"A GREAT DEAL OF VIRTUE AND PIETY” wrote Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “is simply the easy price we pay in order to justify a life that is essentially trifling. Nothing is so cheap as the evasion purchased by just enough good conduct to make one pass as a ‘serious’ person.”
I have long been intrigued by the riddling concept of commitment, the many ways it is understood and how often it is used as the point of departure for sidestepping rather than committing ourselves to something. What’s paradoxical is that while we often use the word nobly in matters marital, professional, intellectual, etc., it is often sadly a disguise or mask for the politique of actually holding back, in a larger sense, what more we could give, purchasing in the process, or at least attempting to purchase, a lifetime of votes by a few days of campaigning. A little good conduct, in short, saves us from having to expend more. So Merton, in speaking of “evasion,” is correct.
He is addressing unexamined lives, false motives, lack of commitment, and, I would suggest, to a certain degree, meaninglessness. It is the moral equivalent of no heavy lifting.
To my mind, monks of any religion are among the most committed people on earth, if mere rootedness applies; although by the very nature of going somewhere we always leave ourselves open to the charge that we are deserting something. So when I heard there was a monastery flourishing in San Diego County, I decided to take a look, wrote the guestmaster, Brother Sharbd Ewen, OSB (Order of St. Benedict) — this is a Benedictine abbey — made a reservation to stay a few days, and was soon on a train heading up the coast 30 miles to Oceanside. It was, in one sense, a way of visiting my past as well.
Prince of Peace Abbey on Benet Hill Road (topographically, Zion was on a high hill, as are many monasteries), flourishing for 37 years there, was consecrated on October 23, 1958, with only four pioneering monks at the start. This community’s history goes back to 1854, although the Benedictines as a contemplative order, a cloistered brotherhood seeking God, reaches even further back, to Monte Cassino and the 6th Century, when St. Benedict founded the order. In 1854 a handful of monks from the ancient abbey of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, in Switzerland, left Europe to found St Meinrad Abbey in southern Indiana, in monastic parlance a “daughter house.” And then in 1958 some monks from St Meinrad were sent to start a new foundation in California—the very year I entered a Trappist novitiate in Massachusetts. After looking at various places in Escondido, Alpine, and Elsinore, the Amsler Ranch in Oceanside was eventually purchased for $135,000 with the help and guidance of San Diego Bishop Charles Buddy, who very much wanted a monastery in his diocese. On July 25,
1969, St. Charles Priory, as it was called, was raised to the status of a conventual priory, becoming independent from St. Meinrad Archabbey; after another 14 years, the priory was raised to abbatial status (a priory is to an abbey what a high school student is to a college man) on February 23, 1983, with Father Claude Ehringer elected its first abbot, now 87 years old and a priest for 65 years. I had the chance to speak with him after Mass the day I arrived in Oceanside.
“We have never had more than 25 in our community,” said the smiling, highly alert, but frail priest, folding his arms into the Benedictine all-black habit, when I suggested that since World War II and the years afterward, when monasticism flourished in America, vocations were way down. “Ours is a small group. We have new postulants. One from Vietnam. A young fellow from Mexico City. But the laity are doing wonders in the Church today throughout the country. Helping at Mass, teaching catechetics, visiting the poor. It’s a different time. Things change. God is watching over us.” I knew monastic pluck, intrepidity in the face of odds, small numbers of men bonded together in Christ’s name.
And I was happy to be there. We stood later, the two of us, above the blinking lights of faraway Oceanside and the San Luis Rey Valley below, with galaxies of stars twinkling in the black night sky and the perfume of wild sage, manzanita, and eucalyptus blowing across the hill.
We went in to evening Vespers at five o’clock. The abbey is a series of modern, low buildings built of gray, desert-simple — actually stark — cement blocks, with only the chaste bell tower with its slim lines and the lapis-blue slate roof of the abbey church imparting a slightly medieval touch to the place. It radiates in its unpretentious beauty a spirit of goodness and asceticism, but also a very American aura and a sense of what has recently changed in the Church by way of the open altar area and space open to the lay community. Local people attend services, along with weekly visitors and retreatants such as I — daily Mass at 11:00 a.m., and the staggered offices of the day, beginning as early as 5:30 a.m., when the monks arise for Vigils.
“This is a confusing time for many of the faithful,”
Brother Blaise Heuke told me a few days later, when we were discussing some of the liturgical changes that had been made, often controversially, over the last 25 years or so.
