“Few experiences can soothe the soul quite like listening to Gregorian chants sung by a group of Benedictine monks within the grandeur of an abbey.”
During my recent road trip, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of nights at Abbey Saint-Benoit-du-Lac. A Benedictine monastery nestled by the shores of Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, this sanctuary has been one of my happy places for nearly a quarter-century, ever since my initial visit. The Abbey is like a magnet that draws me back numerous times over the years.
My attempts to secure a room at the abbey had previously been unsuccessful until this trip. I recollect the reservation process transpiring as follows:
Since reservations had to be made via phone, I rang the number in early July. The individual who answered would only speak French while my proficiency ends in ordering coffee. After several minutes of linguistic miscommunication, I ended the call. Remarkably, someone from the Abbey phoned me the following day, though I was driving and unable to answer. A message was left on my voicemail: “You contacted us yesterday. I’ve been asked to assist you. Please return the call before 2:00 pm, as I will be leaving to start a two-week holiday.”
Around noon, I made the call, and a French-speaking individual answered. After apologizing for my limited French, we transitioned to English.
Me: “I’m Savio Wong. Did you leave me a message recently?”
Me: “That’s okay. I’m interested in reserving a room at the Abbey. Can you help me?”
Her: “When do you plan to visit?”
Me: “On August 13th and 14th.”
Her: “Let me check.” After a brief pause, “Yes, I can book you for two nights.”
Me: “Perfect. Should I provide my credit card details?”
Her: “No need. I have put down your name.”
Me: “Is there a confirmation number?”
Her: Slightly puzzled, “No, just come. Will you be joining us for dinner on the 13th?”
Me: “When is dinner?”
Her: “At 6:00 pm. Just make sure you arrive before 7:00 pm because the doors will be locked by then.”
Me: “I’ll aim to arrive around 5:00 pm then.”
Her: “What about lunch on the 15th?”
Me: “Hmmm. Alright, let’s go with a yes.'”
After saying goodbye, I found myself calling the same number again almost immediately.
Me: “Hi, I believe I just spoke with you about a two-night stay in August.”
Her: “Yes, you did.”
Me: “the website says there are rooms with private bathrooms but I need to request it during booking. I forgot to ask.”
Her: “Let me check.” After a short pause, “Alright, I’ve put you down for a room with a bathroom.”
A month later, on August 13th, shortly before 5:00 pm, I arrived at the abbey. Upon entering the building and locating a small bell button adjacent to a window, I pressed it. A monk appeared at the window within moments.
Me: “I have a reservation for a two-night stay.”
Me: “My name is Savio Wong.”
Him: Without raising his gaze, he crossed my name off a list, handed me a set of keys, and said, “Room 107. Go through that door.” He pointed towards the opposite wall. “You’ll find all the necessary information in your room.”
Me: “Thank you.”
He moved away from the window, prompting me to turn and head in the indicated direction. A soft tap on the window caught my attention, causing me to turn back.
Him: “Would you like to settle the bill now?”
Me: “Certainly, it might be more convenient.”
Him: “The suggested donation for your stay is $100 per night, that includes all the meals.”
Me: “Do you accept credit cards? I think the website mentioned cash or checks only.”
Him: “We do now.”
It took no time to complete the transaction and my conversation with him constituted all the conversation I engaged in during my entire stay at the Abbey.
After walking down a long, dim hallway, I found Room 107. It was a small room with a single bed, an office chair and a desk that reminded me of a student desk I had in my residence during my university days. Sitting on the desk is a copy of the Bible, in French, two pieces of laminated paper. One of them had meal times and a reminder that silence should be observed. It also stated WiFi Internet was available in the library from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm On the other sheet of paper were the times of all several daily services: Vigil at 5 am, Lauds at 7:30 am, Terce at 9:45 am, … Compline at 7:45 pm. Several of the services would be sung in Gregorian chants and the rest were conducted in French although I had heard Latin on one occasion. During my stay, I set my alarm clock for the 5 am Vigil twice but just couldn’t drag my body out of bed. I did manage to attend five services.
After I unpacked, which took less than five minutes, I was going to lay down for a quick rest since I had driven several hours to get to the Abbey. The sweet sound of a bell began to resonate in the compound. It originated from the bell tower and was a call for the 5:00 pm Vespers. I left my room and walked to the sanctuary.
