Thursday, July 21, 2011

Entering Monastic Life (Sort of)

Brother Barnabas asked me why I was here. I answered that I was searching for my direction and my vocation, where I belonged and where I was being called. The vague notion of becoming a nun entered my imagination, it always did whenever I was in the presence of a priest. No matter where I was in life, my fascination for living in community with likeminded sisters who were devoted to a noble cause, namely the service of God, never waned.

Brother Barnabas was surprisingly frank about his life. Evidently, he had hurt those closest to him so that now his children no longer speak to him. He became a monk in the spirit of redemption. What is about strangers that allow us to confide in them our deepest failings and our most regrettable mistakes? I wondered if my own father seeks out innocent youngsters to tell his lamentable story.

By the time I arrived at the monastery, dinner was over so I served myself. Believe it or not, priests eat extraordinarily well. Every meal I enjoyed at the monastery was exceedingly well-catered, from tender chickens to pot roasts to succulent lamb to savory tilapia. The luscious rum-laced fruitcake, specialty of the bakery, was served at every other meal and I must have gained a few pounds from that mouthwatering cake alone.

There was a volunteer, Michael, who spoke so speedily and covered such a multitude of words in a single breath that I wondered what he was doing at a silent retreat house. He told me how the Trappist monks had prayers and sang psalms around the clock. Such was the typical schedule:


3:15 am Vigils
5:45 am Lauds
6:15 am Eucharist
7:30 am Terce
12:15 pm Sext
2:15 pm None
5:30pm Vespers
7:00pm Rosary
7:30pm Compline

I dragged myself through the darkness once to attend Vigils and saw the sun rise before Lauds another time. The aura of holiness, the flickering candlelight, and the chanting, an anomaly how the baritones of old men could utter sounds so beautifully. Even if I was not inclined to prayer, it was impossible to keep from praying here. It was effortless, as if the entire congregation was already praying for you and you just happened to join in. Your voice melds with one collectively exquisite voice as if you were part of that universe, such an intimate universe in that enigmatic and sacred hour.

Back to that first night. I entered my room with cinderblock walls and proceeded to continue reading the third installment of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, an amalgam of modern-day New York teenage wry humor and ancient Greek deities who spawned offspring with humans as a recreational activity, thus creating many demigods. It was in the vein of the Harry Potter series: creative, addictive, but uniquely American.

I was prepared to deal with the silence with quite a bit of amusement, albeit of a bookish kind. Of course, cell phone reception here was abysmal.

Despite the books, I had a long, painful, and sleepless night. I cried a lot. I encountered my demons. I was stubborn. I was inflexible. I was judgmental. And I was not entirely blameless in my past troubles. In the silence is the beginning of learning to truly see yourself as you are, not as you would like to be. And when you begin to hold that mirror up to yourself, there are some very visible flaws, peculiar ugliness that you would rather not be aware of.

Is this the dark night of the soul?

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