This column was originally published in 2001.
ASSUMPTION ABBEY — Saturday, 3:45 p.m. I made the slow drive over to the monastery yesterday afternoon.
It was an interesting journey through the Ozarks. At a gas station in Albatross, Missouri, a white-haired woman, her voice full of sexual vibrato, asked me – as her senior friend giggled – if the bald spot on the back of my head was from rubbing the headboard?
At the combination Subway and Conoco in Seymour, Missouri, I was given a free cassette by a local preacher named Brother Kelly. I put it in and listened to him preach about Nabal from the Bible and his being “churlish.” He was bright and funny ... at least until he launched into shaming everyone from Billy Graham to the Pope for not fully embracing Jesus Christ as their savior.
I turned Brother Kelly’s moralizing off and drove silently the last winding miles to the monastery through a comforting shroud of thick fog.
I discovered today that I’d arrived, quite serendipitously, at a momentous time. It’s the 45th anniversary of my friend Father Ted’s solemn vows of monkdom – as well as election day for a new abbot.
Dom Brendan, the abbot of New Mellary (Assumption Abbey’s mother house in Iowa) is here for the vote. Also, today is the Feast of The Immaculate Conception. Father Brendan said Mass and gave a simple homily in which he talked about the difficulty of putting Christ’s words into practice as well as Mary being born already connected to the “eternal source.”
As we walked the guesthouse hall back to my room, I asked Ted, “How’s your vessel holding up?”
“My body’s not a problem,” he said with a laugh and a shrug, “but I sure get frustrated that my mind doesn’t work like it used to.
I have a wonderful clock in my room. It stops altogether ... jumps two hours ahead ... flashes ... then jumps an hour back. Fitting for a retreat when the object is to step out of the agitated time consciousness of daily life and invite the eternal spiritual consciousness of what the monks call “the great silence.”
After Saturday Mass, I walked to the end of Highway 00 — past the yellow and black PAVEMENTS ENDS sign — and down the dirt road to where Bryant’s Creek rushes through galvanized tubes under the low-water bridge and flows over a concrete shelf to swirl in a clear pool. Listening to the rushing stream, I thought of a haiku:
past double zero
where the highway pavement ends
voice of God begins
On my slow walk back up to the guesthouse, the silence was broken only by an occasional crow’s call and the swoooosh of the wind high in the pines. Thought of a Bible quote from Sirach: “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man’s faults when he speaks.” Vowed to keep my mouth shut more.
Also in the guesthouse is Sister Judith Ayers, a clear-eyed, solitary Franciscan nun. Comes here twice a year. Lives the rest of the time in a hermitage outside Eureka Springs, Ark. An artist, she supports herself selling ornaments, jewelry and crosses adorned with flowers she carves from basswood. (I bought a small cross with a poinsettia to use as a Christmas ornament.) She’s also been helping out with the fruitcakes. Greeted me when I told her I was from Pittsburg with, “Oh, you’re going to pick up Mary Senecaut’s fruitcakes.”
Other retreatants in the guesthouse include: Pat and Claudia, a husband and wife about the same age as me from Columbia, Missouri, with whom I talk about the rigors of raising a family; Sister Lorraine, a nun who runs “The Kitchen” (a homeless shelter, food pantry, counseling center and more) in Springfield, Missouri; and Michael, a young man from Washington state with what appears to be most all of his belongings packed in the bed of his Toyota pickup covered by a blue tarpaulin — the rest crammed up front in the passenger seat. He’s considering monkdom as a vocation here. Also considering Gethsemane in Kentucky, where the famous Father Louie, also known as Thomas Merton, lived and wrote everything from theological essays to poetry to biographies to a collection of his journal writings titled Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
At lunch, Father Mark, who’d just been elected the new abbot, came into the dining room bearing a pizza heavily laden with mozzarella. He warmly greeted the retreatants as Father Ted laid out rest of the repast: beef, peas, rice, green beans with red peppers and blueberry muffin cake. Afterward, I retired to my room where I napped and read the rest of the afternoon.
5:15 p.m. False alarm. The retreatants gathered for the installation of Father Mark as the new abbot, but Father Ted came into the half-light of the chapel and announced it would take place in the cloister. I had just returned from a twilight walk along the cemetery and through the pines. While I was taking a picture of the Mary statue out front of the abbey, Father Paul drove up in an old station wagon, hopped out and wryly observed, “If you smile at her, she’ll talk to you.”
Back in my room, I read and reflected on the words of Dom Thomas Davis, abbot of the Vino, Calif., monastery: “I think the person who’s life seems to be wasted, if there’s the basic desire for good influences, and the formation of conscience and behavior — regardless of how big or small it might be — I think that will carry the day through.” This brought solace, then sleep.
4:30 a.m. Sunday. I awoke with a sliver of moonlight angling through the window into my eyes. Stars were splashed low in the December sky. Lying on my bed, looking out through the window at the moon and low stars, I became a boy again.
After Mass, I gathered my books, bags, camera and fruitcakes, said my goodbyes, and headed back up Highway 00 through the sloughs and switchbacks toward home.
On the long drive, I reflected on the tender scene I had witnessed at every chapel gathering for Mass, prayers, chants and songs. Because of the aftermath of his brain cancer surgery, Father Richard, longtime abbey cantor, is prone to making false starts, so either Father Ted or Father Mark sat next to him. Richard would blow a single note into a harmonica to get the key, hum enough bars to get the nod that he had it, then proceed. If he got off key or lost the melody, Ted or Mark gently joined him, led him back, and the chant or song continued.
This image, of Ted, Mark, Richard, and their loving brotherhood, stayed with me the whole way home and throughout the week.
If you’d like to read more columns like this one, you can do so in my book “Where The Pavement Ends: Retreats at Assumption Abbey and other Contemplative Journeys”, which is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you buy it, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for an errata (printing errors) bookmark.