There is something both striking and awe inspiring in the architectural splendors of prewar Catholic architecture, which humbles the viewer, participant seeker, and regular flaneur. By "prewar," I mean anything before the Second World War. And the magnificently palatial glory of the Mount Saint Alphonsus retreat house is no exception. It had been a seminary for some time, but those days dwindled into all too few and unsustainable numbers, that it no longer exists. The seminary closed in 1985 and students were then sent to Washington, D.C. to continue their studies. Built and dedicated 101 years ago by the Redemptorists, seminarians were trained in these rooms and hallways (some of which are longer than a football field!). It was a self-sufficient community, which (according to the website) produced even their own wine on the property (though it is not clear if they grew the grapes on the property or just made the wine!) The colossal structure is a formidable sight, which you may view in the last photo of this blog and/or at the Mt. Saint Alphonsus website provided here:
I recently declared (of course, tongue-in-cheek) that the real mark of history was determined by whether or not an historical locale had a "book" shop or "gift" shop to mark its historicity. Well, surely then, Mt. Saint Alphonsus would be a great historical winner, because it has both! As you can see above in the first photo, when I entered the side of the 100+ room castle, there was a "gift and book shop." It had closed just minutes before I arrived, but I knocked anyway, because I'd glimpsed a subtle light emitting its glow from an interior office behind the shop. A woman came out and I introduced myself and we had a pleasant exchange for about ten minutes. I'd told her about my interest in Mt. Saint Alphonsus (MSA, from now on), and asked her about the history, seminary, library (of course!), and present residents. The truth is that this was not my first visit to MSA, but a return trip to a place I'd visited many years ago. And I'd wanted for some time to recapture a bit of that past with a visit in recent years. It was only on this rainy afternoon in August that I'd managed to steal away and find myself in the town of Esopus, NY, right near the MSA estate. (Note: the photo above was taken of an image hanging in the hallways of MSA; and below, of presumably, the namesake of the institution).
Sixteen years ago, I was a fresh little collegiate sprout, finding my way around the world of St. Lawrence University. I'd recently been an avid reader and fan of Thomas Merton, the Buddhaphilic monastic, who wrote like a spiritual beat poet, holed himself up in a rural Kentucky monastery called the Abbey of Gethsemane, and eventually died of accidental electrocution in a bathtub. His autobiography about his early life, the famed Seven Storey Mountain, gave a characteristically romantic (though not completely) portrait of the monastic life. It was, though, enough to seduce me into searching for answers about this idea of monasticism and priesthood. Considering my childhood interests in religiosity and liturgical music, it came as a simple sequence of events. If I had the time these days, I'd still be listening to LPs of E. Power Biggs or Albert Schweitzer playing Bach! But I was just a novice collegian at St. Lawrence, thrown into first year projects. One of them had been a study of a cultural group in society, and I had decided to study "monks and monasticism."
I had known about some monastic communities in the Hudson River Valley, and when I had returned home for a break from St. Lawrence, I drove down to a couple of them. The first was the Episcopal Benedictine Holy Cross Monastery, not far from MSA. It was a delightful place, though rather active, where the monks wore heavy brown garb, shared meals, directed Elder Hostels, prayed, drove a Lexus, and went to movies (I think the fellows were off to watch Schindler's List at the time). Holy Cross apparently was, as the locals note, the rendezvous site of former NJ Governor Jim McGreevey and his lover. Of course, this was a more recent event in history. And an interesting footnote to monastic living! Still, one might see that as a young college student in the early 1990s, my perception of monasticism was beginning to be shattered by the idea of temporal and earthly enjoyment being had in these sacred halls. It wasn't quite what I had imagined from reading Merton. Nonetheless, after hearing about the monastic Lexus, I went on to MSA. There I met a Father Brinkmann, whom I interviewed about monasticism and Gregorian chant.
Father Brinkmann, if my faded memory serves me right, studied music and organ playing at Boston University, and had agreed to speak to me about my project. Then, as now, I came across the same accoutrements of MSA: the open liturgical tomes, grandfather clocks, and busts of the thorn-crowned Jesus. On my most recent visit this summer, it was exceedingly dark inside, the hallways being almost difficult to navigate it was so unlit! But nearly two decades ago, I remember waiting in these hallways for my meeting with Father Brinkmann. There was a very old priest, bent nigh to the ground in his antiquity, and skinny as a pole, walking the halls in silence. I went up to the library to wait and look around. It was, as I recall, one of the most startlingly magnificent libraries I'd ever been in. It was one big room, a whole wing of the fortress, with multi-tiered balconies of shelves jutting out, and ornate banisters carved into curved staircases. It was truly remarkable. And the books themselves were ancient tomes peeling into rust and blood colored dust.
Of course, I eventually had my meeting with Father Brinkmann, and he was very accommodating and generous with his time and knowledge of monastic living. A good old fashioned priest, devoted to his vocation, his order, his music, and of course, MSA. So, upon returning to MSA this summer, and wandering around the cavernous hallways, I was struck by the grandeur that still remained here. By the open liturgical books, breviaries, or Bibles that seemed to situate themselves in the most inviting and auspicious locations around the premises of MSA. When I inquired at the Book Shop about Father Brinkmann, the woman told me that he was around sometime, but that she wasn't sure where he was or what his hours were, or even if he would be on the MSA site that rainy afternoon. Though, later, as I was walking through the halls, I met up with another old gentleman, who was a priest visiting from the Boston area, and was on retreat at MSA. He told me that Father Brinkmann would in fact be there that very evening, as they were to share a meal together in just a few hours.
