Friday, February 29, 2008

A Leap Day Special: Le Morte de Cadfael

ONCE upon a time. . .

No, that’s not quite right.

IN the beginning. . .

No, that’s just asking for trouble.

TO everything there is a season. . .


Yes, that’s it. I enjoyed a very special season of travels with Cadfael.

In the TV version of our story, this is a second season, flashback episode:

Scene up: Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris

M.A.Peel, luggage in tow, looking to meet up with a group going to Solesmes to study Gregorian chant.

Peel voice-over narration: Hmm, the instructions said to meet by the Air France info desk. Oh, there’s a good looking group. Maybe . . . .Maybe. . . . Ah, no.

[Several much older couples are at the side of the counter.]

Oh please, it can’t just be them.

[One young, good looking man is talking to one of the grandmas]

“Yeah, I never know how much to pack. And the cassock takes up so much room.”

Ohh, the only visual hope for fun in France is a priest, and, it turns out, a Benedictine monk.

Well, who did I THINK would be studying Gregorian chant?

Why was I studying Gregorian chant you may ask? I was deeply involved with singing Renaissance polyphony at the time, and I wanted to connect with the actual chants that many of the glorious motets are based on.

I had heard from a musician about a course taught by a professor out of Cal State, Los Angeles, at ground zero for chant, Solesmes. It was there, in the late 19th century, that Dom Gueranger led his community to study the texts that were being used throughout Europe, and to create one, codified version. Pope Pious X accepted this scholarship, and in 1904 the Vatican commissioned an edition of their work.

For me, it would mean a vacation living in a small French town for two weeks, and then a weekend in Paris. What could be better? And that’s what brought me to Paris on a fine July day at the end of the last century, and into Cadfael’s life.

Benedictine School Daze

Our days settled into a languidly lovely routine: after breakfast the group had class in an old building down by the river taught by an American monk. Several times a day we would go up to the church to listen to the French Benedictines as they chanted the canonical hours. The church is mostly 19th century built over and around the 11th and 15th foundations. It is very long and narrow, all stone, and appropriately imposing.

The stunning French Latin vowels ricocheted all over the walls-—I loved being completely enveloped by the sound. Cadfael was allowed to eat with the monks, one of whom, in a timely connection, was a nephew of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Here are the Office hours we listened to:

7:30 a.m. Laudes
10:00 a.m. Mass (office of Tierce integrated)
1:00 p.m. Sext
1:50 p.m. None
5:00 p.m. Vespers
8:30 p.m. Compline

In between the class lectures, and the time awash in the singing in church, we students had lunches and dinners and some free time together. I found myself often in the company of Cadfael.

On some long walks he told me about life in the monastery, all the intricacies of a closed system, all the little power pools that spring up.

I told him about life as a New Yorker—all the intricacies of a closed system, all the little power pools that spring up.

We clicked like a strange reincarnation of Hepburn and Tracey, with much banter. I was in the throes of multiple men headaches, and here before me was a wise, compassionate, funny listener. It was heaven.

The days peeled away. We finished the course, and the group went to Paris for the last weekend. Cad and I said we would keep in touch, but travelers often say that. In this case, it turned out to be for real.

I went to visit him in his monastery in the States, and he came to visit me in New York with a brother monk.

Then Cadfael went to Rome to study, and the whole world opened up for me. “M.A., I will meet you anywhere in the world . . . .” The Cadfael posts here are just the tip of the time we shared.

Rome, Siena, Florence, Elba, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Lake Balaton, Galway, Dublin, Amalfi, Naples. We were tourists for fun, and travelers going way off the beaten path.

I laughed more on the road with Cadfael than all the other days of those years combined.

The End of the Road

Five years after it started, the time of Cadfael came to an end. He graduated from his college in Rome with an advance degree, and that meant it was time for him to enter the motherhouse in Switzerland. No more studying, no more traveling.

As the cloister engulfed him, he became dead to the outside world, including me. It’s a strange fate to have, to develop an emotional attachment to a man who, by definition, would become unavailable.

But I would not have missed our time together for anything in the world.

And who knows, maybe the monk thing isn’t going to work out for him in the long run . . . .

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