What the Monk Said

PART THREE (the conclusion)

(To start at the beginning of my monastery journey, you can read Part One, here. Part Two can be found here.)

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.


29 thoughts on “What the Monk Said

  1. okay, wow!!!! i laughed aloud at the drunk monk comment but then i find myself crying over the paragraph of your husband and children waiting for your return. sometimes we forget to embrace our lives, don’t we? sometimes it seems i am trying so hard to move passed something that i forget to just live in every moment God gives me and relish in all I can take away from it!
    beautiful writing – beautiful experience!

  2. It’s interesting to think about drunk monks going to AA meetings — but then we all have a story, don’t we. Thank you Cathy for sharing! I think I will try to make Kairos my new theme. To enjoy each moment fully while being in the midst of the noise of life. I’ve been able to do that at times in my life. I think it’s my goal to do it in all of life’s moments.

    • I understand that’s not uncommon in the Catholic church, or at least it wasn’t, 20-30 years ago.

      Yes, I have a new goal. It’s so important to allow yourself enough space for your soul to breathe.

      Thank you for your faithful support!

  3. Got to read this on a day where the Kronos is basically kicking the snot out of me — I’m very stressed over wordly junk today. The reminder to try and dwell in the Kairos and that the Kronos ultimately doesn’t matter is so very appropriate for the moment.

    Thanks for sharing….

    • and I do have something on the “drunk monk” issue…. Growing up Irish Catholic, I know there were a lot of priests that drank regularly, and to hear my Dad tell it, there were some pretty entertaining stories of the older generation of Irish priests.

      My Dad was not a guy for artwork, but he did have a favorite tapestry with a cartoonish picture of a couple of monks. The first monk had a sad look on his face and was carrying a banner that said “Drink is the Enemy!”. The 2nd monk walking behind him had a happy glow and was obviously tipsy while carrying a banner that said “Love Thine Enemy!”. That’s the Irish Catholic tradition that I think of when you mention your new dear friend, the formerly “drunk monk”.

      • So glad it spoke to you, too. I think it could speak to every one of us. Our world is so noisy.

        My Dad coached at a Catholic school back in the late 70’s. He said after communion, each time, the priest would go back to his office and drink a bottle of wine.

  4. Absolutely wonderful–what a great experience! I know that you will never forget–als all the advice regarding your children–priceless! You did a wonderful job sharing it with us on facebook–thanks so very much!

  5. My favorite line from this post: “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.” A contented, engaged, soul picture…wonderful.

  6. Cathy, two things jumped out at me in reading your “series” on the monastery: First, what an amazing story these monks could share – about faith, about life, about self-awareness, about the worlds we each inhabit; second, what a great person you would be to write that story. I’ll leave it at that, except to add that there is so much to contemplate in these three chapters, I think I will have to read them a few times just to absorb what they are saying to me. Thank you.

  7. This reminds me of my experience in Mongolia. A time and place without the distraction of our United States. Contemplation and worship came easy there and coming back to the US was difficult since everything seemed overindulgent and distracting. Loved your discussion with the Monk and his advice and especially the realization that they are just real people too.

    • Yes, that’s exactly how it is when you get in an environment like this. So refreshing, and you wish it could always be like that!

      And yes, I saw so many juxtapositions that weekend, that showed the disarming human side of these godly men.

  8. I love your writings. You paint amazing pictures. I laughed out loud when you got lost in the woods with the crazy map. I know you cherish those moments at the monastery. Thank you for sharing those precious moments with us. I need to remember to reflect on God more often.

    • Thank you so much. I was so relaxed there, when I got lost (which normally would have made me extremely nervous), I was rather jolly about the whole thing. Just chattered away to myself. 🙂

      Thanks for reading, & sharing your thoughts.

  9. I just finished reading these, sorry I took so long! Wow, what an experience. My favorite reminder, and boy I need this now, from What the Monk Said: “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.”

    • Well, I’M sorry that these WERE so long! Thanks for sticking with them…that’s just the way they came out. 🙂

      It was such a wonderful experience. I’m itching to go back…about time for some more contemplation!

  10. Cathy, you are a fine writer. I enjoy your essays immensely – well crafted, personal, and meaningful. Not political, not current affairsy, none of the stuff that occupies so much paper and computer screenage (and a significant chunk of the 950~ unread articles in my RSS reader); just meaningful. Thank you.

    • Your words mean so much to me, truly. Thank you. I really appreciate every single person who spends a little of their valuable web time with my words.

      I sometimes wish I had all day to practice writing. Maybe someday…

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