I never did find the good Father; nor did I really have the time to wait around and see if I could glimpse an apparition of him at the feeding grounds, which I'm sure would have been a pleasant event--I've always been a fan of communal meals and the understanding of the roots of words like "companion" (lit. one whom you "eat bread with" = cum + panis) and "symposium" (one whom you "drink with" = syn + ponen in Greek). Nonetheless, I could only dream about a sumptuous meal this afternoon. The rain pittered and pattered as the clouds rolled from the mountains west of New Paltz (the famed "Gunks") over the rivulets, hills, and folds in the earth, above MSA and across the Hudson heading toward Massachusetts. I continued wandering about, finding more books, statues, and nooks in this massive building.
Above, you will see, a sign for a Reading Room, which I discovered. They surely love their reading! What is interesting is that at a retreat center like MSA, there is so much space for contemplation AND reading. For if you wished to do a study on this idea of reflection and thought, there would surely be a question of what the role of reading is or plays into our understanding of contemplation. But it was clear from this sojourn, that there are plenty of places to find peace, quiet, and a little comfort in reading and resting. Outside of the building, outside of the reading room, you can see the fine grounds of the MSA estate: balconies, porches, manicured lawns, oak and maple trees, and piney bushes that are topiary-style gems that make the place look like you're in the Pamphilij Gardens in Rome. Perhaps that is what they had in mind!
The saddest moment of my visit this summer was when I asked the woman in the book shop about the library. She replied quite frankly, saying: "Oh, they got rid of the library. They packed it up and shipped it off to Africa." Now whatever the merits or truth of that statement were, it was bittersweet. Partly, because of the idea of dismantling any library to me is a shocking disruption to my bibliophilic soul; the idea of breaking down the cultured history of a library is, to me, a hamartiological rupture, but then too, it seems like a necessary evil and unfortunate result of time. On the upside, the "sweet" end of this situation, is the fact that the library, once a jewel of the MSA seminary, was being redistributed to those needy seminarians and theological students in Africa, or wherever these books would eventually wend their ways to. The library was closed. But it was not boarded up, as the good woman in the book shop had suggested. She'd also said that one of the priests had done substantial work on the library before redistributing it. And it turns out that Father Brinkmann may have been one of, if not the individual responsible for the safekeeping of this project. As you can see from this photo, it was dark. The lights were off, but the skeletal image of dark and light contrast to present an impressive structure. Admittedly, it didn't look exactly like what my fading memory had preserved from 16 years before. It seemed a bit too modern. I remembered something more wooden, carved, and out of another era. Perhaps they did some renovations? But more likely, the only renovations were in my slightly abnormal memory!
Sindonology: A Study for Everything!
Leaving the best for last, I must retreat into the epical and comical limits of theological preservation: I could not help but laugh a good chuckle, while desiring such a piece of branded Roman Catholicity and non-liturgically touristic hardware when I saw this. That's right: a replica of the Vatican and St. Peter's in Rome! What a delight! It sat there, quiet, squarely, behaving its own business, until I walked up and gave it a glare. "Awwh, poor thing! It needs a home!" But then I realized, it was home. It was among its friends and visitors. As you read your book of Psalms, or paused to reflect about your station in the world, or about the tasks of Catholic preservation in post-modern society, you will be reminded of many things by this constant window sill companion: Rome, the Church, the Pope (whom I recently was told is affectionately called "B-16"--like an illustrious doctrinal super-bomber with a 24,000 mile flight radius), and the Christian Cosmos. For all you BMV aficionados, this would be a perfect time for your rosary and an Ave Maria.
Of course, none of this would be complete--the visit, the contemplation, the whole world of bibliotourist wonder!--without the subtle discovery of something quite miraculous. You see, after departing from MSA, from the entombing darkness of the hallways, from the mystical glow of the golden chapel, I went on my way, driving past the magnificent facade of this regal old seminary turned retreat house. You can see the pines standing as sentinels out front. Not long after, I did a little research on MSA, as I wanted also to contact the good Father Brinkmann. To my great surprise and delight, I discovered that the good Father was one of the preeminent scholars of "Sindonology." Sindonology, a term I had never heard, is the real "study of the Shroud of Turin," coming from the Italian word for shroud, sindone. I will post a link below to the official Sindonology website. It is a very interesting enterprise, no doubt. It is, in some ways metaphorical, as I am now coming to see this whole experience, that the image of the old MSA library, for which I had a distinct memory and understanding, was different when I saw it in person this summer: it was radiant, yet old and majestic in my mind, but had become a less romantic ideal in person, turned into a shredded memory, an actual black and white image, a portrait of what once was. What once was...was a body of knowledge, a body of Christian thinking and a portrait of a message that is still important to a body of people that makes up more than 1/6 of the earth's population. So too, the sindonological event of a mysterious cloth, black and white, decaying under time's duress, conveys an image and effect that is more important than the earthly degradation of ancient fibers.
Whatever the metaphor, the image, the symbol, remember that beyond the surface there will always be something else, something different, and usually more profound. And usually it is a message.