PART THREE (the conclusion)
A man stands talking to the monk, but as soon as he leaves, I make a beeline for the desk. I have planned my opening line. One of the bookstore shelves had a small card on it, printed with the endorsement: “Brother Martin’s Favorites – ask him why!”
“Are you Brother Martin?” I ask.
I don’t think he is, of course – the monks take turns manning the desk, so I have about a one in twenty-five chance – but it’s the best icebreaker I can think up.
To my surprise, he smiles and nods his head. “I am.”
Here we go.
We chat for a minute about a couple of his favorite books, the titles I’d written down in my notebook. I am unsure how personal to make my questions – I don’t want it to feel like I’m grilling him – but Brother Martin seems comfortable chatting, and our conversation unfolds easily.
Brother Martin has been a monk for 55 years. He is Latino, and speaks with the faintest of accents. He is hunch-backed and wears a hearing aide and walks with a limp. He is 83, or 84, he doesn’t really remember – at a certain point, you stop keeping track. His face looks twenty years younger.
His speech patterns are halting, so I really have to pay attention to catch everything he says. He wants to communicate, but sometimes he gropes around for the words. Although he is plainspoken, he is no simpleton; most of the books on his “favorites” shelf were written by intellectuals, including the classic Finding God at Harvard.
He finds out I’m Protestant, and reminisces about visits he’s made to “charismatic” churches, how much he benefited from the unique experience he had there. I tell him I have experienced the same thing, in reverse, in his services. We agree that there is value in every Christian’s approach to worship, and their relationship with God; that we all get parts of it wrong; that we’re all trying really hard. I tell him about my family, about why I have come here to rest.
We talk about how hard it is to hear God’s voice, “out there,” where I live.
“Not everyone is called to this life,” he says, gesturing at the monastery.
“But aren’t we all called to a life of contemplation?” I ask. He starts nodding in agreement before I even finish the question.
Neither of us seems to have the answer, as to how to beat back all the noise and stress of the outside world without completely leaving that world behind.
He tells me how important it is to communicate with other believers, to share with one another the individual truths we all glean from the same Scriptures. He says the charismatic church (as he puts it) has been better about that; that the Catholic church is trying to catch up.
“When I go to AA meetings…you know, those are all about God. The twelve steps, do you know them? Well, they begin by saying that we cannot help ourselves. You know, if Jesus was here, he’d be a 12-step guy. He’d be about helping others with their struggles, living right there with them.”
By the second time he mentions AA, I ask him to clarify: he goes to AA meetings? He nods. I ask if he is a sponsor.
“No,” he says. “I’m an alcoholic. But I’ve been sober…um…15 years now.”
A drunk monk? This weekend is turning all my preconceptions on their heads.
Brother Martin mentions World War II. I ask about it, so he tells me he was in the front lines of the infantry, in the Philippines, and then spent time in occupied Japan after the bombs were dropped. He talks about spending the nights in foxholes, being awakened every four hours for a two-hour watch. When I ask how old he was, he says simply, “Nineteen.”
We both seem to harbor doubts about the places we each must live. I fear that the frenzy of my life obscures the essence of it, drowns out the only still, small voice that matters. He seems to wonder, at times, if a life of contemplation is self-indulgent, in a world where there is so much need. “People ask me sometimes, ‘What are you producing?’” he says.
“Let me tell you a story, Cathy,” he says. And here is his story, as accurately as I remember it.
“Sometimes it’s hard, even in here, to feel a connection to God. Sometimes all the routines, the rituals…well, sometimes I forget that I can talk to God, that we all can, just like you and I are sitting here talking.
“I make lunch on Wednesdays. I’ve got bad knees – you know, when you’re an addict, you’re an addict with everything. You eat too much food, you play too many sports. So my knees are bad, from jumping around with the basketball for too many years. So I’m making lunch, in the kitchen, and my knees start hurting really bad. And Brother John – he’s in charge of the work here – I told him that if they got too bad, maybe I’d call the Abbey and have them send someone else to make the food.
