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A woman in a not too stylish overcoat, feeling her years, is making her way tentatively down an icy stair. A man on the landing, nicely dressed, with curious detachment watches her, offers no assistance, and having let her pass, lifts one foot, plants it very deliberately on her backside, and gives her a shove. Grimacing, the woman loses her footing for a moment, slips – and immediately catches herself.
Walking to the carpenter shop this morning amidst record high temperatures, I savored the quiet and stillness and then, fifteen minutes after walking in the door, had four different conversations with workers about Christmas with their families. Actually, for a Trappist, since we don't work on Christmas day or the day afterward, and so don't have contact with the workers, we actually talk less during the Christmas holiday. The day of the Lord's birth is an especially quiet day for us.
It is moments after midnight. Christmas day has begun. I have just sung the solemn proclamation of the birth of Christ from the lecturn in the center of church with about one hundred fifty guests and monks sitting in the half-lit church.
Entering a dark basement corridor, on my way to the liturgy office, I see the door at the end of the corridor shut tight with light escaping beneath the door and with the light, there steals into the corridor a lovely and most unexpected sound – a rapid, finely executed arpeggio on a guitar. That's Bach. It's not a recording, (there is no DVD player in that room!) . . . what am I listening to?
“I'm taking over the discussion. That's what I'm doing now.” Brother Giles appears agitated and has no intention of being interrupted. A group of about nine of us monks are meeting to discuss the election of a new abbot in about eighteen months. Brother Giles is one of the “ancients” of New Melleray Abbey, a holy monk - and a man with a past. At the moment, he is very intent that he be heard.
Talking with our lay-worker Denny at the carpenter shop, I was reminded that the nations economy is limping toward Christmas – a sad spectacle. Millions will awake on Christmas morning fraught with worry about finances and their children's future. Amidst these challenges, faith bids us enter into the celebration of Advent with joyful expectation. I saw an odd thing today, an image that suggests to me, all this suffering might hasten Jesus' coming. The “Hog House”, a two story building behind the monastery, built sixty or seventy years ago, is about to fall over.
“The ascetical life – heck, that's just a matter of adjusting to an austere regimen. The truth is, each one of us carries inside him a secret wound sustained over the course of living for many years in the monastery. That is not something most of us talk about. The point is not that we have suffered, but that we chose to stay. We chose to be faithful to a promise made to Jesus.” Father Simon and I are having a conversation unlike any we've had before.
Fr. Daniel is 104 years old, uses a motorized wheelchair, and seems to like it well enough. Actually, at age 104, having persevered in the monastery more than 60 years, I think we should be carrying the man around on our shoulders. Yesterday, I heard a young monk share with me a fervent desire to do just that. And he was serious. Brother James and I were putting frames together for casket lids at the carpenter shop.
Brother Alanus is reading the psalm at the first nocturn of Vigils when, a little astonished, I hear him say the words: “Let the violent – keep me safe.” He stops. A few heads turn in choir. He looks at the page intently for a moment and then reads the line again: “From – the violent keep me safe.” . . . and continues with the reading. The expression would mean nothing to most of the monks, but I wonder if what we just heard was a “Freudian slip”. I'm not poking fun at Alanus. Actually, I'm thinking about myself.
At 3:30 in the morning, I'm standing in the sacristy preparing the Vigil reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that I just picked out of the library. As I read, my mind warms to the mystery as if I were gazing at a holy icon of Mary – when suddenly a dart sails through the air and sticks in the middle of her forehead. Whoah – what did I just read: “Mary's singular grace and privilege was easier to understand when it was the common opinion of theologians that original sin was a stain on the soul of every human being from the moment of conception . .