Magic Monastery, a chancel opera
Children's and Liturgical Opera Company, LLC

CHANCEL OPERA: Tales of a Magic Monastery



short vignettes of monastery life
libretto by Theophane the Monk

music by Susan Hulsman Bingham

  A young monk or nun; an older monk or nun.



Pairs of either mid-range female or male singers low soprano or low tenor)



piano or synthesizer









Simple monastic garb



Libretto by Theophane the Monk in his book,






impressionistic, Zen-like and mystical: in the spirit of the tales themselves



Complete score: 11 pieces. Any number of pieces many be used, in any order



Each piece ranges from 1-5 minutes in length.



Edgehill Church, Spuyten Duyvil, The Bronx, New York, 1985



1. Myself?

I sat there in awe as the old monk answered our questions. Though I'm usually shy, I felt so comfortable in his presence that I found myself raising my hand. "Father, could you tell us something about yourself?"

He leaned back. "Myself?" he mused. There was a long pause.

"My name . . . used to be . . Me. . . . But now . . . it's you."


2. The Pearl of Great Price

He asked me what I was looking for.
    "Frankly," I said, "I'm looking for the Pearl of Great Price."
He slipped his hand into his pocket, drew it out, AND GAVE IT TO ME. It was just like that! I was dumbfounded. Then I began to protest: "You don't want to give it to me? Don't you want to keep it for yourself? But . . ."

When I kept this up, he said finally, "Look, is it better to have the Pearl of Great Price, or to give it away?" --

Well, now I have it. I don't tell anyone. From some othere wold be just disbelief and ridicule. "You have the Pearl of Great Price? Hah!" Others would be jealous, or someone might steal it. Yes, I do have it. But there's that question -- "Is it better to have it, or to give it away?" How long will that question rob me of my joy?


3. Next Monday?

    I had heard that there was a monk there who had been to Tabor -- present at the Transfiguration -- imagine! I found him. You couldn't miss him -- that face would stand out anywhere.
    "Father," I said, "what was it like?"
    "Well, we went up the mountain, and Jesus began to pray. Other people only partly pray. He prayed totally." My companions were taken by the light, but it was the sound that got to me. It was music, but you never heard music like that. It just took over my whole body and soul. Then, when the cloud came, he passed into it, and I did too. That's all I can say. I've been pretty useless ever since. I just live here with Him, in that music, in that cloud."
    "Father," I whispered, "call me in."
    "Do you want to come in now," he asked, "or next Monday?"
    "O Father, call me in now. I've waited long enough."
He took my head to his heart, and I heard the music. The cloud settled around us.


4. The Audacity of Humility

    I walked up to an old, old monk and asked him, "What is the audacity of humility?" This man had never met me before, but do you know what his answer was? "To be the first to say 'I love you.'"


5. Now

    I had just one desire -- to give myself completely to God. So I headed for the monastery. An old monk asked me, "What is it you want?"
    I said, "I just want to give myself to God."
    I expected him to be gentle, fatherly, but he shouted at me, "NOW!" I was stunned. He shouted again, "NOW!" Then he reached for a club and came after me. I turned and ran. He kept coming after me, brandishing his club and shouting, "Now. Now."
    That was years ago. He still follows me, wherever I go. Always that stick, always that "NOW!"


6. What will you give me?

    Strange sight -- a monk with no legs sat by the wall, calling out to passersby, "What will you give me? What will you give me?"
     I felt compelled to stop and apologize: "I am a monk myself, so I have nothing to give you."
    "Give me your unhappiness," he demanded. I did.


7. The Original Sound

    I asked an old monk, "How long have you been here?"
    "Forever," he answered.
    I smiled. "Fifty years, Father?"
    "Did you know St. Benedict?"
    "We are novices together."
    "Did you know Jesus?"
    "He and I converse every day."
    I threw away my silly smile, fell to my knees, and clutched his hand. "Father," I whispered, "Did you hear the original sound?"
    "I am listening to the original sound."


8. The Crystal Globe

    I told the guestmaster I would like to become a monk.
    "What kind of monk?" he asked. "A real monk?"
    "Yes," I said.
    He poured me a cup of wine. "Here, take this." No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal glovbe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, "Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is -- perhaps he doesn't even know."
    But I really was dumb -- that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made me a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of that beauty would be a joy forever.
    but what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same -- as soon as he wold pass unwittingly into my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
    Is this what it means to be a REAL monk -- to see the beauty in others and to be silent?


