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Fr. David has just concluded the Penitential Rite of the mass and says: “Let us pray”. I watch Brother Joachim, turn, step out of his choir stall, and go to the credence table where he picks up the Roman Missal and begins making his way toward Fr. David standing at the center of the sanctuary.
“At times, he simply cannot stop laughing – like a well filled bladder that is pricked and squeezed.” St. Bernard is describing a monk he observed over nine hundred years ago. Every so often, this monk shows up again. Actually, this brother belongs to all monasteries of all times, and appears in all monks at one time or another, including me. Compulsive laughter – what does it mean? To laugh and be unable to stop – this is something hard to explain, even to ourselves.
I have butterflies in my stomach about our nations economy. At New Melleray Abbey, our economy is robust. That is because “Trappist Caskets”, our monastery industry, is doing well and because the cost of supporting a monk for one year is probably about what it costs a couple to support a twelve year old.
“Trappists” is a nickname. Actually, the name of our order is: the “Cistercians of the Strict Observance” - and some monks and nuns wish it were not. In the hearts of some of my brothers and sisters, this title awakens mixed feelings. I like the name. We are strict – but not like a teacher at school who scowls and berates you, and makes you miserable. Once we were strict in this way, and for some monks and nuns, it was sanctifying.
Imagine – I am a full grown man, invited to attend a Christmas concert at the Dubuque cathedral, and I have to ask another man's permission to go. Obedience, some say, is the most radical vow a monk takes – especially a monk who was raised a male in America. The concert was not a big event, and discernment of whether I would go or not, hardly a momentous question. Nothing “radical” here.
I have a memory of Father Joachim bent over the little gas tank of a lawnmower, one hand fumbling with a funnel, the other grappling with an unwieldy gasoline can, trying to get the fuel to go into the funnel, sweat running off his face, and muttering over and over: “Mercy, mercy, mercy . .
Today a voice reached me from the other side of the enclosure wall; a voice that is touching my heart and making me reflective. Fr. Edward, a Jesuit, lived with us for six months and then had to return to his province in order to fulfill a commitment to do several retreats. He really didn't want to leave.
The Epiphany of our Lord is a Solemnity and, on the Church's liturgical calendar, a Solemnity ranks higher than a Feast, but that doesn't mean the food the monks are served is any better. The food is the same. For lunch, on a Solemnity, ice cream is added. Whoopee. Seriously, the ice cream does lend a festive feeling to the day. For supper, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we had cheese.
I was having such a good day and then, shortly after lunch – realized with some embarrassment that I might have made a fool of myself in front of several people earlier in the morning.
“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean! The world has grown gray from your breath.” With these contemptuous words, (among the most contemptuous ever spoken to Jesus' face), the poet Swinburne vents his disgust with the weak man and with Jesus as the paradigm of the ineffectual male.