15 May 2011

Jamberoo Abbey

I was recently invited to attend the ceremony of final profession as a lay Carmelite of a person very close to me.

Although not a religious person myself, I was very happy to attend the ceremony and curious about what it may entail.

The ceremony took place in Jamberoo Abbey, a peaceful retreat near Wollongong.  

The Abbey belongs to the order of Benedictines and is surrounded by beautiful trees, far from the “worldly noises.” The chapel where the ceremony took place was modern and austere. 

Four people were being professed, three of them were having their “final profession” and the fourth one was having her “first professions”. The chapel was full of friends and relatives that wanted to accompany their loved ones on the day. I was surprised to see that the Benedictine nuns from the Abbey were quite young, as most Spanish convents are struggling to attract novices

My knowledge of t he order of the Carmelites is limited and I didn’t even know that the possibility of being a lay Carmelite existed. I’ve always associated them to Saint Teresa, the Spanish nun of XVI century, whose poetry I had to study in high school and who, with St John of the Cross (another poet) carried out a reformation of the order and founded the Discalced Carmelites. Convents of this reformed “branch” of the Carmelites can be found all over Spain.  

A friar led the ceremony in Jamberoo (at the end of the day, the Catholic Church is a patriarchal institution) and there was beautiful singing from the choir.  

As a speaker of a Latin-based language, listening to a church choir singing in English brought to mind images from the Disney movies I saw as a child, which added another layer to the experience. Next time I hear a choir sing in English it will probably bring back images from Jamberoo Abbey.

Those professed said a moving oath promising to live in the spirit of the Gospel for the rest of their lives. Although the ceremony was solemn, I was glad to see one of the organisers taking pictures of the event, a sign, in my view, of things not being so stuck up as they may have been in days gone by.  

After this, everyone gathered in the dining room for some good home-cooked food in a festive atmosphere.

Sitting in the chapel I thought of how much the ceremony reminded me of university graduation ceremonies and reflected on how much religion has influenced our day to day ceremonies and vice versa. We like to mark occasions and, once a date is associated, in our minds, with certain rituals or ceremonies, it’s hard to separate one from another.

I was recently amused to see in a wealthy neighbourhood of Hong Kong an ad for a local Easter Carnival. Carnival in Easter? Don’t they know Carnival is in February?, I thought. Some people would probably take offense at having a street party at the time of remembering the penitence and death of Jesus, thinking of the Carnival at Rio de Janeiro or Venice, both in February, may find it a bit annoying to see the word Carnival used to refer to any street party.

Maybe the street party in Hong Kong was a conscious move to counteract the somewhat oppressive feeling of Easter... but I doubt it. I think it was just a matter of making use of school holidays.  

At the same time, in Madrid there was an attempt to have an atheist procession to coincide with the many Catholic processions that take place during Easter but the City Council didn’t allow it.

England has a number of public holidays during summer that aren’t supposed to celebrate any specific event but also has public holidays associated to the Christmas festivities. However David Cameron has suggested that the May public holiday (a euphemism for Worker’s Day) be moved to another time of the year and this has angered some people.

I’ve just learnt that the fight for the eight hour day started in Australia and that after the stonemasons fighting for it obtained a victory in 1856, April 22nd was declared “Eight-hour-day” holiday (May 1st was chosen later by the Second International Socialist to remember the workers involved in the so called 1886 Haymarket affair in the US.)

However, now in Australia the Labour Day public holiday is fixed by the various state and territory governments, and so varies considerably. Queensland and the Northern Territory are the only two places where it takes place the first Monday in May. Neither 22nd April nor 1st May is celebrated in New South Wales. There may be practical reasons for it but I think it’s a shame that this is the case because having public holidays associated to events makes it easier to remember those events in the future.  A public holiday in October however makes it much more likely for everyone to forget the achievement of those Australian stonemasons in 1856 or the terrible events of May 1886 in the US.  I doubt that a religious date would have been moved.

Ceremonies are part of human societies across the globe. They are a way of acknowledging achievement, getting people together and marking important moments in the lives of individuals or groups.  They can be religious, like the lovely profession ceremony in Jamberoo but they don’t need to be exclusively so. I believe that celebrating human endeavours and struggles is as important and dates that remind us of these endeavours and struggles should be treated with the same respect.