Sunday, September 03, 2006

Life in the Monastery

Exciting topic, huh?

I haven't spoken about it much on here, preferring to keep things light and humorous as possible, but for seven years in the not too distant past, I was indeed a monk. I also came incredibly, frightfully close to becoming a Roman Catholic priest as well. In hindsight, I don't regret those years even though, in hindsight, I entered too quickly and with somewhat skewed, idealistic motives. I also remained longer than I should have, refusing to admit the fact that I was unhappy and disillusioned. (Which always happens when we rush into things -- lessoned learned). However, on the positive side, I learned so much about myself, completed a whole lot of graduate school which resulted in my current field of counseling.

Like I said, I've preferred to keep things as humorous as possible here (and in my life), so why can't life in the monastery be viewed that way as well?

I'm posting pics of the inside of the monastery chapel here. It was an incredibly beautiful place and was brand new when I entered in 1993. It was made of these incredibly huge limestone blocks but juxtaposed with the wooden ceiling being entirely outlined with glass, thus giving it a lightness amonst the huge stones. Additionally, the natural light gave it an ever-changing look throughout the day as you can see by the two photos. The place would look, feel, sound and smell entirely different every two hours which made the place seem magical. The blond wood also gave it a lightness that was awfully appealing. I don't think I would have joined this monastery had they not had this chapel.
Anyway, I'd like to present my daily schedule during the first year at the monastery. It's called the "Novitiate". It's a year when you're allowed very little contact with the outside world. Only one phone call and one letter to your parents per month is allowed, you're not allowed to leave the monastery except for medical appointments. I referred to it as "monk boot-camp" which is pretty accurate, except for the fact that the military novitiate is infinitely less strenuous.

Twenty years ago, Novices had to keep their heads shaved but that'd been relaxed. I got to go to a nearby barber who turned out to be a cool high school jock buddy that I hadn't seen in twenty years. He cut my hair whilst in the monastery.

Daily Schedule:

5:30 am: Buzzer goes off in the hallway. Time to rise. Shower, shave, put on habit. (I was often asked what we wore under our habits. For me, it was simply black Levi 501's and a white undershirt)

6:00 am: Morning Prayer (Lauds). This consisted of singing hymn in Gregorian chant, chanting Psalms, plus listening to two readings by various saints. We always sat in the same place in the "monks' stalls" which was according to seniority. There was this elderly monk behind me who refused to chant the Psalms in English even though this monastery had changed from the Latin fifteen years prior. Every day, he'd be behind me whispering the Latin to himself.

It caused me to want to slap him. Hard.

6:30 am: Mass. This mass was open to the public and I always enjoyed it. Since we did sing the mass parts in Latin, there were always a lot of "severe Catholics" in attendance. (Rick Santorum would have had an orgasm over it). I attended it for over a year before joining the monastery and it was always a very auspicious way to being the day, though I was never in danger of having an orgasm.

Since I was the youngest member, I had to be the "sacristan"; a glorified alter-boy, responsible for setting everything up for the Mass. I'm not the most detail-oriented person in the world and, inevitably, I'd forget something significant, for example, the ashes on Ash Wednesday. However, I'm also a musician who's used to covering up mistakes and improvising. I'd remember the ashes, scoot out the side door, slink in and plop the ashes on the altar just in time. Lots of drama and attention, which is a good thing in my book. I was always pretty proud of myself until the Abbot made it known that my abilities as a sacristan were not really something to be proud of. Whaaat?? Really??

7:00 am Breakfast. Eaten in silence, no talking. Most Cistercian monasteries are of the "Strict Observance" which observe silence 24/7. Our members were all teachers and professors, thus we were the "Common Observance" and we only observed silence from 10:00 pm until after breakfast. I'm not a morning person, so the fact that no one could talk to me during breakfast was actually a little slice of heaven. I always had a bowl of shredded wheat in hot milk, butter, with stewed prunes. As I said before, my constitution has never benefited from early risings.

