Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Finding a Way

3:30. It was a familiar, though distant memory which surfaced in the utter calm of pre-dawn darkness at the hour before first light. The bell. The sleeping valley. The perfect peace. The call to prayer. The pre-preemptive start to the day.

At the monastery, he used to drink a tall glass of water before bed, the way the Native Americans used to do before a hunt, so he would be awoken naturally, by his body, at the time of the bell. He loved getting up early. Unfortunately that was not always enough to keep him from nodding off during Vigils. While the psalms were recited during Vigils, the release from the Great Silence came usually at Lauds, when the sign of the cross would unfetter the monks with the words: Oh Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise. At Vigils, still considered a nighttime Office, silence--besides the prayer of the Psalms--rested on the lips of every monk like an obedient child.

Pure silence in the outside world is harder to find, but at 3:30, there is not much noise to find fault with. As the man slowly rose from sleep, resting his hands on his knees, and rolling his head, he could here the flicking pitter of sleet on the roof of the house. He looked outside...a fine mist of white was shooting down gently in the light of the streetlamp outside his window. Across the way, the dance and artists' studios were quiet. He knew he could pray by the window without his shirt--despite the bitter cold outside, the air inside was drunk with warmth on account of the spastic radiators--without feeling immodest. There was no one to see him at this lonely hour. Even his roomate had not come back last night, spending the night at his girlfriend's.

Sometimes, he thought, he missed the monastery so much that he tried to bring it home with him. His room was no more than ten feet wide, and was more like a cell, a place of peace. He had a mattress on the wood floor, covered with white sheets, a crucifix on the wall, a small desk, and a bureau. That was all. It reminded him of his cell, and he smiled when he thought of it. The world, he always thought, was too crowded and loud a place. His room, his refuge, did not have to be so.

With no job to go to, no baby to comfort or wife to disturb, he had no reason to get up so early, besides having to tutor in five hours. But he was not sleeping more than six or seven hours a night these days, and having gone to bed early, it was no surprise he should rise early. He did not want to take this time of solitude for granted, for he felt it surely would not be with him forever. The year he had taken off from working had been a respite from such ceaseless activity, but it had become like rotten fruit. If he was not spending it in prayer or writing, there was always the accompanying guilt that would come from misusing a gift. Man was given freedom to serve, not to be served, and he would be wise to remember that.

He slowly dropped to his knees and rested his hands on the window sill. He stared out the window for a long time. He was empty, but made himself an empty gift to God. He learned long ago that he was nothing in the sight of God, but that he meant everything to Him. He had nothing else to give besides his words and his heart, bruised like a reed. He rested his chin on his chest. He was wide awake.

Rising from the darkness, illuminated by the fresh cake of white on the street and the roof of the house, he went into the kitchen barefoot to make tea. He put on kettle and sat down in the darkness at the kitchen table, also illuminated in the light of the snow and dim streetlamp. His roommate's girlfriend had brought over a strange bouquet of blackberries and lilacs, and a kind of cattail that looked like a stuffed bird without a head. It was always nice to have flowers on the table, though, especially in the winter.

He took his bible off the shelf and sat down with it to do morning Lectio. He remembered fondly when the Abbot Martin taught the five candidates who were staying at Mt. Saviour for five weeks one summer, in classes on monastic history, after breakfast. They learned how to read Scripture as if it were alive and speaking as real as any person might speak. The Word was alive, and this he knew to be true. He had had too many experiences to suggest otherwise.

He thought back to those days, listening to the Abbot relate a story about children playing on top of a mountain to illustrate the importance of the Rule. "When there is no fence," the Abbot would say, "the children huddle together for fear of not knowing where the edge is, and falling off. But, if someone builds a fence around them, they have no more fear, and play freely." The Rule of St. Benedict was only meant to limit freedom in an outward way. The goal was true freedom, and it was to this that the Rule led.

He sipped his tea, and thought, as he sat alone, that he was a lousy fence maker. Not that he was required to be one. But it was a constant struggle to simply live by a Rule when you are alone, unsupported by a community, and one easily climbs over the fence when there is no one to stop him, especially when the fence is not "overly burdensome," as Benedict had created it to be.

He recalled in the last novel that he had read, about the Jesuit missionaries, and the martyrs, living and dying in the 17th century Japan where Christianity was being planted "like a sapling in a swamp." He recalled the apostate, the coward Kichijiro, and the words he yelled to the priest in shame. "Father! Forgive me! I was born weak. I was not born strong." Is a man born a coward, or does he become one? It is a frightening prospect. To die for the faith was a coveted gift in his mind; to live for it in the world was so much harder. But to renounce under persecution what one holds so strongly when not persecuted. He shudders. After the rise of Constantine, and the doing away with Christian persecution in the 4th century, fervent Christians had to find another way to die. Hence, the flight to the desert.

I was born weak. I was not born strong. The words haunted him. Was he a Peter wanting to be Paul? Perhaps. He knew his heart was with Peter, and with David, a "man after God's own heart." But his flesh...how could one survive in this world without discipline? And how could one live a life of discipline without the support of his brothers? He was no Antony. He had tried to live the life of a hermit, and was ashamed at his need for other people. He saw it as a weakness, though his friends and family assured him it was not so. He knew it was too harsh a judgment as well. After all, YHWH said "It is not good for man to be alone." But he was alone.

He remembered that night, in the crypt, before the statue of the Virgin holding the Christ and surrounded by candles, when he knew he had to leave...that the life of a monk for him was like an expensive and beautiful shirt that was just a little too short in the sleeves, and a little too tight around the chest. He wanted to wear it so badly, to make it fit. But if something does not fit, it does not fit, unless you shrink yourself to accommodate it. And that is not good for a human person of dignity to do, like Japanese women thwarting the growth of their feet.

He fell apart before her, and wept. The prior, the kind Fr. James, who was like an uncle to him, saw him crying, and put his arm around him, and comforted him. He felt like he had let someone down, though he let no one down, and no one was judging him but himself. He was a harsh judge. In two days, he would leave, and wonder what to do.

The next day, he walked to the workshop to where he was building furniture. He looked around. Br. Bruno was in the barn working on the tractors. Br. John was in the orchard. Br. Pierre was with the sheep. Br. Luke, the oldest, was hobbling around with a wide lucid smile, while the other monks worked in the guesthouse, or the gift shop, or cleaning, or doing laundry. He loved the life, and was sad to leave it. But he knew in his heart of hearts, and against everything that he wanted to admit, and despite that it was all he wanted from life, to serve God, that the life of a monk may not be for him.

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