mentioned were… “Joan of Arc, Thomas Moore, Gandhi Mahatma, Ann Frank, sisters and brothers of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Malcolm X, Martin Luther, Oscar Romero and the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvatore.”