Saturday, October 25, 2014

Three Monks at Prayer

                                     THREE MONKS at PRAYER
                     Malachi, Vincent, Jerome and monastic prayer

This was my first time working on the wooden floors of the choir stalls in the main church. I pushed my floor buffer carefully along the cloister walk on the red tiles which were made from a fired ceramic material. The floor could get scratched or chipped if struck by the metal fenders of the heavy machine and there was no way I wished for that to happen. If it did, my penance would be to kneel at the stairs going down into the refectory while holding the breakage in my hand thus showing my error to the entire community of monks as they processed into the refectory for the noon meal.

I entered the dark and beautiful nave of the church and knelt in a stall to pray before commencing. I cannot adequately describe how beautiful our church is. At the western end, a very large stained glass window of our Lady holding the royal Child on her lap looked down on me with the most "dulcis,  clemens  et  pia"{sweet, merciful and loving} regard. As the afternoon waxed on, the sun poured through the window and bathed those in prayer with filtered red, blue and violet colors primarily. Our Lady's face shone brilliantly and was all the monks could  see when singing the "Salve Regina" at bedtime.  I can honestly admit to a full flow of tears gushing from my eyes on many an evening while singing this most beautiful of the hymns of Saint Bernard.

I had been placed in charge of floor care for the entire monastery in the sixth month of my Novitiate, a 2-3 year period during which I was to come to a decision to go on and make Simple Vows, and the Monastic community was to make a decision whether or not I were to be asked to proceed. Normally, novices would stay "down" in the Novitiate and not be allowed to wander through the "BIG House", the Professed house; the exception being any Novice who had to work throughout the monastery general.

So here I found myself taking my five gallon bucket which contained 5 or 6 clean Turkish towels, my large can of Butcher's Bowling Alley Wax and a pair of rubber knee pads. I started at the Abbot's stall and rubbed the pasty golden wax into the hard wood of the choir floor. I'd apply a goodly amount to the entire Abbot's side, by hand. When I finished waxing  the abbot's side of the choir stalls, I would plug in the floor buffer and the low monotonous hum of it would fill the church. When finished I'd move to the Prior's side, then back to the "Brothers' " stalls abbot's side to prior's side. The entire job would take from 2:15 pm to 4:30pm and I'd then take the equipment back to the storage closet, have a shower and get ready for Vespers and Supper.

One other delight would sometimes enter into the routine. Father Malachi Marion was our organist for choir and liturgy.  One day when my head and shoulders were bent to the task, Father Malachi entered the church and took his seat at the console of our huge organ whose pipes climbed up the walls of the nave, and disappeared into the dark recesses above. The first notes that he played on that occasion were a familiar Bach blast and I jumped up from my kneeling position to see who was causing this thunderous blast which ripped the silence apart altogether. I did not know Fr. Malachi, but when our eyes met, he smiled. My mind told me that he was laughing interiorly, and that this startling introduction was intended to be as earthshaking as possible for my benefit.

Our monastery is one of strict observance and silence is the common experience. To allow for necessary communication (always far less than one usually believes) a set of signs has been established. When one didn't know the signs very well or when trying to express an abstract thought for which there were no signs, lip movements would often be employed or if it were an absolutely necessary communication, at which the monk desiring to speak would rub his thumb and index finger together near his right ear, and say the word, "Benedicite", which meant "Bless". The monk who would be receiving the message would then reply, "Dominus", which means, "the Lord". This was to indicate that the communication would be OK with God(not always!).

Father Malachi smiled and beat his chest with his right fist, thus indicating that he was sorry for interrupting the silence. I tried to make a sign that said "That's OK", but the sign I used was to become my most disliked sign in the manual. To make it, one would hold his right hand in front of his eyes with the fist folded except for the index finger which would be half way opened into a hook shape. One would then make a downward thrust to the left of one's nose. The sign meant,"forget it". The reason I, and others so disliked that particular sign was that it could be interpreted as  several other messages.

For example, if someone were trying to communicate with signs but having a difficult time, it could be that the receiver has given up on you and is telling you, "get lost"; if the one sending the message gives up trying to send the signed message and makes the "forget it" sign, the receiver feels frustration and cheated out of some bit of news that would be important or at least break up the boredom. But Father Malachi wouldn't let me off the hook, asking me through signs "You like?" I nodded yes. He asked who is your "more,more favorite?"("more,more") means "most". I tried to answer, "Bach"(hand behind me), "little"( little finger of the right hand makes a screwing motion into the right corner of the mouth),  "F" (made with index finger of right hand  vertically under the horizontally spread index and middle fingers of my left hand), then make a letter "G" and my right hand sweeping downwards. By these signals I intended to say "Bach's Little Fugue in G minor". Miraculously he understood my message and he immediately began playing the opening notes of this favorite piece of mine I had first heard at The Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler.