7:15 am This was when I'd "make my rounds" to the infirmed and incapacitated brothers, for my past experience at caring for AIDS patients had come into use. I became the de-facto "infirmarian" and it was an incredible blessing in disguise. There were three bed-ridden elderly monks, two of whom were diagnosed with terminal cancer that I nursed each morning. It entailed getting them up, feeding and bathing and washing them. One incontinent fellow refused to wear adult diapers or let rubber sheets be placed on his bed (He was a previous Abbot). So, I'd help him to his bath and while he'd be splashing around, I'd change his soiled bedding and clothing and clean the puddled urine in his room without his knowledge. The other fellow was a hermit but had terminal lung cancer with incredible pain. He hadn't seldom spoken to anyone in over ten years. I'd bath him, clean him up and take him to radiation treatment every other day. He came to trust me. One day when we were driving back from his treatment, I told him how inadequate I felt compared to the others who had three PhD's and Master's of this-and-that... He replied, "Jonathan, you have so many talents that they only wished they had. You can't have everything!"

I just bawled after we got back. Here was this man who'd been a hermit, pretty much written off by everyone in the community, was dying, smelly and had been so nasty and caustic to me every morning, yet he supplied so much wisdom and beauty in my life during those few moments. Wow. That is Christianity!

9:00 am Classes. Intensive studies. Latin. Latin. Latin. Church History, Spirituality. Latin. Latin. Latin. My Latin teacher was this incredibly charming, elderlyHungarian monk, Fr. Placid, who was in his 80's but still loved teaching (and learning). He actually had taught fifteen languages. While in Hungary, he taught all the Slavic languages, Russian, Turkish, etc. In the monastery he taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. At the University he taught all the Romance languages. Fr. Placid loved teaching me Latin and I hated learning Latin. I love languages but how enthused can you get over learning a language that has no culture to embrace?

One day, we were learning the declarative verb forms such as "fac" for "do!" (as in to facilitate) I just wasn't getting it, and little Fr. Placid was slamming his hands on the desk, yelling, "Fac! Fac! Fac!" During then, I saw one of the other younger monks, Br. Paul, walk by while Fr. Placid was yelling his Latin explitives. Paul reared his head back, raised an eyebrow and began laughing. "Fac! Fac! Fac!" Paul knew what I was being impaled with.

Fr. Placid taught me well. I went on to study intermediate and advanced Latin. Once amonth, I'd drive him to his sister's house in Dallas where we'd spend the day. She showed me pics of them when they were in their 20's in Hungary -- the two of them looked like the most appealing models you'd ever seen, even in black-n-white. She showed me how to make Hungarian food for the rest of the Hungarian monks, we'd eat, laugh, and he'd tease me about my Latin. When Fr. Placid suddenly passed away at the age of 86, I was studying Russian and Latin poetry with him and he was studying a Hebrew dialect, Swedish and Urdu on his own. That's just how it should have been. . . .

. . . Selah

12:00 pm Daytime Prayers. Just 15 min of chanting and then we'd go single file into the refectory for lunch. Remember the monk behind me, continuing to whisper in Latin. Grrr! Grrr!

1:00 pm Ora et Labora - - Manual Labor and Prayer. For my manual labor, I was in charge of mowing and watering the monastery grounds. Not an easy job in Texas!. I remember tearing my lawn mower around some bushes and seeing something white explode within a big bush. Burrfff! Turns out, it was a huge nest of baby-bunnies that I'd annihilated with the lawn mower. Oh, it was horrible! There were baby bunny-guts and fur festooned completely across the plate-glass window of the prayer room that overlooked the monastic garden. I grabbed some Windex from the kitchen, a broom and a garden hose only to realize that the remnants contained bunny-heads and paws that kept sticking to the glass. The more I tried to clean the baby-bunny-bits from the 12-foot windows, the worse it got, for I just kept frantically smearing them higher and higher, hoping that no one was in the prayer room . . . .

