The following is an excerpt from the second chapter of Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks by Jon M. Sweeney.
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There is something reassuring about the thick stone walls of a monastery. The physical sturdiness of the place reinforces the ancient practices and teachings that you encounter inside. To sit in an abbey church and pray along with the brothers, or to listen to a chapter talk, is to do something Christians have done since the first hermits began to gather in communities outside the major city centers of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. A man in Alexandria, Jerusalem, or Antioch must have grown tired of his day job and responsibilities; he must have wondered how to deepen his spiritual life beyond sitting in church once a week. And so he rode. He rode a camel out to where the monks had set up their communities.
That’s what I do now: I ride my metaphorical camel to see the men in the monastery from time to time. These men live their lives in out-of-the-way places. You would never meet them unless you set out to find them—and I’ve been blessed by finding them. They live in stone houses at the end of long roads, and my camel journeys are always rewarding.
Monks prefer anonymity and live by it in subtle ways. When I once tried to draw a Trappist acquaintance out to talk, he replied he was a simple monk without desire for notice of any kind. He told me that, at seventy-some years old and suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he would be dead soon, and he had instructed his brothers at the abbey to bury him as quietly as possible without any notice whatever. “Lay brothers tend to be very reserved and shun publicity. For thirteen years I lived somewhat as a hermit on the property. There is even a note in my personnel file requesting a simple Latin/English death notice rather than one with a picture and a ‘blurb,'” he wrote me in a letter. That was four years ago; he’s gone now.
On the other hand, I have met many monks who love to talk. You’d never know that some of them once lived by rules of silence in and around the abbey. Known for their faithfulness to the letter of the Rule of St. Benedict, Trappists were once religious about silence. St. Benedict wrote: “If we should sometimes for the sake of the virtue of silence refrain even from good conversation, we should all the more, for fear of the penalty of sin, refrain from evil words.” Up until the 1960s, silence was not so much the environment as it was the rule in a Cistercian abbey. Those rules vanished along with a bunch of others at the time of the Second Vatican Council.
Many monks are so full of life that conversation seems, at times, to burst out when they know that the person before them is anxious to listen. I’m all ears when I’m with them, and they know it.
Father Luke of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts is one of the most endearing monks I have known. He and I forged a strong bond over the years. He’s a short man with a lot of energy. In the hood of his cowl, his neck almost disappears, making him look cozy. Luke is always seeing the lighter side of the more serious rules in the monastery. About Trappist silence, he once told me the following story: “As a young monk, I was always messing around in the refectory, the infirmary, even sometimes, I’m sorry to admit, in church. We used to accuse each other of our sins, you know. It was a serious affair, or at least was always intended to be serious. I was often accused of making useless hand signs. I would actually cultivate this sin because it made the other men laugh. Not talking became an opportunity for lightheartedness. My favorite memory of frivolous signs was the one that I once made urgently to the priest who was celebrating at the altar, ‘There’s not enough wine!’ I signed to him during the Mass. I was kidding, of course—well, in retrospect, perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea!” And Luke let out a laugh.
Father Luke talks about his faults and past sins with a certain ease that I don’t often find in other people. Somewhere in one of his novels, Graham Greene says that murderers are probably the most loquacious of people. You could say that only great sinners have a lot to say about what they’ve done wrong, but I don’t think that’s quite it with monks. They talk a lot about their sins not because they have sinned more than the average person—I’ve found very few monks with excited pre-conversion stories—but rather because they know what sin is. Without the din of the world, they are more sensitive. With hourly prayers and liturgy, a monk’s life easily fits into God’s narrative. They feel sin, or experience it, more thoroughly, and then they experience God’s forgiveness more keenly too.