As a postulant, I learned how to pray the Divine Office. Psalms made up the basic structure of this ancient prayer, which we chanted, in Latin, several times a day—at Prime, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Matins, and Compline.
To pray we sat, stood, or knelt in stalls in the choir chapel. The straight-backed stalls had a narrow, separating partition on each side. Each stall’s seat was hinged so it could be lifted upright to provide more room for standing.
In front of each seat a small, freestanding kneeler sat on the floor. In the cubbyhole of my assigned stall, I kept my diurnal, from which I chanted the Office, as well as my missal, used during daily mass.
On both sides of the chapel stood four stepped tiers of these stalls. The nuns on one side faced the nuns on the other as we prayed. We chanted the psalm verses antiphonally—first one side, then the other.
Stained-glass windows depicted the life and rule of our founder—Saint Benedict of Nursia. These exquisite works of art cast jeweled color onto the satiny wood of the choir stalls and the gleaming polished floor.
Running down the chapel’s length and separating the tiers on each side was a wide aisle. I often knelt there during Compline and, with others, made public culpa. I’d bow my head and silently ask forgiveness from the community for diminishing the praise offered that day to God.
This happened when I—
1. Giggled. Next to me in chapel sat a fellow postulant with whom I shared the same sense of humor. Little things set us off, like the way a nun sneezed or even the way she blew her nose.
2. Banged the kneeler.
3. Mangled a Latin word.
4. Chanted off-key. My ear simply didn’t recognize pitch.
When all of us were in good voice, the chanted prayer lifted our hearts beyond things like public culpa, giggling, and noisy kneelers. Our bodies cast weariness aside. Peace anointed us.
That is the truest thing I can say—that the choir chapel was a place of peace. For nearly a century before I entered, women had prayed there. Their praise had become Presence.
Whenever I was in that chapel, I could feel the Oneness of all those who had gone before me, all those who would come after, and all those with whom I then lived. While in that chapel I became One with All Creation.
The time came when that was no longer true for me. It was then I left.