A Monastic Habit

Note: This is another story from my old friend Becket. I just couldn’t resist this one because he speaks of his relationship with Brother George. That make it special to me because George and I have known each other since high school. I am using a pcture that shows all of us when we had just finished a day at the bakery.

By Becket

In the monastery we were encouraged to have a hobby. Developing a hobby was as important as delving fully into our Benedictine motto: Work and prayer. Work in the monastic life was for the monastery. Prayer was for others. But a hobby was for you, and you alone. An avocation that reflected your vocation. In other words, hobbies brought a human element to the monastic life. A healthy outlet to simply be yourself.

Brother Cadfael started a small vineyard. Father Dominic enjoyed archeology and taxidermy. Abbot Justin had a small green house and he grew a lovely garden. Father Augustine enjoyed bird watching, and he jokingly referred to himself as an “ornitheologist.”

For several months I looked for “my” monastic hobby.

I tried working in the haberdasher shop with Father Ambrose. He showed me how to measure and cut cloth. He showed me how to sew with machine or needle and thread. He was patient and kind.

It was good work. But it was not my hobby.

The abbey sits on 14,000 acres of land. One day I went walking toward the dense woods. I passed the retreat house and the bakery. I passed the early 19th century houses where slaves once lived, long before the monastery bought the land. Finally I came to a large barn where the first monks raised livestock for their daily sustenance.

The barn was large. It had once been red, but the paint was faded and peeling off. Mostly it was being used for storage.

The barn door was locked.

I could peer within and see the shadows of a hobby waiting to happen.

Becket, Me, Bede and George after a morning at the bakery.

Becket, Me, Bede and George after a morning at the bakery.

At that moment, Brother George happened to be passing by. He asked me if I’d like to see inside.

Brother George was the monastic accountant. He was a burly man, over 6 feet tall. His size made him seem intimidating. Some brothers feared asking him for pittance.

But he was a born and bred New Orleanian from the Ninth Ward. Brother George wore his happiness over his monastic habit. Same with his sorrow. You knew where you stood with him by his expression.

That day his cheerful face told me good news: He knew where the key was.

Together we got it and unlocked the barn.

Inside was a treasure trove of forgotten furniture and unfinished projects.

Brother George reminisced how he had once worked in there. How he used to build furniture and coffins.

Why did he stop?

“When your work life loses your prayer life,” he said, “you forget how to be happy.”

I asked him if he’d like to work in the barn again.

His cheerful expression grew even more cheerful. That surprised me.

He and I spent the next few weeks clearing a work place in the barn. Much wood had warped in the Louisiana humidity. But some wood was still good.

Together we separated the good wood from the bad. We began dreaming about what we should build.

It had to be simple. It had to be something for other people.

It had to be a three-peg clothes rack, we decided in the end.

You see: Our monastic cells were simple. Older monks had a closet, a toilet and shower, a desk and chair, and a bed. Younger monks had all that – minus a toilet and shower. Ours was communal.

But none of our cells had a clothes rack.

Brother George and I designed one to fit perfectly on the back of the doors.

A professional carpenter would have laughed to see us. But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t our profession. It was our hobby. It was good work that reflected who we were far beyond our monastic habits, in the secret chambers of our very human hearts.

We wanted to be like a carpenter from Nazareth. We were children all over again.

Brother George and I set our finished product before the other monastic brothers. They liked our clothes rack so much that we had several commissions.

Soon our work in the barn attracted the attention of Brother Cyril. He wasn’t interested in building clothes racks, although he was searching for a hobby that he could also give back to the brothers.

Brother Cyril began building coffins.

His designs were elegant simplicity: An oblong wooden box for a believer in the resurrection from death.

Brother Martin was buried in one. So were Father Dominic and Brother Gabriel. So were several other brothers. Soon the barn became the carpentry shop. More coffins were made. So were more clothes racks. And many other projects.

Eventually I had to go to school for my MA. I couldn’t work in the carpentry shop any longer. I had to leave my hobby behind to prepare for my future work.

Even now, years after I’ve left the monastery, they’re still making coffins.

The abbey just won a major lawsuit against the state, giving them the right to sell coffins commercially.

I am happy for them.

Yet I cannot forget the condition of the carpentry shop during my novitiate. It had been an old barn. Nothing more. A locked up, forgotten barn. Within which was a shadow of my hobby.

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Filed under Benedict of Nursia, Monasticism

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