“A lady was recently complaining to me about the English-language Mass, about shaking hands during the sign of peace, even about the idea,” he chuckled, smoothing his beard, “of priests facing the congregation while celebrating the Eucharist. Oh, she wasn’t happy about anything and, you know, I understand.” He paused a moment, then looked up at me. “But you know what? I turned to her and, pointing to the parking lot, asked, ‘Where did you tie up your horse?’ ” He laughed hugely.
I wanted to become a monk in high school. I could easily commiserate with that lady and her nostalgic, if not slightly reactionary, memories of the pre-Vatican II church and the formal Latin-based liturgy she fondly remembered, but that began to change, some say, transmogrify, on January 25,1959, the day Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. It wasn’t only the 1960s that would never be quite the same (even curial cardinals in Rome, fearful of the potential impact of the council on the traditional Church, saw to it that mostly Rome-based theologians were appointed to the preparatory commissions), for that decade ended, funereally some say, not only with Pope Paul Vi’s discouraging-to-many encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the Church’s prohibition of artificial birth control but with a church now deeply divided and grievously at loggerheads with itself. Not me, however. I had dreamy, salvific, almost pathologically idealistic reveries about what my life should be, speculations, wishes, and hopes dwelling within and traceable to, if I am not wrong, endless hours as a boy spent sitting under the enormously high heaven of a nave in St. Francis-Was-A-Sissy church (as we comically referred to our parish), which seemed in its height and majesty less a ceiling than the very architecture of spirituality, inviting a small boy’s dreams.
I became a Trappist novice at 17. After high school I read — and was dyed the color of, so to speak — Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain (1948), his highly readable, frank (although we later found out it had been badly bowdlerized), and even at times Holden Caulfield-ish confession of an empty, unfulfilled life that led him in 1941 to God and to the doors of a Cistercian monastery in Kentucky. The Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO), a French order originally, cloistral, communal, and Catholic, of course, like the Benedictines, are sort of stricter cousins of the Benedictines, although they follow the same rule. They have exactly no commerce with the exterior world, however, and their abbey, unlike Prince of Peace, is entirely cloistered, except for the Mass area. They neither commingle with lay people nor talk to them.
Although I had attended a public high school, starred on the basketball team, and adored girls, even “made out” with them — is this peculiar euphemism still used? — I had an early fascination with the clerical life, which is not such a big thing. So did Stalin, Marlon Brando, and Jerry Brown, to name a few oddballs like me. And when the Fr. Guestmaster suggested I try that life, when I began making retreats at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, I thought, why not? I entered the monastery in September 1958 and in fact was only there a few months when Pope Pius XII died and portly Angelo Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, became Pope John XXIII.
There were not many official steps to take to become a monk. There are the usual questions about your resolve. Papers of permission are necessary for young aspirants. I remember I had to sign a paper agreeing, if I should decide to leave, that I would not sue the monastery for work I did there. I’m sure I had to prove I was not on the lam from the police and had no outstanding record of crime. Most of the pursuivants are older, in their 30s. Loonies can get in, no doubt. I remember one monk, when we were building a new road through the woods, who was using too much dynamite, far too much dynamite, and he was soon, as Dylan Thomas once put it in a different context, “no longer whinnying with us.” I saw several monks — heard them, might be a better way to put it — have nervous breakdowns. Monks, and I mean this in both the good and bad sense of the term, are not average people. They are liminal people usually, often geniuses of vision, always daring, and some are truly saints in every sense of the term.
It is a very physically severe life, let’s start there. You are often cold, hungry, and tired. I am speaking of my experience almost 30 years ago. Pre-Vatican II monks were cloistrally set off from the world, not only in the strict way I’ve mentioned, but also from their families. After entering, you could only write home every six weeks and couldn’t see any family member at all for that first year. Every two years after that a single visit was allowed. You effectively left the world. There was obviously no radio or television, but nothing at all along the lines of national news. World Series scores, cultural trends, social changes, whatever alterations in the world of fashion or foolery. I was particularly struck by how much 1 missed merely seeing girls and even children. Monastic life is literally monotonous: one tone — but that is also, ironically enough, equally its comfort, the sameness of days allowing for an interrupted evenness of response in prayer and daily activity. There is silence always. It is pervasive and redemptive.