The bell was still ringing as I found myself a seat on a pew near the front. A number of monks in their black robes began to emerge from the side entrance near the front of the sanctuary. They walked solemnly to their seats, which were two rows of choir pews facing each other with a wide aisle in the middle. A small altar was at the back of the sanctuary with a small metallic cross sitting on a stand. The air in the room felt cool, and there were plenty of daylight shining through the windows.
In the Catholic tradition, Vespers is a liturgy of evening prayer. The word Vespers comes from the Latin vesper, which means evening. That evening, there were twenty-two monks and about thirty worshippers. The entire service was sung in Gregorian chants. It took me a few minutes to get my mind in sync with the slow, mesmeric chant. Instead of thinking about the tasks I needed to do for the day, I was quickly drawn into the flow of rising, bowing, sitting, kneeling, rising again rhythm.
The service lasted about forty-five minutes. Afterward, I walked with several guests to return to the residence. From there, instinctively, I went down a set of stairs with them and found a short queue at the food counter in the kitchen. Dinner was served cafeteria-style, and the menu was listed on a piece of paper taped to the door at the entrance to the kitchen. The mac-and-cheese was okay but plentiful. The green salad was nothing to write home about, but the two types of cheeses were delicious. The cheeses were produced in the Abbey, and I was told on a previous visit that townsfolk had been hired to help with cheese production for years now. In addition to cheeses, the Abbey distilled several alcoholic ciders. They were not served at any of the meals, though.
Dinner was taken communally in a room that had a long table. However, maybe because we ate in silence, I noticed the dozen or so diners all chose to sit apart from each other. Also, the monks had their own dining room and didn’t share the meal with the visitors. One thing I noticed was that I became more aware of the food I was ingesting since I had nothing to distract me. Curiously, although I heard no voices from any diners, soft devotional music was played throughout our meal. I only caught one guest, who wore a clergy collar, “cheating” and checking his phone while he was chowing down on his salads.
Later that evening, I found myself back at the sanctuary, except I was all alone. I returned to perform the ritual I had created for myself: whenever I visit a significant religious building, I make it a habit to say a special prayer for world peace and for my friends who are currently battling cancer. Afterward, I toured the rest of the building that I had access to. There were numerous religious paintings, a few artifacts, several meeting rooms, and my favorite space in the Abbey: the library. A desk with a large tome of a book greeted me at the entrance. Against the far wall was a fireplace, and the entire room was lined with books. With its cathedral windows, high ceiling, big wooden tables, and comfortable couches, I spent most of my time in this room during my visit.
On the morning that I departed from the Abbey, I dropped the key at the window where I had checked in two days previously. It was about 10 am, and it would be tricky if I decided to stay for lunch since I would not be able to enter the residence without a key. I supposed I could have rung the bell and asked for assistance. To do that seemed a bit intrusive, and it was all hypothetical anyway.
Before I left the compound, I went for a short stroll. Away from the main building, on a small hill, sat a tiny chapel. Inside this chapel was a small altar. Against its walls were a number of stained glass windows. My heart might have skipped a beat when I saw the word “RUDE” on one of the panels. My good friend Jake, who went by Rude Jake when he performed, died last year after a short battle with cancer. Upon closer inspection, “Rude” was actually part of “Ste GE-RT-RUDE”. Nevertheless, I did feel the presence of my friend whom I missed dearly.
One more reason why Abbey St-Beniot-du-Lac will always have a special spot in my heart.
Savio (August, 2023)
Postscript: It was pointed out to me that the Benedictines do not actually take a vow of silence. However, during my previous visits and this stay, I definitely got the impression that silence is preferred.
This is from the Abbey’s website: “Silence in the Abbey encourages us to meditate and allows us to deepen our relationship with God. However, we share daily moments of conversation and relaxation to promote fraternal life.”
Click on the following image to watch a short video that I created using photos I took at the Abbey. Make sure you maximize your screen. Alternatively, just click here. Unfortunately, the file size it too big and I had to use YouTube for this.
If you would like to listen to a sample of the Gregorian chant, go to the Abbey’s official website and click on the little musical symbol on the right hand side of the main page.