"You would deploy a thousand banalities to avoid the real."
It is Friday morning, the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Fr. Jonah, one of twenty-two monks at New Melleray Abbey, is preaching on Matthew 6. Our Lord has commanded his disciples to turn the other cheek, and Fr. Jonah, citing a tradition well known to his brothers, has read a word from the desert fathers wherein a group of young hermits asks a wise and revered Abba how they should interpret this passage. The Abba responds with a severe levity: “If you cannot offer your enemy the other cheek, offer him the same one instead.” Fr. Jonah translates: the meaning is obvious, but what you are looking for is an anesthetic, a platitude demanding just enough to satisfy your scruples, but less than what is required. Or, in his more elegant phrasing: “You would deploy a thousand banalities to avoid the real.”
Earlier in the week, my wife told me she was praying that I would encounter Jesus in my time at New Melleray. The last thing she intended this comment to bequeath was a burden, but it nevertheless landed as one. What if I did not have such an encounter? What if I came home empty-handed, the same man who had just left her alone with three children almost a week before? In short, what if he avoided me? For a time I thought he was. But I soon learned that it was I, not he, who was skilled in the art of evasion. I had sought him again and again, at Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Sext, Terce, None, Vespers, and Compline, in silence and solitude, at lectio and labora, only to find not him but myself, myself in all my manic distractions, anxieties, and obsessions. I had asked for bread but been given, not even so much as a stone (are we not told the Lord is a rock?), but a mirror. So I turned away, looking for him in a face not my own.
This, as it turns out, was the evasion.
Every summer, the Lumen Christi Institute organizes and sponsors a number of seminars. They are as a rule a kind of immersive learning experience, providing the opportunity to study Newman in Oxford, Medieval thought in Rome, Girard in France, etc. About two months ago they sent out an e-mail adding another seminar to their roster, to be held at New Melleray Abbey on “Monastic Wisdom.” What would make this particular seminar unique was that the “immersive” element was to be not merely geographical, but also practical. In addition to discussing a set of assigned readings, the students would live the life of the Trappist monks for a week.
New Melleray’s architecture is classically Cistercian, constructed with an austerity designed to be the antithesis of the Order’s patently lush spirituality. The sanctuary is long and cavernous and contains only two images: a simple, metallic crucifix, and an icon of the Virgin, the one said to have been written by the Physician. These stand on either side of an obsidian-colored altar, itself empty of regalia. Lining the walls sit what look like a series of easels, and I imagine they have been thought of as such by the monks who spend several hours a day standing, sitting, or kneeling in front them. They are choir stalls, supporting not canvas but Psalter and hymnody. St. Benedict’s Rule says that “nothing is to be preferred to the work of God,” by which he means the incessant, relentless, daily prayers which organize the life of a monk. In the course of a single week they will pray all 150 psalms, every week of every year until they die.
In keeping with the Cistercian ideal, New Melleray is economically self-sufficient. Benedict’s Rule enjoins a monk to “keep death daily before one’s eyes,” and, as casket makers, the labor that sustains their prayers is uniquely amenable to this practice. It is hard to say exactly what Trappist Caskets is, since the word “business” implies profit margins, investments, and other white-collar terms which do not and cannot apply to a group of men who have taken a vow of poverty. They merely cover the costs necessary to sustain their ascetic lifestyle and pay the small handful of lay employees who work there. The word “ministry,” which suggests contingency, does not quite capture the necessary quality of their work either, since the monastic emphasis on labora arises in part from the basic recognition that work is intrinsic to physical and spiritual vitality. Nevertheless, there are evangelical initiatives within its purview: Trappist Caskets sells a few thousand caskets and hundreds of urns a year, and for every casket they sell, they plant a tree. Moreover, they donate child and infant caskets to those who need them. I suppose the most fitting description would simply be the one their tradition authorizes, a “labor,” one which will be mercifully abolished not merely in, but by, the resurrection, when these meticulously and prayerfully built caskets are burst by the bodies they are no longer real enough to contain.
Work and prayer, ora et labora: this is the rhythm of Trappist life. A common day at New Melleray might look something like this:
3:30 – Vigils
4:00-6:15 – lectio, solitude, private prayer
6:30 – Lauds
7:00 – Mass
8:00 - Breakfast
9:15 – Terce
9:30-11:30 – Labor
11:45 – Sext
12:00 – Lunch (eaten in silence)
1:45 – None
2:00-4:30 – Labor
5:30 – Vespers
7:30 – Compline
In addition to the larger gaps of time between Terce and Sext, None and Vespers, some of the more capable monks work between breakfast and Terce, lunch and None, etc. Those of us who are with Lumen Christi generally follow the above schedule, except for the 9:30-11:30 segment which is spent in seminar (led by one of the monks) and discussion of the assigned texts. But the heartbeat of the day, the centripetal action drawing all else in its wake, is the liturgy of the hours: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. During these times (and of course at Mass) we join the monks in the choir, praying psalm after psalm after psalm.