I was transported and felt a little guilty hearing this most wonderful music from my sinful past in a concert for one in this glorious setting. After he finished he asked me again for another favorite. I made signs that I'd better get back to waxing. He asked again for a favorite and I responded "CF, "D" under. He nodded, I went back to work and Father Malachi began playing one of my all time favorites, Cesar Franck's Symphony in D-minor. I never enjoyed a day of work as much as I did this one.

Father Malachi returned to the Berryville, Virginia monastery the following year, but for that year, every time I entered the church to work on the floors he would begin to play Bach, then Franck, and I was transported as near to heaven as one can be in this life.

Brother Vincent had a Santa Claus look about him. He was assigned to be the Porter, i.e., he ran the gift shop at the entrance to the property for years and was beloved by all of our visitors. I didn't see him much in the monastery therefore as he kept different hours. I would know when he was around because I would hear him praying in the main church.

Ever since I can remember, sitting at the extreme back of a church has always been attractive to me. I think it stems from two experiences. The first was my Dad. In our family, my mother was overtly religious. Her devotions to the Infant Jesus of Prague, the ever present statues of Mary and her use of the Rosary and our fidelity to Sunday Mass were all due to her. My Dad, on the other hand, was known for his playing of basketball in his youth and for his love of sports in general, specifically high school sports. At Sunday Mass, Dad would always sit on what was termed the "fireman's" bench at the back of the church. There, he would discretely talk with firemen and others who shared his interests in sports. I always wanted to sit back there with him, but my Mother would never allow me to. I think it really bothered her and embarrassed her that Dad didn't sit with the family. I guess that's one reason I always gravitated to the back of church.

Another reason was my sense of sinfulness and unworthiness to be close to holy things.  I guess many young men feel a deep sense of  hypocrisy about the state of their own souls (the black milk bottle analogy of CCD class) and the appearances to the contrary which we try to maintain.

The Porter of Saint Joseph's Abbey was Brother Vincent. He was the person who most looked like what i always pictured Santa Claus to look like, with an enormous snow white beard and the happiest disposition one could imagine. Guests to the monastery were totally taken by his beautiful spirit.  Brother Vincent, when not at the Poirter's Lodge,  used to "hang out" down at the rear of the main church.  I used to know when he was there because I could hear him pray. It was unique.
          " ...HAIL.............
.....Hail..................... Mary !...............................Mary!.....................................Hail...............Mary!!!!!!!!!!!................................. Hail Mary!!!...................................Full.......................................Full.....................
....Full of.................Grace!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  etc...

I was so taken with this method of revolving around the thoughts and words of what one was saying in prayer. It was a mantra like approach to prayer that no one ever taught me about before. One NEVER has to finish one's prayer. One can take an "eternity" to finish one's prayer. I learned this from Brother Vincent in the dark main Church.

One Feast Day of Pentecost, the Abbot, Dom Thomas Keating, asked Brother Jerome to give a talk on prayer to the entire community in the Chapter room.  Brother Jerome, was the plumber in the Community and he had a difficult sinus problem that kept him sniffing long into the night. I know because I slept in a cell next door to his. The cells were separated by thin metallic material such as used in public lavatories.  I never really spoke to him but I used to see him carrying his plumbing supply case and his eyes always cast down in good Benedictine style (12th degree of humility). That's all I knew about Brother Jerome as he stood before the community on that Pentecost Sunday.

"Good morning," he began, " Reverend Father asked me to talk to you this morning about my prayer life.  When I pray, I go into the church, I kneel down at a stall, I grab on to the arm and I hang on as hard as I can. I want to thank Reverend Father for asking me this morning, and thank you all."

When I next saw Reverend Father, I told him that Bro. Jerome's talk was the best talk I've ever heard on prayer. He agreed.

In recent years, I often meditate out on my back porch. I most often try to use a method that these three monks, and Father Thomas seemed to exemplify. I remember Jesus' opening words to his disciples in the earliest of the four Gospels when he says: "The present moment is the right time; change the way you think about reality, for the Kingdom of God is WITHIN you. Believe this 'good news'" [Mk. 1:16]. Then I say in my heart, "I do believe, Jesus"; and then I sit down, shut up and listen. 

                                                                   Charlie Mc