Trappists in my day (already, the locutions of reaction!) were not allowed to talk — instead, we used an official sign language to communicate. For “glass” you tapped your teeth. For “yellow” you drew a line across your cheek. For “sweet” you sucked the tip of your index finger. Things like that. Time was told on the knuckles, by pointing a finger to various joints. Letters of the alphabet had their hand signs, and if, for example, you needed to refer to something for which there was no existing sign, you’d simply make an H, say, for hula-hoop, and point. There were no hula-hoops at the monastery (though I’d find out later a fad for them swept the country in 1958), but there was no end to farm implements, sacramentals of all sorts, workaday tools, and many another noun that, taken altogether, gave me a formidable vocabulary. (Innocent, the monks even had a sign that in the world out there was an obscene gesture; the raised middle finger at St. Joseph’s meant “the one in charge.”) It should be pointed out that the idea is not that talking is sinful, but rather that silence is conducive to meditation. “Every time I go out among men,” wrote Thomas a Kempis in his classic work for monks. The Imitation of Christ, “I come back less a man.” It sounds severe and antisocial. What he is talking about is the aimlessness of blather and pointless ongoing and inconsequential gossip, as anybody who has spent years in a college dorm only too well knows. I never once found not talking a painful deprivation, of the many and wistful-making deprivations I felt, such as smoking, little kids, hearing rock ’n’ roll, cheeseburgers, and, yes, girls.
There is a hierarchy in monasteries. The abbot, a holy man named Dorn Edmund Futterer, was elected by a community of choir monks (priests) and brothers, numbering to about 150 when I was there. The choir monks took five vows, the usual three vows taken by the “religious” of poverty, chastity, and obedience; but also conversion of manners (conversio morum, taking a new name with new resolve) and a vow of stability, which means that the monastery we entered was our life. Effectively, you never leave. (Monks very occasionally leave for dental or medical reasons, or they may be sent to a daughter house, but neither is usual.)
By separating themselves from the common worship of the Church, monks (monachus = alone) devote themselves to a rigorous routine of extended periods of formal community prayer throughout the day and night. What they pray has come to be known as “the monastic Office,” which comprises Matins; Lauds or Morning Prayers; Prime; Terce (at 9:00 a.m.), Sext (noon), None (3:00 p.m.); Vespers or Evening Prayers; and then Compline or Night Prayers, just before retiring. This is the official “work” of the monks, both Trappist and Benedictine, to offer the official daily prayer of the Church, the Opus Dei — the work of God — in formal ceremony. The prayers are invariably chanted, Gregorian chant, and it is an awesome and overwhelming experience to hear it done well. I was moved beyond words the first time I heard it. (A rash of interest has recently arisen, especially in Europe, for Gregorian music.)
I wept the day I entered the monastery, when my family dropped me off and drove away. My parents were of two minds about my taking such a drastic step at such a young age, but it was their repeated policy that we could do in life anything we chose to do (altogether now) as long as we did it well.
I can’t truthfully say I did it well, not that I didn’t try. The silence, as I say, didn’t particularly weigh me down, but it definitely made inroads into one’s curiosity about one’s fellow monks, whom of course you could only get to know by way of smiles and manners, gestures and general mien. Novices also had classes in chant, where talking was necessary, as well as religious instruction, for of course even though as postulants we had to follow the rules we were, after all, studying to be priests. But for me, getting up so early (2:15 a.m.) was brutal, even if we did retire to our cells at 7:00 p.m. I missed my friends at home, when it was so difficult to make new friends where I was. I was young and had many erotic thoughts. The Madonna pictured on the stained glass Salve Window over the main altar in the church, blasphemous as it may sound, looked maddeningly like a beautiful former girlfriend of mine, Carol Maloney, who I know missed me and who had tearfully made me swear up and down at the Meadow Glen Drive-In (we were intermittently watching Splendor in the Grass, with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood) a week before I left that I would call her the minute I left, if I ever left, which, she said, she knew I would never do, but just in case, okay, did I mind?
I was the youngest member of the entire community at St. Joseph’s Abbey in 1958, a postulant or beginner, not even a novice. I was naive, bewildered, and incompetent, like most of my fellows. There was, however, one awful, priggish, domineering, Blifil-ish, jug-eared novice among us named Frater Clement, whom I loathed, a pimply, tall, officious kid who rode shotgun on all of the newcomers — he had been there a couple of years—and who repeatedly made the sign “You’re breaking the rule,” two hand gestures, one as if snapping a pencil (break), the other sliding the open right hand across the back edge of the left (rule). He minced and disapproved and looked censorious, and how saddened I was that even in such holy premises I had such uncharitable thoughts. How the world intruded everywhere! (Life does continue, doesn’t it? Even in my brief stay at Prince of Peace Abbey I found many of the retreatants unfriendly, sour looking, even to my mind neurasthenically maladjusted, which I have no doubt is exactly the judgment they were passing on me.) In any case, I was not a model novice when it came to Frater Clement, as he no doubt would have been the first to admit.
