Mount Saviour Monastery, Pine City, New York, 11km’s
My father was born to the crash and clamor of airborne ordnance as the Luftwaffe commenced what remains one of the largest bombing campaigns in history on his small island. Perhaps coming into this world to such conflagration, at the apex of man’s uncivility to man, one is disposed to seeking out quiet places. Whatever his reasons, something drew him to Mount Saviour a long time ago and has kept him returning over the years.
I had intended to find trails and to run them here, but the grounds on which this monastery sits are so comely, and the injuries I sustained in my Buck Mountain misadventure so persistent, that I am only doing long, luxuriantly slow loops around the property and its outlying fields. Something I have only recently discovered is that I am a flat-road runner. This place is all hill and boy do I struggle on them. But no bother, because I’m mostly running through grassy pastures and country lanes dappled with patches of sunlight that checkerboard through the kaleidoscopic crush of leaves above. Yesterday I saw two bobcats crossing the road 100feet ahead of me. One scurried, one sauntered. The latter paused mid-road and eyed me with the cold disdain that the feline species have truly mastered. As I mount the final hill to the monastery, crows caw my coming, thus news of my arrival is transmitted by a cacophonous avian game of telephone. At one point I disturb some massive species of bird feasting on roadkill in the gulley that runs parallel to me. It shot into the branches above, in an explosion of leaf and feather and I was only able to catch its massive girth fleetingly so I couldn’t discern what this winged heffalump was.
I have been attending the prayers which occur here throughout the day. They have fantastically arcane names: vigils, lauds, sext, vespers and compline. The latter is a bewitching affair. The psalms are sung in the antiphonic style that most monastic orders have adopted, with the cantor singing one line and the other monks responding the next, all done to the sound of a plucked harp in near darkness in the small chapel. Some of the ritual of mass is here, like the ‘Our Father’ and making the sign of the cross. Motions and words which return like muscle memory, but much of it is completely new to me. After these prayers are sung we descend stone stairs into the crypt by candlelight and stand before a statue of the Virgin Mother with Child to offer our devotions, and though I’m not a believer, these ancient rites are remarkable to behold.
The monks here now number only eight. They are all over 60. They live a life of toil and prayer and quietude. Some came here young, one at 17, others later in life, answering a calling that few hear anymore. We live in a time where information knows no bounds. A deity in the modern environment seems anathema when we want for nothing, when we are daily transfixed by our phone screens and the endless influence of the worldwide web, in a world where the long arm of commerce and consumerism is so pervasive. But in a place like this where there is no internet or cell phone reception, where the monk’s work and the success of it is dictated by the passage of our earth around the sun and the passing of each season, one can almost begin to understand the divine aspect of their daily observance.
When my dad was 17, he wanted to buy a 1947 MG TC and he knew that he would need some help from his father to do so. In an attempt to gain his good graces, he accompanied my Nannu (Maltese for grandfather) on a retreat to a Jesuit monastery in Gozo. Sadly, his efforts were in vain, as he was caught sneaking out a window on his first night there. (It would take a further 60 years to achieve this goal and an MG TC now sits in his garage). I have no such designs. From where I write this, I can see out the window of our cottage that sits atop a hill. The branches of a maple tree gently gesticulate to the right, it’s leaves so red they seem to cast their own light. Further on there is a valley of which I can see the east slope where the sheep the monk’s tend graze. They are spread picturesquely across the grass, nose to ground in the preferred pose of ruminants since time began. If I lean forward, I can see my father beneath a tree reading on the bench he frequents. He has come many miles to be here, and many more miles since his first memory in a bomb shelter as Stukas and Messerschmitt’s screamed above and Junker’s unleashed destruction from their bellies. Since then a lifetime has transpired. And here we are, us two, a world away from that tiny Mediterranean island. Seeing him here, his nose, my nose, the Tabone nose lost in a book as mine often is, in this tranquil place, in the shade of a tall tree lends to me a great succour. Tall trees cast long shadows, their lofty boughs providing shelter and safety to those who gather beneath. So has my father been to me. To regard him in a place he loves, with this visual panoply spread lushly before him, a book in his lap,
fills me with warmth
and for a moment
this fearsome heart beats glad.