I should clarify that “praying” is a totally accurate yet still misleading word, since we now primarily associate prayer with either speech or mental activity. A few of the daily psalms are in fact read, but the vast majority of them are sung, actually, chanted. The plain chant Trappists use at prayer is, if I may offer an opinion, static and tedious to listen to, but intoxicating to participate in. This paradox is, I suggest, precisely what one might expect for an activity explicitly modeled upon the affairs of heaven. It is the sort of thing that, looking at, one would find dull and insipid, but looking along, would be enchanting and luminous, like the difference between watching two lovers call each other sappy and sickening pet names and being one of those very saps. Moreover, plainchant maximizes aesthetic and musical pleasure with a minimum of talent. In other words, it is the sort of medium (perhaps the only one) that can take a handful of mostly middle-aged men with almost no musical background or proclivities and transfigure them into an angelic chorus.
My choir stall sits between two brothers who are most likely in their 60’s or early 70’s. I never learn the name of the brother on my right, since I do not see him outside of prayer. Because my stall has a nametag, the passing of the peace becomes somewhat awkward, as he always says “Peace be with you, Travis,” while I cannot respond with a similar intimacy. The monks sit, kneel, or stand in the few minutes between the bell calling them to prayer and the invitatory (“O God come to my assistance / Lord make haste to help me”). This particular brother stands facing the altar, leaning forward into his clasped hands that rest upon the back of the chair to his right. His fingernails are always dirty. What impresses itself upon me most strongly, though, is the way he receives communion. Cyril of Jerusalem advised his catechumens to receive the Host by making a throne with their hands, a reception fit for a King. This monk does likewise, although his throne takes the shape of a coffer. He looks like a beggar receiving alms, with his face tilted noticeably down and away from the priest, his arms held out and upward. It is as though he, like many suppliants, blushes before the face of his salvation.
To his right is a monk who I can only describe as a deftly produced replica of Alasdair MacIntyre. He always sits before prayer begins, thumbing the pearled beads of his rosary and mouthing its pleas.
An elderly monk with a long white beard and pronounced hunch prays across from me. His voice is both audible and conspicuous due to its strained, raspy timbre, and vocalizing his prayers clearly requires a great deal of effort and, quite likely, pain. Yet, I get the sense that it would be more painful for him not to sing at all, more agonizing not to give voice to the doxology he has long since become.
I do not learn the name of the brother on my left for a few days, when I am standing in the main entrance to the Guesthouse and hear someone call me from an adjacent room. Brother Andre is, like the namesake I have given him, the doorman. His locutions are Seinfeld-esque, except that he introduces his one-liners not with “did you ever notice” but “hey you know what?” He is genuinely pleased by life’s charms and absurdities, grateful that human existence is at least anything but boring. His grin lacks the traces of guile and showmanship that often accompany inveterate comics. After asking where I’m from, he tells me he is Scottish and follows with:
“Hey you know what the difference is between Scotch and Scottish? One’s a drink the other’s a drinker! Haha!”
After noticing my wedding ring, he asks if I have children, and I answer. Then without missing a beat:
“Hey you know what they call having children?”
“Working for the Pope! Haha!”
He says he entered the monastery in 1962, then I ask how many abbots he’s had in that time. He responds:
“Oh 5 or 6. Hey you know what all my abbots have called themselves?"
This is, of course, a self-deprecation rather than an actual comment about his abbot, who would sooner describe even the most burdensome of monks as a gift rather than a curse.
Abbot Mark is tall, the tallest monk in the Abbey, and his voice is soft and deep. It conveys both maximal authority and the tenderest compassion, the sort of voice my childhood imagination gave to Aslan when I first read Lewis’s Narnia. St. Benedict says that the abbot should “seek to be loved rather than feared,” and I think the only fear Abbot Mark inspires is the fear of grieving one whom you love. He leads our seminars and subsequent discussion on Tuesday and Thursday, on the Rule and Cistercian reform respectively. Thursday’s discussion frequently digresses because we have questions about his time as a monk, his experiences, what his advice is regarding this or that aspect of monastic life, etc. The tradition often uses “the desert” as synecdoche for the monastic life, but there is a palpable sense in the room that we are actually at an oasis, parched for a wisdom that can sustain us when we resume our vocations. Abbot Mark kindly obliges, never once nudging or redirecting the conversation back to the assigned topic. He recognizes our thirst and knows what we have only begun to intimate: these “practicalities” are in fact the wisdom of the monastic tradition itself, a wisdom almost impossible to communicate in abstraction from the practices themselves.
