by Janet Gilmore
Sometimes you get to visit a place that doesn’t actually exist.
The wonderful, beloved Canadian author Louise Penny set her eighth Inspector Gamache book, “The Beautiful [murder] Mystery” in the imaginary monastery of St. Gilbert des Loups in Quebec Province. The setting sounded spectacular.
I discovered, however, that St. Gilbert des Loups is in fact the real monastery St. Benoit du Lac, which houses a silent order of Benedictine monks.
“Let’s go during our trip to Montreal,” I said to my husband, Hugh.
St. Benoit du Lac is on a peninsula in Lake Memphrémagog. The weather was perfect the day we drove down the long road to see what we could see. The Abbey and its setting are breathtaking. I understood immediately that these monks wanted to be left alone. The monastery used to be accessible only by boat; we used the parking lot.
We obeyed the signs asking for silence inside the building. Silence is an unusual state of being for a being like me, who is accustomed to speech and noise. I walked down the tiled hallway to the chapel and entered the world of 50 men who had chosen a silent, devotional life.
The old-fashioned way of life, however, co-exists with the 21st century. The monastery has a website on which one can read its history, download an application to become a monk and make reservations to stay in their guesthouse overnight.
I expected a silent chapel; I found one filled with music. I work in a theater, and when I sat down and looked around, my first thought was, “Oh, look! A man in a monk costume is playing the organ!”
But of course he wasn’t in a costume; he was a real monk. He would stop playing at the end of a piece of music to make notes on his sheet music with a small wooden pencil. Then he set the pencil down on the wooden organ with a small “click” that was the only sound in the room. I was entranced.
My son, Andrew, actually took off his headphones. Hugh had his head down on the back of the pew in front of him. I had no idea what he was doing. He told me later that he was trying to empty his mind of everything.
I was doing the opposite — trying to let everything into my mind. Unfortunately, modern times were in my brain along with everything else. My thoughts jumped around: “This chapel is so beautiful! I wish my parents were still alive; they’d love to see this. I miss them so much. My foot hurts. Not my whole foot; really, just that one toe. I wonder if I can buy new shoes in Montreal. Of course I can. There are 10,000 shoe stores in Montreal. I wonder if the monastery has refrigerator magnets for sale? It’s hot in here. I wonder if I can swim in the lake? How can people really choose to be silent all day long?”
And then something truly awful happened. Just outside the chapel, a woman began talking on her cell phone. In the quiet, she sounded very loud and intrusive. Luckily, she was not American. The monk stopped playing the organ and glared at her. Of course she didn’t hang up. They never do; do they?
It wasn’t until the woman finished her call and went away that the monk finished his music, and silence ruled. The monk looked around in the silence, maybe to see if anyone else was about to make a call. I caught his eye and nodded and smiled in appreciation of his music. He smiled at me. A monk smiled at me!
I sat in the now-quiet chapel and thought about how difficult it must be to be QUIET most of the day. The monks, after six years of apprenticeship, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Abbot, and agree to long hours of silence during the day. They are permitted short periods of speech.
Music, specifically Gregorian Chants, accompany daily services. In fact, the monks of St. Benoit du Lac issued a CD of its chants, for sale in the Gift Shop.
Yes, the Gift Shop. There’s a picture of a huge gift shop on the website.
The monastery is self-sufficient. The monks’ work is growing fruit and vegetables and raising animals. They make their own cheese, jellies, maple syrup and apple sauce, which are sold to support the monastery.
The silence of the chapel ended at the entrance to the gift shop. People in tourist costumes chattered. “I wonder if Cousin Lala would like this cheese?” “$10.95 is a lot for jelly!” “It’s Canadian money; it’s ok.” “Can I haggle on the prices?” “How many rosaries do you think we need?” “Do they have refrigerator magnets?” “Do they have St. Benoit earrings?”
The monastery re-creates life on Earth – divine upstairs, commercial below. Decisions like “Should the monastery have a computer?” or “Should we sell refrigerator magnets?” are decided by the Abbot, and the monks obey. No committees, no discussion, no voting.
I told Andrew that if he wanted to become a monk, he could e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. I thought it might be a good idea. At least I’d know where he was all the time.