We had a very effeminate young man in our group, a Frater Raphael, who was extremely kind and morally sound and a fellow irreproachable in his piety. Frater Clement was constantly at him, like Claggart on Billy Budd, a very apposite analogy. One day before I left, when I was seasoned and much less naive, I looked for the opportunity — it was a sleepy, sunny afternoon, coming back from None, as we walked, as monks do, like Disney’s dwarfs, in single file — and I grabbed Frater Clement by the scruff of his upper habit as I whispered angrily, “Leave Frater Raphael alone! You’re always picking on him! You are uncharitable and unkind!” Frater Clement, looking horrified utterly, turned white as paper. He had never heard me speak so many words, for one thing. For another, I was badly “breaking a rule.”
But it was interesting and morally revealing. My worthy defense of Frater Raphael was to me one of the first revealing signs that I would leave — an announcement, and a rather surprising one, to myself of intentions theretofore unbeknownst to me.
Did I say an effeminate novice? Oh, we had all kinds, effeminate types, nervous types, pious types, fat kids, nerds, ex-athletes, all sorts, oafs and loners and smirkers, almost all of them goodhearted, effortful, certainly intrepid, brave and dreamy and conscience-filled with moral resolve. (I never saw in my entire time there homosexuality, selfishness, or even cruelty, for it is my belief that even in his bullying and overweening censoriousness, Frater Clement thought he wasn’t a wacko but was doing the right thing.) Have mercy on those young men. There is so much to learn in a monastery, and so quickly. It is a foreign country with a new language, new landscape, new smells, new people, new manners — a new family — with different laws and a thousand different rubrics.
The rule of St. Benedict was and is strict. There has been some lenience since Vatican II, an easing up on some of the more medieval practices perhaps, but it is, all in all, monastic life, a severe rite of passage. We could not go to our cubicle or cell — a wooden bed, a crucifix, three solid walls, and a curtain partition — during the day, even for naps. A symbolic flagellation was enacted, mildly, on Fridays, when, for the space of a chanted “Miserere," a short psalm, you administered stripes to your back with a piece of rope kept under your pillow. (It was nothing dramatic, only an act, singular and without intent to wound, recollecting the sufferings of Jesus Christ during his Passion.) I often got lost in the stone passageways from cloister to rooms to the abbey church. I followed echoes. I devised a Hansel-and-Gretel-ish mode of getting to the church every morning merely by feeling my way, blindly, along the walls.
I was a teenager (under 21) and so was given the Lucullan privilege of being able to drink milk, for our monastery was strictly vegetarian — no milk, meat, fish, or chicken at meals. (We took turns at waiting on tables in refectory, and whenever I received my bowl of milk, the serving novice invariably, and comically, made the sign of a pig by means of an index finger twisted at the side of the nose.) Breakfast was called “mixt” and was basically coffee; homemade bread, webby, moist, and delicious; and peanut butter and/or jelly. Cups had two handles. Monks had to put down food in order to drink, with each activity being discrete. It was a rule made to exact temperance, grace, and to cut down the vulgarity of haste. (St. Joseph’s Abbey was famous for the jellies and jams it made, an in-house production we were all involved in.) Lunch and dinner were the substantial meals, with vegetables, pasta, and rice served in a hundred forms. We were treated to “readings” from a podium for five minutes before each noon and evening meal, and it often took longer to hear the readings than it did to eat. Haste, in anything, as I say, was, however, greatly discouraged, for it was considered unseemly and indeed rude.
As I say, I was tired a lot, even though I was young and in good shape. We worked happily, but very hard, following the Trappist ideal: orare et laborare, to pray and to work. We made jelly, fixed shoes, baled hay, milked cows — our abbey was a farm, and we had a working dairy — mowed lawns, cleared fields of rocks and boulders, had jobs in the refectory, buffed floors, washed windows, and I was even the shepherd for a month, which I loved. Hearing sheep contentedly grinding and chewing freshly cut hay is easily one of life’s loveliest sounds, and 1 made a point of going up to the fold by tractor early in the morning, pitch-dark, to do the feeding in solitude. Laughter and goodwill characterizes monks at work, and rare was the day when something didn’t happen at a particular job when you weren’t doubled over, quacking with hysterical laughter, whether unseemly or not. I think it is often the sign, deny it who will, of an intelligent spiritual person. And didn’t St. Teresa of Avila once assert that the essence of all mysticism is laughter?
