My Friend Thomas
On July 2, 1963, a hot, beautiful,holiday weekend day the likes of which for years had turned all my desires to getting to Cape Cod just as fast as I could to join my buddies in cruising Hyannis Mass searching for whatever lay in store. All day football on the sand, swimming until our lips turned blue, drinking Heinekens and meeting good Catholic girls for parties later on, sleeping like the dead when we could find a spot to crash, and having what I remember as the time of my life; that’s what I thought I’d be doing for years to come.
Instead, I found myself entering the Trappist Monastery of Saint Joseph’s abbey in Spencer, MA. I don’t mean just visiting to say a prayer, or make a brief retreat; I meant for life, never to return to the outside world.
At the guest house, I met two other men my age who were to enter the life with me, Ned Mullaney and Richard Miller. Ned was a graduate of Holy Cross College and right from the start I could see that he would be an Abbot someday. He was more than well educated and very intelligent, he was obviously wholesome and evidencing a goodness which was not superficial as was mine. I acted like a good person, but I knew myself better than that. Richard seemed much more like Harvard or MIT trained, very brilliant but a little uptight. I thought he showed stress from the moment I met him and I always suspected that he wouldn’t last long in this life; imagine me suspecting that of another.
I had previously visited with the vocation director, Father Theophane Boyd, OCSO, at Spencer. I liked Father Theophane a lot from that moment on. Many years later, I would buy a book that he wrote after spending time in a Japanese Zen monastery. It is entitled, "Tales of the Magic Monastery". For the past ten years, it has been my practice to read short excerpts from texts important to me. His book, along with the Sermon on the Mount"(Matthew), Poems of Emily Dickinson, "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu and "The Way of Chuang Tzu" edited by Thomas Merton have been most helpful. Father Theophane arranged for me to be interviewed by Father Mark Dellery. I was to meet with him in the Grace Chapel reception room. Theophane escorted me to a musty old room with furniture which had to be 500 years old. He left me alone to get Father Mark. He was gone for about 20 minutes. I was getting very fidgetty, and began to wonder if this wasn't a ploy to induce an aspirant to give up now and run from the interview. Eventually, Father Mark entered. He looked like a very elderly Shawmut Indian and had a very large, old- fashioned, hearing aid. I was extremely uncomfortable as the interview began. I simply hated to be trying to sell myself, for I knew myself too well. I t was only after we talked about my former girl friends, and about my favorite beer, and my favorite golf courses that I began to believe that Fr.Mark belonged to the human race, and that there might be a place for me at Saint Joseph's Abbey.
We talked briefly about things, and then discussed my need to study Latin before entering. Theophane said that there was a school in Kentucky which I could attend for the remainder of the school year, then come back to see him in June. I agreed, but I told him that all my savings would be gone by June. He noted that and I left to get in touch with Saint Mary's College in Lebanon, KY.
From late January to early June, I played more basketball than I'd ever played in my life before, for that's what the Seminarians in KY do, when they're not "creek-jumping". So on the following July 2nd, I entered Saint Joseph's Abbey as a postulant with the name Frater Dominic.
For the next five years I grew in theological knowledge, deepened in monastic spirituality, and lived a life calculated to open one’s mind to the living of a life of faith according to the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict. Our day began at 2:15 am with a shockingly invasive fire-bell which one of the monks shook as vigorously as he could, all for the love of God. In fact, on most of those mornings I jumped out of bed with those very words on my lips, “Oh, for the love of God!” I splashed ice cold water on my face, used the toilet, and headed silently down the stairs to the dimly lit nave of the Church. I knelt in the darkness saying the prayer I had memorized as a Novice for such occasions- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner”, or, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful and enkindle in them the fires of Thy love; Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and Thou shall renew the face of the earth.” With a knock on the wooden stall, the Abbot, or the senior monk, would begin the Office of Vigils with the plea, “Deus, in adjutorium meum intende!”, to which all chanted in response, “Domine, ad adjuvandum me, festina!” etc...[“God, come to my help! Lord, hurry to assist me!”.]
The night Office lasted about an hour and a half, and had readings sandwiched in the middle of a series of chanted psalms. One fought a naked battle with fatigue during this time and everyone knew it to be that. At the conclusion of the night Office there was time for silent prayer, silent reading or, mercifully, time to go to Mixt ( a sort of breakfast at which coffee, tea and delicious whole wheat bread were available with peanut butter, cheese - and on Sundays and/or feast days, jams and jellies from the Trappist Preserves were optional). In the entire 5 years I lived there, it was this meal which kept me alive, and strong enough to last until the noontime meal, which often came after 4 hours of very strenuous morning work in the woods or fields. Unfortunately for me, this sort of breakfast extended itself long after my departure from the monastery, to times wherein my daily work wouldn’t burn off those breakfast calories taken in, and my width was to grow in proportion.