“So I’m in the kitchen, making burritos, and I thought, well, why don’t I just ask God to help me? I’m a monk for 55 years, I live in an Abbey; sometimes I forget to ask for God’s help. So I pray, God, please help me make this food. And I’m not trying to sound strange, but…all of a sudden, it’s like the burritos are making themselves. My hands are moving and it’s so easy, like an angel is helping me…well, I had a story to tell that night! I told everyone how God helped me make those burritos.
“So the next Wednesday…same thing. For three weeks in a row, it’s like God is helping me in that kitchen. My knees aren’t hurting that bad, everything’s coming out great. I’ve got a great story to tell.
“Then, on the fourth week, I’m making tomato soup. And I don’t know what happened, but I used two big cans of tomatoes, and then I didn’t have enough milk to make it nice and creamy. So I didn’t know what to do – it’s not coming out right. So I go and get some powdered milk, and I mixed that in, and then it just…it’s not right, you know? It’s all…” he gestures with his hands, indicating a lumpy soup, a texture that’s unappealing. “The burritos turned out great, but the soup…ugh.
“So now I’m thinking, God, why didn’t you help me? And I’m discouraged. And I don’t want to tell people my story anymore. I didn’t tell anybody about what happened with that soup. And at 6:00 – I always take a hot bath at 6:00, to soak my knees – I’m lying there in the tub, and I say, out loud, ‘God, why didn’t you help me with the food, like before?’ And then I put my hands over my mouth, like this,” (he claps both hands over his mouth) “and I told myself, You don’t do that. You don’t question God.
“So the next day, I’m pushing a cart in the infirmary, and Brother Michael – he’s about 95 – he pokes his head out, and I think he’s gonna ask me about sports scores or something, but he says, ‘Hey, Marty, you know that soup you made yesterday?’ And then he comes out of his room, and says to me, ‘That soup…that was the best soup we’ve ever had!’”
Brother Martin sits back in his chair, eyes aglow, grinning and clapping his hands softly as he remembers the delight of that small, special moment.
“So, you know,” he says, “God is always helping us. We’ve just gotta remember that.”
“Listen,“ he says, as he leans forward and looks at me more intently than he has during our entire conversation. I pay attention. “Always make time to nourish your faith, Cathy,” he says.
After a pause, he continues. “I look at parents, sometimes, and I’m just in awe. That’s a miracle, too. Teach your boys – tell them that God loves them. We forget that God loves us; we think he’s up there with a big stick, waiting to hit us.” He looks out the window and gestures at the grounds. “Take your boys out into nature, and let them sit there under a tree. Let them look at the leaves and feel the sun on their skin, and see that God made all of that. And He made us, too, and He knows how weak we are. He loves us and wants to help us. We’ve just got to ask Him. Just talk to him, like we’re talking now.”
Brother Martin hands me two things before I leave: a CD that he wants me to listen to, and two photocopied pages of an article about a “silent retreat center” called Kairos, which is run by a Sister Florence Leone. Here is how she explains the center’s name – and her words are a perfect example of what I am experiencing here at the Abbey, this weekend:
To understand Kairos it might be helpful to understand chronos, chronological time. That is clocks, deadlines, calendars, agendas, planners, beepers. Chronos keeps track of our lives and it’s the world’s time. Chronos is running the Marine Corps Marathon in heels.
Kairos is a Greek word that has many interpretations but they all come around to the essential meaning of transcendence, joy, love, the sacred of our lives. Instead of world time, it’s spirit time. We’ve all had it, for example, in gardening, lost in a sunset, lost in a good piece of classical music, viewing the birth of a new baby, being at prayer or meditation. Time has passed and we’ve been unaware.
Kairos is living the present moment with full attention and awareness to whatever we are doing. There is no need to rush through it, but simply to be.
I spend the remainder of the day reading, as my husband intended, and writing a little. When the bells chime, I go to chapel and worship with the monks. I listen to the rain fall again and I revel in the peace and I know I will leave here without regret, without a longing to stay. My boys and my husband wait for me, and they make up three-quarters of my heart, and they are my mission field, for now. And my mission is clear.
I want to carry back to them some of the experiences I’ve had here, to recreate those experiences for them, even just a little. To create spaces, and quiet, so their souls can open up and breathe.
I want to give my family Kairos. And somehow, I want to bring it to my writing.
I will make time to nourish my faith, Brother Martin, and you – will you do something for me, too?
Pray for us sinners.