5:00 pm Evening Prayers. More Chanting. We were all dressed in our habits and it was nice, relaxing repose at the end of the work day. The monk behind me would still be whispering the responses in Latin. Grrrr. Grrrr. God, will it ever end??

5:30 pm We'd single-file into the refectory (dining room) for dinner. During the first five minutes of dinner, the junior member (me) would read some inspirational text from a Saint while the others ate in silence. (Once, I was reading about an inspirational saint who punished himself by caring for the sick and "eating buckets of pus." I saw that phrase coming and improvised a completely different "authentic" text while the good brothers were eating) . The Abbot would ring a bell at the end of five minutes and I'd have to end, even if I was in the middle of a sentence. The next evening, it was my job to supply an introduction and begin where I'd previously left off.

We were allowed to have a beer with our dinner. We also sat in order of seniority, thus, we were always seated next to the same person during every meal, for the rest of your life. I was seated next to this guy who hogged huge portions of the entree for himself at every meal and left very little for the rest of us. This went on for three years, day after day. I brought this up to my Novice Master, Fr. Roch. Know what he said? "I'd like you to find a way to help Brother X enjoy his meal even more. That would take your mind away from your resentment."

Again, that's an incredibly useful lesson to apply to anyone we find obnoxious or afflictive. Very Effective. Very Christian.


6:00 pm Vespers (Evening Prayers) We'd chant the closing prayers according to each week day. (With the monk behind me whispering everying in Latin). Grrr. Grrr. At the end of the prayers, the junior member (me) would light the candles surrounding the Virgin Mary, the chapel lights would be shut off and we'd sing the Salve Regina in Latin by candlelight. On Feast Days, we'd sing the elaborate Cistercian Salve Regina which is, indeed, the epitome of Gregorian Chant. To this day, I cannot begin it without getting all teary-eyed. Not even the first few notes. . .

All the monks would walk out in single file. I'd remain behind to extinguish the candles. We'd meet for tea in the novice's classroom for about 20 minutes (except for the old monk who refused to chant in English - - he was so resentful of everything) and retire.

Fifteen minutes later, I'd go to the monastery exit in my shorts to meet my novice master, Fr. Roch, (age 65) and we'd do a three-mile-"how-are-you-doing" walk. It was those 3-mile every-evening power-walks-n-talks with Fr. Roch that quickly got my 6'3" self back into 32-waist Levi 501's to wear under my habit. By the end of my novitiate, I was one lean, mean, Christ-the-King, monk-machine. (Too bad I couldn't date!)

Mostly, I'd bitch about the guy behind me who'd continue to chant in Latin. Grrr. Grrrr.

5:30 am Copy and Paste the day above, three hundred sixty five times.



At 9:42 AM , Blogger Kyle said...

Hey, I really enjoyed this.

At 10:12 AM , Anonymous A said...

Thank you. I have often wondered what it must really be like, and if I could hack it....

Kinda hardcore. But very cool. Thanks again.

At 2:39 PM , Blogger Lorraine said...

There is something extremely beautiful to me about the cloistered life. I'd probably be able to handle about 24 hours of it, maybe more if the food was good, but it still has an appeal. I could smell the incense in this piece. Thanks for sharing it.

(I also think I'm going to appropriate the 3 minute post-tea power walk. Sounds like a good plan).

At 6:29 PM , Blogger Iwanski said...

Interesting glimpse.

Too much chanting for me, though.

At 5:47 PM , Blogger ackamaracus said...

Where was the monastery in question? Was it in some remote place, like the ones I know in the South of France (Silvacane, Le Thoronet and the other one down there that begins with 'T')? Very beautiful architecture, in beautiful countryside and I love the austerity of the Cistercians but I'm too rabidly heterosexual and faithless to make a career of it. God bless.


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