Following Mixt, we had time for making our bed, studying or doing Lectio Divina (a form of meditative reading) and/or praying. At about 6:15 am we’d go to the Church for Prime, Lauds and the Conventual (Sung) High Mass. After Mass we’d have about 15 minutes of quiet prayer, then sing the Office of Terce and head out for morning work. Our work could be anything, and we wouldn’t find out until the monk in charge handed out the assignments. I enjoyed outdoor work most except that I knew nothing about farming and had an aversive quirk to weeding long- I mean really long -rows of vegetables.
I did learn how to use power chain saws and grew in awe of trees - I learned so much about them, and would not be eager to take any down until the reason for it were clear to me. Cutting brush was not so enjoyable, and hauling brush was without any doubt the best purgatory any fiend could conjure up in punishment for my “mispent youth”. In season we would cut hay, bale hay, stack and load bales onto trucks for transport to the “world”. Even hay which had been rained on would be treated similarly, only these often moldy bales would be sent to the Massachusetts Highway Dep’t. for spreading over newly seeded grass alongside highways.
After a year in the monastery, I was assigned to care of the floors throughout all of the buildings. As a novice, I was highly regulated as to what I could see and where I could go, so this job introduced me to the many nooks and crannies of the place. My very favorite job on the floors was to apply Butcher’s paste wax to the hard wood floors of the stalls in the main church. After applying the wax, and after the paste had dried, I’d run the floor buffing machine over the wood and be transported by its quiet rocking, throbbing hum. Two days of the week would find the primary organist, Father Malachy, practicing on our enormous pipe organ. One day, I broke all the rules by having an extended sign conversation with him, and I told him that my favorite pieces were Bach’s Little Fugue in G-Minor, and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D. After that conversation, Fr.Malachy would break out into either, or both, of those pieces whenever he’d see me waxing the stalls. It was a foretaste of heaven to me.
Other jobs were to clean the toilets- not as bad as it might seem- because although we worked for the love of God, I sometimes felt that the monks aimed for the love of God as well. Sometimes we’d work in the laundry folding and sorting clothes- all clothes were community property and although you were able to get the right size each time, you would almost never get the same exact garment. In our cells we had a hook for hanging up a garment, but no closet for amassing a “wardrobe”. Personal property was not allowed although a private box was permitted for notebooks, correspondence and writing materials. Another major job was working in the Trappist jams and jellies plant. One-half of the building was for mixing, cooking, bottling and labelling the jars; and the other half was involved in gift wrapping and getting the product ready for distribution. During most of my novitiate I’d be assigned to sitting at the conveyor belt and as empty boxes came from the right, my job was to take 8 different flavors of jam jars coming straight at you down gravity roller ramps from their boxes, and plunk them into the appropriate spots in the gift boxes. Years earlier I remembered seeing Lucille Ball in an episode of “I Love Lucy” and Jackie Gleason on his show face a similar challenge. So often the monk in charge of the speed controls was a young monk just a few years senior to us. My guess is that the abbot wanted him to exorcize his particular sadistic demon by pushing all us silent monks to the limit. God forgive me for what I said of him under my breath.
One day I was assigned to work a pneumatic drill and break up a floor of cement in a building we were replacing. I used airport headphones to minimize the damage to my ears, but for a week I could only mouth the words in Choir.
For five years I lived this life to the best of my ability. There were some very trying times for me, as I discovered that one of my primary goals in life seemed to becoming a success in being liked by all who knew me. This was impossible to accomplish in this life that I had chosen, because we were so restricted in our communicating with one another such that I couldn’t hear, actually hear, what a great person I was and regularly enough to satisfy my need. In fact, just the contrary was occurring. My interpretation of the looks on my brother monk’s faces seemed to be telling me just the opposite. They seem to be asking me, “Why are YOU here?... I know what you’re thinking and you should be ashamed of yourself and stop being such a hypocrite... and why don’t you just leave?”
Our abbot, Dom Thomas, was my best friend during these trials. He showed me that the monastic life was a life of faith. I must believe in the God Who is closer to me than I am to myself, and that I must believe that he dwells within each of us... even though I cannot see it with my eyes. I should stop trying to see that a monk liked me before I committed myself to “liking” him. After all, Jesus said that we should love our “enemies”. I slowly began my journey in this “School of Love”, as Saint Benedict referred to it in his Rule written 1600 years ago. Slowly I was somehow absorbing the understanding that learning to BE in the presence of God was the goal of this life, not so much thinking or talking about it. I received assistance by becoming acquainted with the writings of Pere Caussade and his teachings on the “ sacrament of the present moment”. Only years later, long after leaving the monastic life would his teaching echo in the writings of Merton, Lao Tzu , Chuang Tsu and Suzuki.
