As part of my reflections on my vocational discernment process, I thought I’d go through my journal entries from my first visit as a prospective postulant to a monastery, just a bit over a year ago. I share it here because I believe it is not only useful for me to revisit these entries, but believe they may be of some value to others discerning their vocations. Having never visited a monastery before this, or really even knew any monks, I had only a general understanding of what to expect. I had been in touch with the community several months leading up to the visit.
Names, locations and other identifying markers have been changed to protect anonymity. They reflect my thinking at the time, in all it’s mixed up complexities. Please feel free to post any questions in the comments below.
I caught the 10am train out of the city and headed north towards the monastery where I will be staying for the next several days. Said a prayer that God’s plan for me be revealed. The vocations director sent a cryptic response to my inquiry of who would meet me at the train station – saying he would make himself known to me when I arrived. How biblical. How prophetic. The monastery is at least half an hour by car from the station, and being a planner I was a bit worried.
And then there was Paul. He had a cardboard sign with my name on it at the ticketing terminal when I left the main platform. Paul is the husband of one of the employees of the school run by the community. I am not sure what he does for a living but get the impression he does odd jobs for the monastery at least part of the time – rides for guests, clearing trees, taking sick students to the doctor.
On the somewhat long drive to the monastery, he regaled me with tales of growing up in Berlin in the 1960s, living with his father who was stationed there to do surveillance on the east. Clearly politically conservative and also friendly, we had some interesting conversations about education, war, fiscal responsibility in government, racism, etc. Arriving on campus, he gave me a quick driving tour around the community by car.
Dropping me off in the main courtyard, Paul introduced me to Fr. Dominic who happened to be walking by coming out of the dining hall with a cup of coffee. Leaving Paul behind, he took me into the monastery enclosure and showed me my room where I’d be staying on the second floor. There are several guest rooms mixed among the rooms of the monks themselves, and mine had my name on the door. It’s not a terribly big community – indeed, it never seems to have been. At the most, I expect the monastery enclosure could hold 25-30 monks. It currently holds considerably less.
The room is larger than I expected, with a built-in closet and dresser, sink, desk, three chairs and a bed. The walls are decorated with icons and portraits of saints, and a few books line the shelves. Two of the books are about student life at Yale in the 1940s – likely belonging to one of the monks current or former. One of the books is, in fact, the Yale student handbook. There are bathrooms at the ends of each hall. One sink, two toilets, and two shower stalls. I’m trying to figure out how, during the course of the day, people manage to get cleaned up, particularly given their communal schedules. Does everyone take a shower before 5:45 matins?
I’m left alone in my room following my very brief introduction to the space. Father Dominic is in a hurry and seems slightly irritated nobody else is around to help. I’m eventually to meet Father Columba, the guestmaster, from whom I expect I will get more specific details of the what, where and when of things. I entered my rooms a bit after 1pm and the next item isn’t until vespers at 5:30. No internet, which is probably for the better. The sounds of a snoring monk filter down the hall, the occasional sound of a running faucet or toilet flush. I’m tempted to take a nap myself, but don’t want to mess up my sleep tonight given my early morning. Not to mention, I’m hoping Father Columba will come before then to instruct me on the plans for the evening.
A nap after all, waking in time to be greeted by Father Columba at 5pm. Brief salutations, and directions to the attached church sanctuary. En route, I meet John – the community’s only postulant – who I was told not to engage in conversation with as they are “working to disencumber him from his social norms.” His name is not John, but he is from Japan and apparently the other monks had difficulty pronouncing his name, so they call him John. He was so clearly happy to see me, and it’s hard to avoid him without being rude. He’s got whips of grey in his Korean features, leading me to believe he may be in his forties. At that age, he’d be the youngest in residence while still being at least 20 years my senior. He invited me to come to him with all my questions and reached out twice for hugs – signs of the difficult transition to the community? Lack of physical affection like a simple hug?
He directed me to a stall in the sanctuary where the brothers pray the divine office, a stall among the monks reserved for visitors to the monastery, as opposed to oblates and others from the nearby community. It must be buzzing around here during school time, but students will not be back to start their spring term till Tuesday.
The affable and warm Brother Claude, head of the novitiates, greeted me and took over from John in instructing me how to follow along in the book for Vespers, as the rubric makes like a choose-your-own-adventure story. Simple, yet complex. A paradox that seems distinctly Benedictine.
Then briefly to the calefactory where I talked a bit more with Brother Claude, thanking him for the reading suggestions I had requested before visiting. He explained supper, compline and the great silence.
He led me into the refectory and pointed to a table against the far wall, where a single table setting had been placed away from the other monks but, in the large rectangle formed by tables, faces directly across the abbot’s meager table where he also sits alone. The rest of monks sit at the tables along the side walls. Blessings are offered and one of the brothers begins the duty of reading – first from the Rule, then from a work of church history. I was invited to serve myself first from chaffing dishes in the center of the room. In honor of St Patrick’s Day, the menu is corned beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and what look like possibly fish. A basket of breads and butter, and a spanokopita triangle too. Place settings like Emily Post, with salad, dinner and dessert forks, knife and spoon. Glass and water pitcher. One monk is assigned cleaning duty and clears dishes as the meal progresses – eating his meal presumably at another time. The food is quite good. My stomach has been making extremely loud gurgling sounds since last night and came back in earnest this afternoon at arriving. Of course, gurgles whenever silence in meals or hours. I felt less bad after hearing one of the older brothers break wind.
After dinner I had coffee with the community in the calefactory – the evening “recreation” where Abbott Bede poured me a coffee, and I learned he grew up in my home state before heading east for school. I wanted to speak to him more, but was somehow whisked away by Father Columba (“who is at least 150” joked Brother Claude earlier). Father Columba was born in Oxford to American parents and retains much of his accent. Now in his late eighties, he was a student at the school as a child, became a monk and a priest, and then taught at the school for over fifty years. At one point he spoke rather candidly and unexpectedly about a few years he spent away from the monastery in the 1980s – spending time in a hospital for a “rather serious bout of depression” and then to Rome and Germany for a period. We spoke of education, Martin Sheen’s new film The Way, and of theatre – particularly Tennessee Williams, which is one of his and my favorites.
The discussion was interrupted by the gong that seems to always signal a transition in the activity of the day. The Abbot discussed prayers and intentions, community news and such. Intentions were then offered before heading back to the sanctuary for compline. All wonderful. Already seem to be getting the rhythm and tones of the chanting of the Psalms, and on Saturdays, some members stay behind and pray a decade or two to the Mary statue near the altar. A very old Benedictine tradition of ending the week, Brother Claude stated.
Now back in my room where I sit in the Great Silence. At 7:30pm it is dark out, but too early to retire – particularly after my afternoon nap. It’s a bit too cold and very dark to go for a walk, and I’m not terribly familiar with the grounds. Probably better to explore at least at first by daylight. So a bit of journaling, some reflection on the day, a bit of reading, and then bed for a sound sleep around 9:30.