9. A Creature of Contraction and Expansion

   (Young Monk): I am a monk myself, and the one question I really wanted to ask was, "What is a monk?" Well I finally did -- but for an answer I got the most peculiar question.
    (Old Monk) "Do you mean in daytime, or at night?"
    When I didn't answer, he picked it up again. "A monk, like everyone else, is a creature of contraction and expansion. During the day he's contracted behind the cloister walls, dressed in a habit like all others, doing routine things you'd expect a monk to do. At night, he expands. The walls cannot contain him. He moves throughout the world and touches the stars.
    "Ah," I thought. "Poetry."To bring him down to earth, I began to ask, "Well, during the day in his real body --"
    "Wait, that's the difference between us and you. You people regularly assume that the contracted state is the real body . . . It is real in a sense. But here we tend to start from the other end, the expanded state. The dytime state we refer to as the 'body of fear', and whereas you tend to judge a monk by his decorum during the day, we tend to measure a monk by the number of persons he touches at night, and the number of stars."


10. No Distance

    I asked each of the monks I met this question: "What great blunder have you made?" One answered, "There was a stone in my room and I did not love it." Another said, "They called me a Christian, but I did not become Christ." I asked the first, "What do you mean? I don't understand. You didn't love that stone?" "I just didn't love it. I was so close to redeeming the whole world, but I looked down on that stone!" I asked the second, "You did not become Christ?" "I kept putting a distance between myself and him by seeking, by praying, by reading. I kept deploring the distance, but I never realized I was creating it." But I insisted, "Is one supposed to become Christ?" His answer . . . . "No distance."


11. The Great Debate

    I had been a few years in another monastery, and things were not going well. I persuaded someone to inquire around, and find out what the other monks thought of me. His report: "They call you nobody." That was terrible to hear. Some of the people in my head started shouting in a rage, "No! I'm Somebody! Somebody!"
    "No, it's true. You're Nobody."
    The great debate, it went on for months. All in my head. It wore me out. Somebody! Nobody! Somebody! Nobody! One night, someone came into my room, got on his knees and put his forehead to the ground. I thought that he was mocking me, so I just ignored him. After awhile I gained courage and began to curse at him. When finally I spat at him, he spoke. "Please come to the Magic Monastery." I tried to make some reply, but the words came out all stutters and stammers. That debate was tearing me apart! Somebody! Nobody! Somebody! Nobody! Somebody! Nobody! Somebody! Nobody! Somebody! Nobody! Somebody! Nobody! Nobody!  The visiting monk takes the hand of the first monk and leads him. The suffering monk follows as though blind or helpless.

As we walked up the path to the great door, the bells began to ring as if there were a great feast. The Abbot came to greet me and led me onto a huge hall. He placed me in the center, and monks and nuns, hundreds of them, came and sat all around me. Someone brought the dancle from the sanctuary and set it in front of me. And so, we sat all through the night. Now you might say they say in silence; their eyes were closed. But this was the Magic Monastery, and my experience was different. I heard them chanting. Somebody. Somebody. At last. At last. Welcome. Welcome. Somebody at last. Welcome Somebody, welcome Somebody at last.

I heard the Abbot tell them I'd just got in from Egypt. we were all breathing as one. Someone asked me to sing for them. I said I couldn't sing, but I'd tell a few jokes. One said it was good to have a new perspective. Then someone called out, "You can sing!" So I sang. Sang the song of my life, my past, my present, my future. It was so beautiful. Welcome. Welcome. Somebody at last. Welcome. Welcome. Somebody at last. At last.


Composer's comment: This is an odd, idiosyncratic, spare and effective piece with a profound lesson in each tale. Superior acting skills are essential.

Musical score: $58. Price includes shipping and handling within the U.S. Price also includes performing rights and permission to make sufficient copies for cast and accompanists for one group or company for one season.


PDF file of score can be sent to you as an email attachment. Price: $30. Price includes performing rights and permission to make sufficient copies for cast and accompanists for one group or company for one season.


DVD available which includes libretto: $28. Price includes shipping and handling in the U.S.

CD available which includes libretto: $20. Price includes shipping and handling in the U.S.




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