There were grim days as well. Which brings me to one of my lowest points as a novice. (I took vows and white robes a month after I arrived.) One lovely day in late fall, crisp apple weather in New England, we set off, about eight of us and our novice master, Fr. Owen Hoey, a thin, twinkly-eyed old Irish priest, to cut grass at the guest house. We bumped along in an old truck. When we got to the house and unloaded a bunch of rakes, burlap, and those old egg beater-type lawn mowers, I selected a rough part of lawn and began to cut. We finished up, the day ended, and we drove back in the truck. The next day a note appeared next to my stainless steel breakfast bowl with the request to see Fr. Owen, which I did.
“Filio carissimmo, ” he said, when I entered his office after knocking. A rap gave notice to enter. (Raps in monastic life are a subject all their own. They are like flashed signs in baseball and are employed all the time to begin and to end services, meditations, and prayer.) I knelt down by his desk, as was the rite, and stayed there. He proceeded to ask me a few perfunctory questions as to how I was coping, but he was dissembling, I could tell; and then he came to the point. He folded his hands and asked, “Didn’t you think it was bumptious of you, before orders were given, to start cutting the grass yesterday?”
I swallowed, mortified. “Father, what does bumptious mean?”
“Arrogant,” said Father Owen.
“Yes,” I said, blushing, because that’s what I knew he wanted to hear; but I had gone suddenly cold inside, not only sad but empty as a drain, and more: A small flame of anger, replacing that cold, suddenly shot up in my heart. I knew taking the starch out of novices was part of the training, making them pliable; but when he spoke of arrogance, I could only hear the echoes of his own nationalistic urges, repeated at lessons, often for humor, about Ireland being the best and God loving the Irish most and so forth, a sort of low provincialism I thought not only embarrassing but the kind of thing spiritual men rose above. It wasn’t anything particularly vile, but then, was my lawn mowing? I was angry that he had made me angry.
“That’s all," he said. “It’s not that we can’t be who we are, mmm? Merely that in a community blah-blah-blah,” and he trailed off in a spate of sententious, pettifogging sentences, trying to show me something or other, but I was only deaf and lonely and isolated and bumptious, and the only sound I heard stirring in my heart was a noise of dissent that was louder than any lawn mower or chant or novice master in what for the first time had become a very narrow world.
Chant, always beautiful, cheered me up. It is an art to sing well. And the cantor who taught us novices followed the impeccable choral modes and etiquette of the best, the Abbey of Solesmes in France, which was directed by Dom Gajard, OCSO. We learned how to perfect plainchant by holding certain notes, softening phrases, and avoiding sibilants at the end of lines, trade secrets so to speak, as we joined our voices, like the monks at Oceanside, to the 3000-year-old choir that had been chanting the glory of God since the days of King David. I lived to chant the 148th Psalm, feel the vibrating rock of the antiphonal give and take, sing the Veni Creator. And at night at Compline, as the church fell to darkness, with only a spotlight trained onto the Salve Window, how my heart cracked with buoyant love for where I was and why, throbbed to the undulating beauty of the words
- “Salve Regina, mater misericordiae.
- Vita et dulcedo et spes nostra, salvae..."
It could have been the year A.D. 1250 or 1360. Time had stopped. The monks in their black cowls and white habits, chanting in that monastery built entirely of field stones by their own hands, standing under its slate roof, could have been contemporaries of St. Benedict or St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Self-reliant, the monks were dependent on no one but themselves as far as living went, except for electricity, although there were many activities that took place only by candlelight. You owned nothing but your toothbrush, and that was for hygiene.
Food was basic. Rules were followed. Strictness was adhered to. We cut no corners. And of course there were punishments for infractions, extra-confessional matters, various misdeeds of a nonmoral nature, things that hurt the community; having to kneel publicly at dinner in front of the entire community; having to kneel by a doorway, holding up a thoughtlessly broken tool; having (for choir monks) to walk last in line, behind even postulants, while everyone filed along before you — it used to sadden me immeasurably to watch that and be reminded once again of what I felt was the pointless topsy-turvification of things, even in that sacred precinct.
