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The Texts - John Constable

The Night Watch

'We do not wish to punish anyone if we can avoid it. This is why the Rule states that the Gloria of the 94th Psalm is to be said "very slowly and deliberately". Yet what are we to do with the sluggard who, despite our slow-saying, arrives at the Night Office after the Gloria? Here, the Rule is unequivocal:

"... let him not take his place in the choir, but stand apart, in the place which the Prior has appointed for such careless persons, so that he may be seen by all, until at the completion of the work of God he do penance... "

His punishment may well serve as a lesson and warning to others, but this is not its true purpose. Our Brother is to be punished for his sake, not with malice, but with love and care for his errant soul.'

As is usual after the Night Office, the monks are gathered in the Chapter House for a reading from Benedicti Regula, the Rules of the Order of St Benedict, with an informal commentary by the Prior. His choice of tonight's Rule, number 43 ("If anyone arrive at the Night Office after the Gloria of the 94th Psalm?") is horribly apposite. The sluggard in question - having stood apart and blushing throughout the service; now prostrated on the cold stones - being none other than I, Benedict, the saint's namesake.

'For let us never forget that your souls are in my care. And that, according to the Second Rule, as your Prior, I "... will have to give the Lord an account of all these souls on the Day of Judgement."'

I lie, face down, spread-eagled by the Roman arches at the entrance to the hall. A draught under the rickety door blows up my gown, making me shiver, yet I gratefully accept the punishment bestowed upon me. We submit to a discipline in order to gain mastery of ourselves. The Rules are like the columns and arches in our Cathedral. They create the harmonious forms, the structure in which our lives are held and housed, no more blown hither and thither by every wild passion. Those violent interior dramas, which once threatened to tear my very soul apart, have been tamed and silenced.

I do not know how long I have been a monk in the Order. Observing the hours is necessarily an inexact science: the motions of the sun and moon, the marking of Saints' days, the time taken to sing a certain number of Psalms...

For me, Time has never appeared as a constant flow, but more like the River Itchen - here coursing fast down by the old City Walls, there slowing to meander into the water meadows.

I do know that, since I have been here, Bishop Wykeham has died. We sang a Mass for his soul in his chantry. And when I clapped eyes on his successor, Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, my heart stopped - for it was the Bishop I'd seen in the vision, who would one day burn the French Witch. But I said nothing. I believed that if I applied myself to my religious observances, I should keep the terrible fulfilment of these prophesies at bay.

So now, shivering on the Chapter House floor, I struggle to marshal my thoughts, to give the Prior's words my undivided attention. He has moved on from matters of pastoral care to address the more mundane problem of drainage in the necessarium. Yet try as I may, my thoughts are drifting. The Prior drones on, but the words keep slipping away.

Then, out of nowhere, my heart is gripped by an icy panic, a bottomless, sinking certainty that none of this has any substance, that I have shored it up by sheer force of will, and that now, having dropped my guard, it will all collapse around me and fade like a dream, like one of my false visions. And no sooner have I thought this thought, than I know it has already happened.

I sense the different density of the silence, the moist air. I open my eyes and find myself alone under the stars, lying on wet grass. The Prior, my Brother Monks, gone...

The Chapter House itself has vanished like a chimera, like a magical kingdom in an old heathen tale. All that remains of the monks' alcoves are shadows, dark stains on the remaining wall. Where the dormitory once stood, and the latrines below it, there is a walled garden in darkness. Beyond, I see the Prior's House still there, with unfamiliar lights in the windows. There are the Roman arches too, that stood at the entrance. I stare through the gaps between them onto an empty expanse where the cloisters should be, then look up through the roof that is no more, gazing at the cold starry night.

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