TRUE STORIES — Opus for Assumption Abbey

J.T. Knoll
Assumption Abbey monks at groundbreaking for new addition and bakery, 1998.

For over 20 years it was my habit to travel to Assumption Abbey during Lent to visit my monk friends and spend a few days walking the woods and sitting in quiet contemplation. I was planning to return this year, but the virus closed the guesthouse, so I decided to visit in some excerpts from past abbey retreats. — J.T.K.

AVA, MO. — At Vespers, my first evening at the abbey, Father Donald asked if anyone had any special intentions. One of the monks responded, "For all the daffodils everywhere!" To which the rest of the monks said in unison, "We pray to the Lord."

It brought a sweet smile to 82-year-old Donald's countenance. It was Father Donald, after all, who planted them. All of them. Going out each year, over the past 50 years or so he's been a monk there, to plant the golden flowers over the 3,400 acres surrounding the monastery.

The next morning I walked down to the creek to do my centering prayer by its rambling-brambling water symphony as the sun shone on the concrete shelf of the low-water bridge extending to the blue-green side pools.

Tens of thousands of daffodils offered greetings as I passed. Chanting solemnly near the guest house. • Blowing muted, medieval court salutations along both sides of the dirt road from the abbey to the blacktop. • Waving shiny in the breeze like the horn section of a marching band behind Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man." • Blowing cool Miles Davis jazz from the mottled green hillside. • Playing a Mozart horn concerto from the flicker of trees deep in the awakening forest.

That afternoon (Holy Thursday) the Mass and service was a mixture of scripted ritual and spontaneous jazz. Abbot Mark gave a homily on the sacrament of the last supper and the significance of the washing of the apostles' feet. Then, with the assistance of Father Cyprian, he bathed the feet of all the monks as we sang a hymn of praise and redemption. This was followed by the celebration of the Mass and the distribution of Holy Communion.

About midway through the service, a spring thunder boomer rolled in. Not a big blow, but a deep, rumbling thunderstorm that baptized the monastery and surrounding hills with a burst of heavy rain before moving off to the east.

After Mass, as is the tradition on Holy Thursday, the Blessed Sacrament was transferred by holy processional from the chapel altar to a repository located back in the cloister. It was all the more spiritual because it was full of missteps.

Abbot Mark knelt down to start it before Father Paul had a chance to share the final reading. This sent the monks scurrying to get the required processional vestments, incense, and carved crucifix, only to be told — when the abbot was informed of his mistake — they would have to take the whole lot back until the reading was completed.

When the processional did commence, Brother Bonnie (Boniface) came out proudly holding the crucifix backwards and the postulant candle bearers got separated and out of step. The abbot did his best to communicate — by nods, body language and eye gestures — to the monks, postulates, and faithful in the pews when and where to join in … but to no avail.

It was quite a pageant, made all the more healing and poignant by the childlike sweetness and humor of the stops and starts, our a capella singing that wandered on and off key, and the fact that no one appeared to be the least bit concerned about its organizational and musical lapses.

Before departing on Sunday afternoon, I walked down to the stream to perform a continuation of a ceremony that began at Pitt State earlier in the year when Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly created a multicolored mandala to invite strength, love, compassion and healing in the world. After completing the sacred design, they methodically destroyed it and swept it in into a pile as a metaphor for the impermanence of life. The bulk of the sand was then distributed to those in attendance with the remainder to be carried by the monks to a body of water and deposited there to promote planetary healing.

Standing on the low-water bridge, I mixed my sand from the holy mandala with sand from the Iraqi desert — sent to me by my cousin, Joe Bazin, who served there the previous year — and poured the blend slowly into the clear song of water flowing over the rock shelf. Then I rang some Buddhist chimes, said a short prayer for peace, and headed back up the hill.

Again, I passed fields of daffodils, which brought visions of an ecstatic Father Donald gliding out of the cloister alone — a bucket of bulbs in one hand and a small spade in the other — to roam the hills digging and planting and singing out his song of daffodil joy.

About halfway back up to the monastery, a large doe stepped into the road about fifty yards ahead of me. We froze and locked eyes.

After ten seconds or so she flicked her tail and made a jerky start and stop toward me. Then, after a few more seconds, she gave me an apologetic look and bounded into the pines.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net