I even got up to pranks. One night I ran a brief 15-minute movie (a special treat for Thanksgiving) of John XXIIl’s investiture. We had an old cranking, sprocket-type projector, and after the movie ran, I for some reason impishly began running it backwards, which greatly amused the monks, especially some of the older ones, for whom this was a technical innovation — innocent hearts, as I say, are almost always ready to laugh at anything — but this was reported at chapter (hello, Frater Clement) and cost me a week sitting in the senior refectory on a foot-high cucking stool, sipping soup with a wooden spoon. Speaking of laughter, I remember early one pitch-dark winter morning under the frozen nave, when outside even the hares and foxes were huddled asleep in their dens, a bleary-eyed hebdomedary, as he intoned a hymn, croaked so froggily that all the monks — holy, pious Trappists! — burst into loud guffaws that never seemed to end. It was one of the most spiritual moments in my stay in the monastery in the simple beauty of what it said about love and broken rules and goodness.
I was not cut out to be a monk. I was impatient. I liked community life then no more than I do now. The expansion of heart (dilatato corde) that is supposed to result from community life and apostolic labors became for me a matter of constricto corde. Even then I was restlessly wandering the hills and writing what I called poetry, execrable verses filled with eighth-rate illuminations «pd dauntless nature mysticism. I needed to be alone. I wanted to smoke cigarettes again and hug Carol Maloney and hate the Red Sox and shoot pool and read Poe and stay out late and wear a leather jacket and go to the beach and eat pizza and attend college and, I dare say, even be bumptious. I left the monastery in an egg truck one afternoon in a mysterious atmospheric light that whispered something personal to me I choose only to mention, in terms of grace, but will say no more about.
And now here I was in my 50s with this reverie so many years later in Oceanside, in San Diego County, in beautiful California. And nostalgic, yes. Yearning. “Yearning,” writes Teilhard de Chardin, “is the quality that distinguishes humans from stones.” As I walked the high grounds of Prince of Peace Abbey and felt the strong and reinforcing presence of God in those good Benedictines, I still couldn’t deny feeling a certain metallic sense of loss within at the “adaptations” of the Rule of St. Benedict that had come into effect here and in other American monasteries over the last 20 years, which nevertheless, I want to make haste to point out, did not make the monks any less zealous or spiritual.
What were some of those changes? Nothing dogmatic, first of all. Or doctrinal. Or really worth pointing out, unless one is interested in what is sociologically diagnostic of monastic life. The monks can now eat meat and are no longer vegetarians, although Benedict quite pointedly ruled that meat was meant to go only to “those who are sick.” There is now TV for the monks. For news. Sports. The “Chapter of Faults,” weekly meetings held by the community and presided over by the abbot to deal with any extra-confessional improprieties, lapses in diligence, etc., is now held only four times a year, although, when I queried one of the monks about this at Prince of Peace, he answered me, charitably and no doubt correctly, with the question, “But doesn’t the Mass pick it up when we sincerely say, ‘Let us call to mind our sins’?" The monks no longer flagellate themselves, as I mentioned they once did. I am not particularly scandalized by any of these changes. There are certainly points of the Bible, indeed of the Gospel, that, it may be argued, no longer directly apply to everyday life as we live it today. Littera occidit, spiritus vivificat: the letter of the law kills, the spirit lives. And it’s true. But was the order and discipline of the Rule too difficult? And if so, what is being said of our times? Of our church? Of the way we think today?
The Benedictines at Prince of Peace still take a vow of stability, but it is not as strictly followed as once it was. At St. Joseph’s Abbey, leaving the grounds was prohibited. “We are permitted to go out,” Brother Blaise told me, but this is hardly a matter of vagabonding and vacations. “Once every three years I go home. My father is now 90, my mother old, and I want to see them,” said Blaise, who at 58 has been 40 years a brother. (He volunteered to come west from St. Meinrad’s years ago.) “But it’s not a matter of holidays. I have been home for Christmas,” he added, leaving me somewhat astonished, “only once in 40 years.” He smiled kindly. “Some of us can’t even afford to go home. My folks live in Kentucky. But we have people here from abroad who haven’t got the money to get away.”
