Benedictine monks pride themselves on hospitality, take vows of silence, and see no tension between these two. On my first morning at the monastery, a construction worker gave me directions to the dining hall and added a strangely sarcastic, “Enjoy!”
At breakfast, guests are expected to stand behind their chairs until the monks have been served. This is difficult to communicate without speaking.
“I do not often kneel when I pray, but it would lead me to a greater sense of humility. I do not keep a crucifix in every room, but it would help me think about God’s suffering. I do not cross myself a dozen times a day, but I need ways to remember God’s presence.”
I took more food than anyone else – a piece of toast, a black banana and a bowl of indistinguishable cereal. Eating at a crowded table without speaking can be creepy. We tend to avoid eye contact when we are not talking, so we stared at our food. I sneezed and felt guilty. No one said, “God bless you.”
I confess that I skipped Matins, the 6 a.m. service, but made it to Mass, Sext, Vespers, and Compline – services that take place when normal people are awake. I found praying the hours confusing. Working out of one worship book would have been helpful. The ribbons were not in the right places in Monastic Antiphonary. I would have gladly paid extra for an order of worship.
Following the monk next to you is not as easy as you might think. They have the order memorized. The passing of the peace was a few unenthusiastic nods. Chanting can get old. I have mixed feelings about kissing the Bible.
I tried not to stick out, but I failed. I still don’t know the Nicene Creed. They changed one of the lines that Protestants knew. “The Lord be with you” “and also with you” is now “and with your Spirit.” They clearly changed this response to confuse Protestants. I mistakenly said the last verse of the Lord’s Prayer – the one every Catholic knows does not belong. During confession I forgot to thump my chest at “through my fault.” If there had been a genuflecting class, I would have flunked. At one point the monk next to me scratched his head, so I scratched mine.
Whenever I cracked the code I was delighted. I learned that at the Gospel reading, monks sign the cross on their forehead, mouth and chest to ask God to be present in their minds, lips and hearts.
I tried to do what the monks did, but I was acting like a monk. They are monks. Since the sixth century Benedictines have promised to “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” Monks do not care much about how they look, though their black robes are stylish – especially the hoods. I envy the way they sprinkle water as a reminder of our baptisms, swing incense as a call to prayer and wear hats in worship — though maybe not a miter.
“We need to admire those who live with a different understanding of success. I am jealous of their simplicity, though I am not yet ready to get rid of my stuff.”
I do not often kneel when I pray, but it would lead me to a greater sense of humility. I do not keep a crucifix in every room, but it would help me think about God’s suffering. I do not cross myself a dozen times a day, but I need ways to remember God’s presence.
The monks are following Christ and ignoring culture. We need to admire those who live with a different understanding of success. I am jealous of their simplicity, though I am not yet ready to get rid of my stuff.
My last meal with the brothers was lunch, the one time we were allowed to talk. The monks complained about monasteries that don’t take silence seriously enough and allow conversation at two meals a day, “C’mon man, it’s a monastery!” The Benedictines poked fun at other orders, “You know how those Dominicans are.”
A parish priest, who was also a guest, said, “I don’t want to go back to my church. The silence here is so wonderful and my congregation is so noisy.”
Silence is a gift, but so is a noisy congregation. Two days in a monastery is a gift, but so is realizing that you belong somewhere else.