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There is nothing quite like the horror of a tsunami to focus and intensify a monk's observance of Lent. The news from Japan reached us at New Melleray in the way that most major "breaking stories" do. I am standing in choir—three weeks ago. I've spent a peaceful day praying, reading, doing manual labor, relishing the gentle rhythm of a monastic day. My heart is grateful, maybe a little in awe of a certain serenity I feel performing my chores. The bell rings for Vespers, the evening prayer service, and my brothers and I sing a hymn followed by three psalms.
I knew a monk once who, every time he stood up at liturgy to read anything written by a Church Father about our Blessed Mother—he began to cry. The first time it happened, I was a novice, and it so surprised me, I wasn't sure for a few moments what to make of it. Poor man—it was really distressing watching a grown man come apart like that at the lectern in the center of the church with all the monks sitting pensively in the shadows, to see him finally lower his head, motionless for a moment, and then shuffle back to his choir stall. He had put himself through this ordeal more than once.
It's 5:05 in the afternoon on Tuesday, and I feel as if I were suspended—perched on the crest of this passing moment. I am vaguely aware that I am "wasting time". I am lying on my bed roll with my hands clasped behind my head, my eyes opening and closing at intervals, taking in the changing patterns of this afternoon's very active sky. My work at the carpenter shop is finished for the day, the official work period having ended thirty five minutes ago.
According to a very ancient monastic teaching, a monk should never be concerned for himself but think only of what would benefit his brother. That's easier said than done. I remember a story about a certain brother, earnestly aspiring to be a true monk according to this lofty ideal, who was munching away at the mid-day meal one day and to his horror discovered a dead mouse floating in his soup. Mindful that a true monk takes no thought what so ever for his own good but thinks always and everywhere only of what is best for his brother—he was at a loss what to do. Oh my.
O.k.—this is one of those moments when a monk needs to really pay attention to what another person is saying. Our Brother James is twenty nine, he is one of the more promising and fervent candidates to monastic life I've seen in a while, and he has chosen this afternoon to confide in me a crucial moment in his journey from belonging to no Christian church in particular to passionately embracing membership in the Catholic church. So—here goes. James is fifteen years old and he's reading a fantasy novel.
Our Bro. Placido, a Junior monk, was a practicing lawyer in Chicago before entering New Melleray Abbey in 2007, and studied Constitutional Law with Barack Obama at the University of Chicago in 2000. He is very intelligent and, immersed now in the study of philosophy, is impressing his teachers at St. John's Seminary in Collegeville. As a practicing lawyer, Placido ministered to orphans and used his legal expertise to find them happy and secure foster homes. He was good at what he did, combining legal skills with an intuitive insight into people's hidden motivations.
If you're going to interpret the Rule of St. Benedict strictly, Bro. Edward shouldn't be telling me this story at all. Though a monk may need to leave the monastery from time to time to take care of some necessity, St. Benedict insisted that, when he returns, he shouldn't speak to his brothers about the interesting experiences he had in town which could cause their thoughts to stray. I guess you could say, in this conversation Edward is breaking the rules.