Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Light and darkness and water

Somewhere on a well-shaft in a monastic cloister I remember the words, O sobria ebrietas, O ebria sobrietas: O sober drunkenness, O drunken sobriety. Even the water and the light and darkness are mystical symbols, and real ones. They are part of one long, inexorable drama. All this seems more marvellous and more strange to us than it would have done in the past, because much of human life was once determined by the rhythms of days and seasons. In the late nineteenth century in certain English villages, people were still summoned to the fields by the church bell, or on estates by a stable bell. In France the angelus punctuates the day. In the Middle Ages words like prime and matins and vespers came to indicate the time of day by reference to the sun, without referring to the precise time of clocks, so that it is sometimes hard to know at what time by our clocks the offices were actually sung.

Both the basic symbolism I have mentioned and the sense of a vast swing of stellar and solar time of which each season's passage and each day's passage were small images, and which was marked by festivals of the year like the small landmarks of every day's liturgy and routine, are much older than Christianity. Virgil is conscious of this sense of nature, of the heavens, the earth, and human nature on the earth. The discovery was not classical, it is rooted in the nature of the year, of animal life, and of agriculture. "Lenten is come with love to town" is the statement of two very ancient aspects of the hungriest season of the year.

Monasteries make the whole of life an extended musical drama. This drama is one in which the monks take part with their entire lives: it is built around their deepest religious mysteries, and it mysteriously releases the soul. Every monastery in the world of whatever religion has its own ritual monotonies, and its own monotonous music, its own ceremonies of light and darkness and water.

- From The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries, by Peter Levi