The Coronavirus Quarantine Meets Benedictine Hospitality

August 23, 2020

One follower’s online chronicle of an extraordinary time,
and in special circumstances,
enabled by the daily webcasts of Montserrat TV

https://abadiamontserrat.cat/

Rarely can the sine qua non for hospitality in the Rule of Saint Benedict have met a more imperious challenge than that embodied in the 2020 coronavirus shutdown of public places.

A weekday Eucharist

The community of the Abbey of Montserrat, the historic monastery in Catalonia that is soon to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of its founding, is famed for its accomodation of thousands of pilgrims amost every day of the year. The literally standing-room-only crowds that are its wont were obviously not going to be possible for a time. Their immediate actions involved putting space among the monks in choir, limiting the assembly in the nave to one-third its capacity, and requiring masks of all who entered the precincts of the Abbey.

Naturally, this meant that the Escolania de Montserrat, the ancient and famous choir school, like all schools in Catalonia, had to disband for the duration, whatever that period might turn out to be. But, just before going home, the boy-singers also maintained their distance, for their daily midday Salve Regina, following the example set by the monks.

As it turned out, they were to be away from their choral and in situ educational pursuits for months. This meant that the newest boys missed their first experience of the highlights of the year surrounding Holy Week and Easter, for example, and the oldest boys missed the climax of their five years at Montserrat in those same celebrations and in cancelled tours of the choir, which has become accustomed to worldwide travels.

But they were finally allowed to return, under strict controls, for their equivalent of graduation exercises on the weekend that contained the Feast of Saint Benedict. But how to manage their usual presence with the monks in choir? The solution arrived at was both extreme, ingenious, and quite dramatically effective musically. How were they, for example, to sing their second Salve Regina of the day—the polyphony of this one being sung in alternation with the chant of the Solemn Tone by the monks?

As it happens, there is a second monastic choir space high above the Basilica’s floor and at great distance from the ground-level choir. It is a noble space used by the community for the non-public offices of their daily (and nightly) round. It was decided that the boys, in their masks while not singing, and in their plexiglass masks while singing, would be there for Vespers, following the lower choir happenings via video feed, with the organist below having his own feed in order to see the conductor. The alternation of two choirs a city block apart made for a rare musical experience!

Otherwise, the Vespers of those few days were normal.

Their end-of-school-year exercises also involved facial barriers, of course.

For the occasion, the children took roles more usually taken by adult professionals, here taking turns accompanying their colleagues via the remote, wirelesss, moveable console for the organ, with its mechanical-action console further away.

Older escolans also conducted some of the chants.

As with American graduation exercises, family and friends in numbers came to help celebrate.

S

Such culminations also imply new beginnings. And, while schools around the world agonize over when and whether to reopen, the fifty or so boys of the Escolania de Montserrat (who thus call themselves, in the title of their own collaborative blog, Cent Peus—or a hundred feet) are in a special category, since they live, study, and work together on top of a high mountain that is quite distant from the dangers of contagion down below at sea level. For their first Sunday Mass back in place today, I wondered how they (including, of course, a whole new supply of escolans to replace those who had moved on) would manage the logistics, since they would normally be in choir with the monks of the community.

Once again, imagination came to their rescue. Space for them was set off at the front of the public assembly, all masked, so that they are in visual and aural contact with, but at a remove from, their usual place of performance. The public was notified last week that advance reservations would be required for attendance at most liturgies and for individual veneration of the image that is a center of devotion (https://abadiamontserrat.cat/montserrat-facilita-visita-santuari-amb-reserves/), so controls have evolved with the situation in society.

As can be seen below, tenors and basses from among the monks moved down to join them for the Palestrina motet at the offertory.

Where there’s a will . . .

On Sundays, the midday Salve Regina (not sung alternatim with Gregorian chant as after Vespers, but in one of their extensive repertory of elaborate choral settings of varioius stylistic periods) is sung immediately after the Conventual Mass. For that and the traditional Virelai, they went forward after the departure of the monks, still preserving the mandated distance.

So ingenuity has preserved both the eternal Benedictine imperative for openness to every kind of visitor
and reponsible caution during a worldwide health crisis.

Verge Santíssima de Montserrat, pregeu per nosaltres.

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