This difficulty accounts for the tangible disappointment that spreads when we ask a monk what it’s “like” to live in the monastery. The various brothers we have eaten with and spoken to are in turns endearing and captivating, especially when they tell anecdotes and discuss the lives that led them into religious life in the first place. But ask a monk about his current experience, how he navigates this or that problem that we—neophytes in monastic life that we are—have only begun to acknowledge, and he, with few exceptions, will respond with striking inarticulacy. This is of course not to say that the monks are obtuse or unwise, only that their wisdom is not easily communicated through reflexive or second-order accounts of their own experience. Monastic wisdom is more like divine speech—which is to say, intrinsically creative—than lecture notes, communicating by its very activity and not through its reflexive articulacy. Such notes exist, of course, and they are jewels of the Christian archive, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Take, for example, Brother Martin, who joins us at dinner Monday evening. Br. Martin is uncompromising in his urgency, the temperamental contrapasso to Br. Andre. Born in Lima, Peru, he moved to the United States as a child and is one of the best vocalists of the group. Upon the request of his Abbot, he has just completed a Master’s degree through St. Meinrad’s Seminary. Someone asks if he will continue into doctoral studies. He says he sincerely hopes not, although he will of course do what his abbot asks. But he frankly cannot understand why he would choose such pursuits when he “could be contemplating divine realities.” The phrase “contemplating divine realities” is, I assure you, a direct quote, and he says this while holding his hands aloft, eyes raised to heaven, as though imploring his Maker that Abbot Mark would not send him further into the tempests of academia. This otherwise melodramatic gesture proceeds naturally from his earnest disposition, enshrined within his statement that he joined the order “because I wanted to do something radical.” Br. Martin speaks both at length and with verve about his discernment process, his desire to join an order that “didn’t just let you carry around an iPhone,” and the tension he felt between completing his studies and his monastic vocation. But when someone asks what he means by “contemplating divine realities” and how exactly he pursues this end at New Melleray, his delivery loses its edge. His vigor fades, his answer meandering and digressive. The basic content of his response, ostensibly in regard to a question about knowing God, bears a common refrain: the importance of “knowing yourself.”
The next night we have dinner with two monks, Father Jonah and Brother Gregory, the latter of whom is the Abbey’s organist. Unlike other monks we have met (like Br. Martin, who “wanted to do something radical,” or Fr. Gabriel, the cantor, who “was ravished by monastic life”), Fr. Jonah entered the monastery because he “had some like serious demons to deal with.” He describes himself as a kid from the streets of South Side Chicago, where by eighteen he had developed a vocabulary of “200 words, half of which were vulgar, the other half were slang.” Passing references to time in prison punctuate his autobiography, although he walks back some of this later. By the end of the week none of us know whether or not Fr. Jonah’s time in prison is apocryphal. Someone asks him a group favorite, namely, “what he found hardest” when he first entered the monastery, and Fr. Jonah replies in all seriousness that it was having to live with people who thought that, when he said “that guy must be packing,” he was referring to a suitcase. Br. Gregory, who has roughly the mannerisms and demeanor you might expect from the church organist, also appears to think that this is what the word means and does not understand why this should be a cause for angst. We then learn that Fr. Jonah served in Vietnam and smoked two joints an hour with his patrol buddy, who was “a really good dude.” We also learn he has a doctorate and prefers reading Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony in its Syriac translation rather than the original Greek. Because of this varied background, his diction seamlessly interlaces slang and technical jargon without either feeling contrived. I eventually ask the question that has been plaguing me for a couple days, the question which I am hoping, if answered, would help me obtain the encounter with Christ my wife made her prayer. I ask:
“So Fr. Jonah, I feel like my time at prayer has become less focused since starting here, that my mind is more likely to wander while praying the Psalms. What have you found helps you concentrate and enter more fully into prayer?”
