Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To Write a Book About a Time When...

I talk--and write--a great deal about a time in my life not long ago (but long enough) when I lived in a Trappist monastery as a postulant, i.e. someone desiring to enter the community as a monastic brother, a monk. A friend who knows me well and followed my monastic odyssey by email popped a question today on, of course, email. Why not write a book about the experience? An audience exists, I have things to say about that time, some clear, some funny. It could have some importance as a project. Sufficient distance might present an issue, but think about it. So went her gist.

Think about it. I actually started thinking about it while still a postulant. The monk who served as both Vocation Director and Associate Novice Master (now Novice Master) had hinted even in the discernment process before I entered that he had uses in mind for my writing, though if the Abbot shared those inclinations he never let on to me. I had received his permission for a photography project and that suited me fine. Writing, however, would have engaged a better-developed side of me. And the Vocation Director had dangled in front of me the idea of the Order's need for a new voice like that of Thomas Merton--the one Trappist monk whose name people might know if they otherwise know none. The same Merton, as the Vocation Director at Mepkin's mother house had emailed me, who had something to do with everyone's entering, and whom one needed to get over quickly upon entering. A heady precedent for one entering a Trappist house, probably too heady for one with an ego the size of mine.

Out, Merton continues to lurk, but less relevantly and certainly less stiflingly. A writer such as Kathleen Norris writes knowingly about the monastery from the outside--several of us, when I was an "us," used to say she "gets it"-- and so in one sense becomes the voice that echoes on one's computer screen. But not really. Kathleen, a Protestant and occasional preacher, writes as a gifted and trusted observer, given insights by monks she has gotten to know over the years and by her own experience of the monastic rhythm--as a visitor. Never having contemplated putting your heart and mind in the hand of an abbot for life changes everything.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories from my monastic year. In the novitiate one day my brother postulant, a native of Peru immersed in its very traditional pre-Vatican II liturgical practices, asked for the umpteenth time squared, or so a couple of us thought, why "the Church Fathers" chose to abolish the 400 year-old liturgies of the Council of Trent. A former teacher myself, I complimented the Vocation Director after class on his juggling of three very different personalities. He smiled with a little mischief. "Oh, you mean that [one of you] wants to turn the clock back to 1955, and [another] has his eyes glaze over every time I mention that we had a Church before Vatican II?" He chuckled. "So that puts me in the middle," I offered, thinking of my difference in perspective as someone who, as a child, lived through the transition from Latin to English. As we came to the part of the monastery where we needed to observe silence, he chortled. "No, no, no, no, no. You've already drafted the constitutions for Vatican III."

Translation: I am not Merton; I didn't stay. I'm not Kathleen Norris; I'm a Catholic, and I entered. Then I left. She feels the safety of refuge at the Benedictine and Trappist houses of the upper Midwest, and even Mepkin, where she has visited, though not during my time. I long for Mepkin the place, the community, but find going there akin to walking through a minefield.

My last time there, my first since leaving, I felt for two days like a skater on a deep lake in which one has scuba-dived. The ice cracked the third day and I felt there again. Long enough to start bawling after the Kiss of Peace during Mass, administered as something just shy of a hug from my right by an older monk I adore and deeply love, one with whom I sang--both baritones, we were the "sopranos" in the small choir, which we found very amusing--and silently horsed around in pantomime every day cleaning dishes in the kitchen after the midday meal, the main one. I thought I saw a tear in his dry eye as he turned; I may have fooled myself. Half a turn later and my face was tear-streaked, to the inscrutable notice of another of the older monks, one with whom I'd had less contact, loved as a brother, admired as a practitioner of rigorous discipline, liked as an acerbic wit. Not one who had taken me under a short, rugged but gentle wing.

I write about monastic life as a third voice, and hopefully not a third wheel. One for whom joy and love mingle with pain and confusion. My story won't sound like either Merton's or Norris'. Granted, Merton's later journals grow increasingly troubled; forget about the speculation surrounding the trip at the heart of The Asian Journals. He died, in Bangkok, a Trappist of Gethsemani. I will almost certainly not die a Trappist. I can, however, tell a story of a soul and psyche torn between competing loves of the mind and heart, one who can translate for those who can't imagine it and for those who have tasted some of it what it means to live as a monk. For awhile, at least.

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