I am blindfolded and being led around by Frater Beckett, a fellow novice, up and down stairs and along the long cellar corridors of our Abbey in Wisconsin. I am trying to guess where he is taking me, and I suspect it is in the direction of the indoor SWIMMING POOL and that he will be leading me out on the diving board and pushing me in, and I can’t swim. I don’t trust him at all, but I am supposed to.
It is winter, 1970. It is the Novices and Professed Retreat, this time being led by a “communications expert”, a Methodist “communications expert”!! Role play, group therapy,”trust falls” – where a person stands within a circle of people and falls backward, transactional analysis, I’m Okay, You‘re Okay, and the writings of Carl Rogers, have all combined to replace the traditional Novitiate retreat, and we are the guinea-pigs. And mostly, we hate it. The trust walk is only one of a dozen bits of mind bending interpersonal devilry our Formation Team has cooked up for us. I hate the exercise where we have to pretend we are stuck on the Moon and there is only enough rocket fuel to take a limited number of us back to Earth, so we have to decide who will go and who will stay, and presumably die of boredom or lack of atmosphere. I would love to be a fly on the wall of the other “small groups” and find out who is being dumped. But we have to concentrate on killing off our own rivals first. I say, “Well, I have two brothers and three sisters, so I had better go back first”. It seems selfish, but I don’t care.
Also there is another “game” which is a real torture: we have to have big bits of paper pinned to our backs, and people can write stuff on the back about what they think of you. Then you get to read it. I try to recognise the handwriting…there is some real mean comments I would like to REVENGE. But we are not supposed to. We have to accept it.
From the first days of the Second Vatican Council’s official promulgation of a call to “renew and reform” the life of religious orders, the Order of Canons Regular of Premontre, or the Premonstratensian Order as it was called for short, embraced the experience of change and experiment sanctioned by the Council. Out went the Grand Silence, wearing habits all the time, the Holy Rule, instant obedience, long hours of chanted prayer and studying Latin and Philosophy. In came shorts and singlets, calling your Superiors by the first names, going into each others cells without needing permission, daiquiri-drinking and the playing of Barbara Streisand tapes…loudly.
Having come from Australia, I already had to deal with the culture shock of life in the state of Wisconsin, although I loved the hard rolls and bratwurst. And the thing they did with beans. But I had chosen an Order that I thought would be medieval, monkish (although technically speaking the Premonstratensians were not monks but canons) solemn and spartan. Far from shuffling around with bowed head and hands under scapulars, Holy Mass was a relaxed, informal thing full of guitar playing and Peter Paul and Mary songs, and some hilarious “experimental liturgies” where novices were let loose to invent all sorts of fun and the community were expected to go along with it. Eventually I got the message that there was to be no retreat to the Middle Ages, and invented a few whacko liturgies myself and had the pleasure of seeing the community lining up to drop pebbles (symbolising them) into a basket (symbolising the community) which I then mortared up into a short wall (symbolising unity) on a drop sheet on the rich green marble of the floor of the Abbey church…plop plop, crash went the pebbles. Scrape scrape with the cement in the bucket. The Mass…with cement. Tame by comparison to what was becoming the norm elsewhere: there was even talk of using pizza and root beer instead of hosts and wine for the consecrated elements.
And not far from us, there were regular Polka Masses, where the congregation could dance and receive communion at the same time… The changes in the Catholic Church in the 1960’s and ‘70’s were certainly dramatic, and I don’t doubt were well-intentioned. The old Rule, the old way of doing things had become stale and irrelevant in an age that had come to value freedom, responsibility and maturity, and respected the sciences over the medieval mindset. Sadly, it was too much for most communities to sustain and the numbers of novices and new seminarians trickled away. Only one remains of our class of 9 young men who were vested together in their flowing white habits in that summer of 1970, full of idealism and excited by their new identity and the feeling of belonging to something grand and ancient.
Today,the swing back to traditionalism is the most newsworthy aspect of religious Orders, next to the near demise of the ones that opted for a modern approach back in the ‘70’s. All around the world, there is a phenomenon of young people entering Orders where habits are back, silence is in, Latin is chanted and studied, and the use of scented soaps and the internet is forbidden. Traditional Orders have websites though, and photo galleries show that the middle ages, or at least the nineteenth century interpretation of it, is back in favour. One traditional Order has even re-instituted head shaving, with the circle of hair known as the corona left on front and sides. And all the photos show young, eager, pious faces. It remains to be seen if the medieval option wins out.
Will young people want the Cloister Walk or the Trust Walk?