One of my teachers at the monastery, Father Henry, had been a science professor at our state university prior to entering the life, and had brought with him a 6” reflecting telescope which lay unused in one of the storerooms whose floors I annually cleaned and waxed. I asked Dom Thomas about it and received permission to use it after the night office, unless it caused a problem for the community. For some time thereafter I would take the heavy telescope and mounting out behind the abbatiale on clear nights, and with the help of the Norton’s Atlas, find my way again back into familiarity with the solar system, the constellations formed from the relatively closer stars and the more mystifying bulk of our own galaxy as seen in the summer sky as the “Milky Way”. And stretching the telescope and my mind to its uttermost, I would hazard a peek at the closer galaxies to our own such as the Andromeda Galaxy, and nebulae such as the Orion Nebula... while just barely beginning to appreciate what I was seeing.
And so, I began to lead a double life. I began to attempt to understand the cosmos in which we live such puny and brief lives. I struggled with the pressures to consider the earth and the lives lived on it as of no consequence in the larger order of reality. I struggled with the realization that God, if there be one, could never be uncovered by science- which springs from physically observable and verifiable data. I began to study Scripture in a new way from a perspective which viewed the word “kosmos” in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel no longer as “world”,(as in “ He came into the world”) but rather as meaning , He came into “everything that exists” i.e., “cosmos”. Thus, I realized that my concept of “God” would either have to go, or it would have to “go”. I began to see that no concept of God could ever be adequate, and I was subtly paving the way to becoming a Christian, with Zen Buddhist tendencies. Prayer became simpler, to be done anywhere, at any and even all times. Saint Benedict was on to this, and monasticism was on to this in its teaching on the possibility of praying “always”.
My five years in the monastic life were not without difficulty. Obedience has never been, nor ever will be I trust, easy for me. Yet while I was there, I only rarely saw the command of the abbot, novice master or the rule, to be a burden, and I can only affirm Dom Thomas, Fr. Regis and Fr. Robert for their gentle caring manner in their appointed role as leaders. It was I, myself, who gave me the greatest difficulty. My imagination, my broodings, my nursing of hurt feelings, my feeling that others were judging me as a phony and a failure were all I needed as "an angel from Satan to buffet me". It was only when I had read some of Pere de Caussade, SJ, that I began to be able to escape my black hole by focusing on the present moment and by aligning my thoughts with what was God's will in my life. Later in my life, I would be helped to see these realities in light of Zen practice, and realize that almost all of my trials in life arose from my not living in the present moment. My past, and possible futures, have always hog tied me in the present moment.
In 1965, two novices who entered after I did were allowed to make profession ahead of me. This stung, but there was nothing I could do. I became, if anything, more at peace with a reality which I did not and could not control. I was very happy in the life, although I'm not sure that I felt I belonged with such a group of people as I got to know them better. Some, who seemed to be ideal monks and to whose level of spirituality I doubted I could ever rise, would suddenly not be in the choir any more. What really bothered me is that during all the years that I was in the monastery, I made a promise to myself to "never be a phony" as my Dad had taught. I told my Novice Master, I told my Abbot, I told Father Raphael, the resident shrink and a great person, everything I was upset about. It didn't guarantee my perseverance as a monk obviously, but it did help preserve my sanity. I can vividly remember "confessing" thoughts I was having as a monk, and thinking that I was embarrassing Dom Thomas with my revelations. Instead, he seemed to be regaled by my honesty, and it made me overjoyed to see this man laugh so heartily.
I remember one day in particular, it was hot and I was the fifth monk waiting to talk to the Abbot, and after an hour wait, I went up the stairs to see him. I asked if he'd rather go outside and walk while we talked. We went out to the brow of a high hill nearby, and we talked. I remember describing how difficult I found certain aspects of the life. I summed up what I had said with the words " It sure ain't heaven".
" It's not hell though, is it?" he asked. We both looked at each other, "It's purgatory", we said simultaneously and laughed. We sat silently for a long time after that. That was the best.
Through the last forty three years of my life, I have tried to correspond with Dom Thomas and he has been the greatest help to me and my family. Through the years, Dom Thomas himself went through many trials and transformations. Fortunately, he has written much about his thoughts and given some truly remarkable lectures as he has become a spiritual guide for people of prayer of all spiritual schools and religions throughout the whole world. He is the co founder of Contemplative Outreach and is a close friend of the Dalai Lama, Popes, many Islamic scholars and Jewish prayer guides. Recently he gave the following lecture on Contemplative Prayer in the Modern World at MIT as one of the famous TED Lecture [http://video.mit.edu/watch/contemplative-dimensions-of-human-experience-9518/ Series]. You may link on to it and hear it in it’s entirety . Thank you