Financially, in the mode of most clergy everywhere — except for some of the cardinals and bishops who, at least to my mind, have a peculiar regalism and inordinate “flash” and ludicrous equipage (wasn’t St. Peter a fisherman?) — solvency is an issue at Oceanside. “We support ourselves by donations,” guestmaster Fr. Sharbel told me. I thought of the Trappists in Massachusetts selling their famous jams and jellies; those in Berryville, Virginia, who make and sell fruitcakes; and I grew sad for this little community, although I recalled that Thomas Merton personally disliked these cute little monastic “cottage industries” and inveighed against them as being too entrepreneurial and at loggerheads with both the monastic life and monastic ideal. It can be so argued. But isn’t self-sufficiency commendable? St. Francis, a friar, not a monk — a peripatetic missionary to the poor, not a cloistered man of prayer — thought not, and he once took a coin that St. Bonaventure had hopefully brought to him with a view to helping out their situation and flung it into the woods. Money can corrupt. It can mollify and ease.
There is no farming done at Prince of Peace, which may seem an anomaly given the lovely tract of land there and California’s vital soil. “We have tried farming,” said Brother Blaise, “but there is far too much wildlife around here, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, whatever — they eat the vegetables. Deer are always jumping over our fences.” He looked concerned. “The community is constantly addressing the possibility of making a living and giving ourselves solid self-sufficiency. We sell honey. There’s that. And we wanted to get into art. A pottery shop is all set up over there. A rock shop. Tumblers. A saw. Abbot Charles (Wright], who is an expert, has a lot of semi-precious stones. Is it geodes? So there’s that,” he says with a repetitious optimism 1 can’t share. “There’s a lot of talent here as well. Brother Peter does tailoring. And Father Alexis, the novice master, paints and is very artistic. Oh, and we have a music shop and in the print shop behind the administration building” — half-constructed at this writing and modestly small — “we print the Prince of Peace Abbey News, which used to be called the Benet Hill News, you know, about what’s going on, spiritual articles, that sort of thing.” But I was thinking: Honey, stones, a few painted cards, a mimeographed newspaper (“Raccoons plunder turnip crop”). What are we talking in either round or crooked numbers? Maybe $47.53 a week in income?
So retreatants is the way they generate income. Visitors come to stay for a few days, a week maybe, and leave what they can afford. There are meals, private rooms, a library, and the opportunity in a lovely quiet place to attend the Office there and, at least for a while, sort out some of your life. “Lola Falana, the famous singer and dancer, who now lives in Pennsylvania,” said Brother Blaise, “is a good friend of the abbey. She called me yesterday, bubbling over with her faith. She used to visit us when she was starring in Las Vegas.” Blaise nods emphatically. “So this is what we do. We work for retreatants. We cook. We wash. We do sheets and laundry. We clean the houses.” He is referring to the guest houses, three of them, with a private chapel nearby, set within a lovely frond-surrounded garden, houses that are set off from the monks’ cloister of 38 rooms, behind the library, an area off limits to everyone but the members of the community.
One gets the impression, however, that Prince of Peace with its solitude and permeations of perfumed air — I later found out that, along with the flowers and scent of natural forest vegetation, the city of Oceanside, with an overabundance of mulch, mostly ground-up eucalyptus trees, gave truckloads of it to the abbey — is not anything like a center of attraction in the area. Oceanside is only 10 or 15 percent Catholic, for one thing, and visiting monasteries has never been a high-priority item on most people’s lists. Camp Pendleton is only a short walk away. (“I like to go bike riding,” Blaise told me, “and there’s a wonderful 26-mile bicycle trail around Camp Pendleton.”) But soldiers aren’t famously pious.
There is a distinct sense, then, that the handful of monks living there are a sort of endangered species, like the Shakers. Even St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana, the mother house, has 175 monks, with an attached seminary of about 200 or 300 students. But here Father Claude is 87, Brother Thomas with his motorized wheelchair is 80, and several other monks are old as well. And so Abbot Charles, as leader, has his work cut out for him for the future of the abbey and all the brothers and priests who dwell therein.
I would like to add here that I have never liked to make the distinctions, which is only hierarchical snobbery, between choir monks and brothers. They are in fact all monks, for one thing, and they have all given up their lives for God in the same way. In England, all religious are called “Dom,” in the monasteries of Buckfast and Printnash, for example, but it is the same story in France. As I have already indicated, however, in even the precincts of virtue and piety, even in a perfect communism — monks live in a sharing commonwealth, where literally there is no private ownership, that Marx himself would have envied — snobbery and class and even the rectitude of high office have a way of creeping in.
I wonder, in having said that, why it seems so comforting to me. Is it somehow to be absolved of all my other seemingly reactionary comments? Of my pre-Vatican II intractability and fuddy-duddiness in the ancient/modem debate?