His answer will, I imagine, remain with me for some time. It is honest, breathtakingly honest. Other monks, such as Br. Martin, have made similar points, but this reply has a definite solidity and vibrancy. Answering my question whether he has “found” anything to help, he says:
“There’s nothing to find! See that’s the real bitch of it man, you gotta confront who you are!”
When he says these last three words he makes an “L” with his left thumb and index finger and points at his temple. His eyes are wide. Br. Gregory shifts nervously in his seat, while the others laugh. I know immediately that he has perfectly, eloquently expressed what I had been avoiding.
In his preface to the Psalms, John Calvin writes: “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” Praying over a hundred psalms in five days made this apparent to me. Rage, despair, exultation, crippling sadness and hopeful expectancy, complaint and praise, loquacity and laconic restraint, in a word, humanity, humanity in the breadth of its emotional register, saturates the songs that Israel gave us.
Yet, they are not imbued with the merely human, but with that which is most human, the Word made flesh, whose body we are. Augustine developed his famous theology of the totus christus while commenting on this book, and Thomas Aquinas says that the mysteries of the incarnation are so clearly proclaimed in it that the Psalter is more like gospel than prophecy. He even goes so far as to say, for example, that Psalm 21 literally refers to Christ and only figuratively to its human author.
The point is this: praying the Psalms, inhaling and exhaling their cries, making their words our own, and suffusing our sighs with its laments, entails an unavoidably and painfully direct encounter with the human condition. Not merely to read, but to pray the words, “ten thousand enemies may fall at my right” (Ps. 91:7), or “my one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:18), requires a confrontation with the infinitude of our temptations and the depths of our anxieties. Perhaps this is the necessary, systolic, preface to the diastole of praise that constitutes much of the Psalter. If declarations of the Lord’s steadfast love (Ps. 136) ring hollow, and if repeated exhortations to praise (Ps. 148) are sterile, perhaps we do not know the reasons we have been given to sing. But Psalmody provides these reasons, if only we (or at least, I) would not run from them. To be human is to be often alone, often dejected, often beset by temptation, but the psalms make this sadness the substance of our worship. Thus the work of glorification requires courage, and it cannot be cheaply gained.
This is the reason for our distractions: we struggle to make a pure and undivided gift of ourselves because these are the selves we are desperate to flee. Like priests offering Eucharists with no bread or wine, we are schizophrenic in our sacrifices, calling for the one who saves the self while hiding the selves he has come to save. Those who follow the Rule, however, pray every psalm every week of every year, and therefore know what it means to confront the self and thereby unveil before God. They simply have no choice but to address the chaos within, to engage the thousand laments and myriad delights comprising a human life. In other words, to be fluent in the anatomy of all the soul’s parts. Because see “that’s the real bitch of it, man”: for a monk there is no way out. Whatever distractions or curiosities he may solicit, no fewer than seven times a day the Psalmist calls him back to himself. Again and again, he must give voice to the litany of thanks and complaints alike that are, if the doctrine of inspiration has any meaning, really the Spirit’s gifts.
Is it any surprise, then, that the monks of New Melleray are the most individuated group of men I have ever met? They are bountifully, brutally, electrically alive. And make no mistake, the foregoing portraits do not intend to romanticize. The worlds dividing their personalities undoubtedly give rise to tensions and conflicts that it often takes a marriage to educe. But if the language of the “body of Christ” means anything, surely it means that the Church is graced to endure these polarities, which are but the antitheses of the individual writ large? After all, only a truly catholic Church can support the weight of a self fully alive.
Such are the Trappists tucked away in Peosta, Iowa. They do little of apparent use in the world, besides providing the occasional casket to a few among the billions who need it. Well, little that can be measured. Can we possibly know what tragedies have been thwarted, violence stayed, or miracles wrought by the worship of Abbot Mark, Fr. Jonah, Br. Martin in his urgency, Br. Andre in his levity, Alasdair MacIntyre thumbing his rosary, and the anonymous beggar monk to my right? Perhaps someday we will know. But for now these monks remain an icon of the hidden life of our Lord, before his tears had stained the earth or his voice blot out the sun. They, like him, are engaged in the business of glory and seek no evasions of the Real.
 With the exception of Abbot Mark, I have used pseudonyms in place of the monks’ actual names. The Abbot’s relationship to his monastery is somewhat analogous of a bishop to his diocese; his office is, among much else, one of visibility, whose identity can be discovered by a mere google search. The rest of the monks, however, prefer to maintain the hiddenness to which they are consecrated.
 The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 43
 Ibid., Chapter 4
 Catechetical Oration 23.21.
 Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64