Have I myself, let me ask, become one of Merton’s “triflers”? A civic fraud? A pious purchaser of evasion? Have I become over the years like “the men who thicken on their lees” that Zephaniah spoke of (Zephaniah 1:12), those who are overconfident because, like bottles of wine in which the sediment has settled, they have remained smugly at peace and undisturbed for a long time? Have I become just another programmatic shill for the old ways? “And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new," says Jesus (Luke 5:39) in an, I think, humorously perspicacious moment, “for he says, ‘The old is good.’ ” No, to celebrate the past is often to betray the possibilities of future, and I know that.
But how much indeed has changed simply by time passing. And it has affected me happily and sadly both. Prince of Peace Abbey is bright, open, spacious, its pews wide, the wide umbrella of its nave sheltering monk and visitor alike, retreatant and abbot. You can see from the huge abbey windows the shining Pacific Ocean, like the waters of Siloe. The main altar is exposed and up front for the congregation, not barred or set back. I have mentioned how in commendable fraternity the Benedictines can converse with visitors and freely mingle with lay people on monastery grounds. There are longer hours of lectio divina, divine reading, now than before. The monks no longer file into church for the little offices of Sext and None. And talk, everywhere, is allowed.
And what about the chant? A Liturgy of the Hours in notebook form — with indifferent and, I think, irrelevant pen-and-ink drawings — is used as the indispensable handbook by both monks and lay people, for feast day and ferial, at every office now. Copies are stacked on a table and picked up as you enter church. “Let absolutely nothing be preferred to the work of God,” wrote St. Benedict in his Rule about this public prayer, this Opus Dei. It centers monastic life and is before all else the raison d’etre for anyone’s being there. The psalmody, be it noted, is part of the prayer, and Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, the cantor, who is from the Philippines, leads the chant from his front stall and with a beautiful voice. But to my mind the singing is sloth-slow and often not on key, and the congregation follows along with devotion but with little expertise. Of course I am a prig to point this out — St. Dominic once remarked that a person is more in the spirit of God to enter a church to get out of the rain than to enter it strictly for aesthetic reasons — but it’s annoying. The varied neo-Middle Eastern and ancient melodies of old plainchant have gone, the exotic rises and falls, and, along with the Latin, has gone much of the magic. The modern liturgical book that has replaced the psalters’, with their magnificent Latin psalms, is vapid with flatfooted, dopey English translations bereft of concreteness and force, and people drone them out like walking morts out of a graveyard.
As I stood there in my pew in Oceanside, paradoxically son of the fathering child I was, I also wondered if the monks still carried pocket watches and held them up at the end of a job, silently, to walk in file, like Grumpy, Happy, Doc, etc., back to the abbey? Silently checked to see if Neighbor Left and Neighbor Right had food in refectory (they, in my day, could say nothing), without which, until they were served, you yourself were not allowed to eat? Went barefoot on Good Friday? Sang “alleluias” when one of the community passed away? Set a place at every meal, symbolically, for a stranger? (Monasteries are legitimate “sanctuaries,” off limits to police search; and I remember when the Boston Strangler was roaming around and hadn’t been caught it became the speculation of one FBI agent that, like Quasimodo at Notre Dame — a real medieval concept — he might have been holed up, with impunity, at an abbey!) Did they still sew their own garments? Maintain the Great Silence, with not a word or gesture expressed between Compline and Mass the next day? May I admit something? I didn’t want to find out, so I never asked.
But while austerity, if it is important to the concept of discipline and order, isn’t the full story of it, self-denial, like prayer, is still the sine qua non of spiritual growth. And the commitment to that at Prince of Peace in Oceanside is in every way strong and visible. Rules are nothing next to the spirit of Christmas in the heart. These 25 men have given up their lives for God Alone, committed themselves, removed themselves from worldly thoroughfares to the shadow of the Cross where saints are made — to be in the world, as the Trappists say, not of it. There is no evasion here or merely good conduct. Nor is there solely the pursuit of personal piety. It is a community doing the work of God by celebrating the liturgy as official prayer, the praying Church united in fraternal and spiritual love. By flourishing there, the community of monks is inviting wanderers to cross a threshold and find their way home again, which recalls for me a passage, a very plain passage, found early in the Gospel of St. John (1:38-39), when Jesus is asked by someone, “Where do you live?” and to that simple question he replies just as simply, “Come and see.”