Following his predecessor Ambrose of Milan Pope Paul VI during Vatican II named Mary Mother of the Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I had the pleasure of meeting Becket while I was doing some personal soul-searching at St. Joseph Abbey. At the time he was a professing monk who had not taken his final vows. He has since left the monastery to become the personal assistant of the writer Anne Rice. In a recent conversation has given me permission to reprint his story as he is posting it on Facebook. I hope you find these installments as fascinating as I do. I will be posting these installments on Monday. Irvin
For those new to this page, I have been sharing about my life before I started working for Anne Rice.
Anne and I met while I was in a monastery in New Orleans.
I was a Benedictine monk for several years.
In the last post I shared with you how I made my temporary vows, received the black habit of the Benedictines, and received my monastic name, Becket.
Now I’d like to share with you what happened right after that…
In most romance stories there’s the courtship and the marriage and then the honeymoon.
For many, once the honeymoon ends, the story ceases to be a romance. It becomes a drama.
I wish that I could say the monastic life was without drama. But that would be to say that there had been no romance with it either.
Yes, before I became a monk, I had a romance with the monastic life. I saw the flowing robes of the black monastic habits, I heard the chanting of the choir monks, and I smelled the good incense wafting in billows throughout the cavernous church.
Yes, the monastic life is beautiful, in the same way any marriage or partnership can be beautiful, especially when each person sincerely desires to be united in love.
After I made my temporary vows, after I gained my monastic name and donned my new habit, I soon realized one important truth: The monastery wasn’t a museum of heavenly saints. It was a hospital for broken men.
And I was a part of them. Indeed I was broken.
Were good men in the monastery?
Did hurtful things happen there?
The monastery, I soon realized, was a microcosm of the world.
We were perfectly imperfect men devoting ourselves to prayer and to the great struggle of loving one another with the affection of brothers.
After I became an official monk, I received new work.
Once a week I had to serve as porter, greeting guests and answering phones.
Or I had to ring the church bells for each prayer service.
Or I had to serve as waiter at lunch and supper.
Or I had to wash dishes.
Or I had to read books during meals while my brother monks ate in silence — all of which are more facets of monastic life that I hope to share with you soon.
But the honeymoon of monastic life didn’t end there. That was only work.
The drama of monastic life began when I had to learn to get along with someone I didn’t like, yet had to love.
Brother Simon and I did not get along, at least not at first.
From where I stood, he didn’t seem to have any sincere desire to be a part of the monastery.
As I’ve written in previous posts, the monastery has specific times for prayer. It’s our horarium. Laudes is the hour for Morning Prayer. Vespers is the hour for Evening Prayer. We have predawn prayer and nighttime prayer and mass.
During each of those times, I began the nasty habit of watching Brother Simon because he wasn’t paying attention to the prayers.
He was looking around at all the paintings in the church, and at the gorgeous architecture, and at the magnificent pipe organ, and at anything but his choir book.
I could not understand how anyone would want to be a monk yet at the same time seem so irreverent.
I brought my grievances to my spiritual director, Father Ambrose. It was supposed to be my time for spiritual direction. But I was squandering it as a chance to gripe about Brother Simon, who I thought should leave the monastery.
“My life would be better if he left,” I said.
Father Ambrose was patient and kind with me. His wise and wizened face smiled. He scratched his long white beard. He thought before he spoke. Like all sagacious men, he only needed to tell me a few words.
With his few words, he reminded me that I didn’t know what was in Brother Simon’s heart. My brother might be paying attention to prayer, just not in the same way that I pay attention.
With his few words, Father Ambrose reminded me that I might be just as guilty as my brother. Brother Simon might not be watching his choir book. But neither was I. I was watching him watch other things.
Here are the few words that Father Ambrose spoke to me:
“If you’re not bothered by Brother Simon, you’re going to be bothered by someone else.”
I was shaken like never before.
These words caused in me a cascade of thought, helping me realize that everyone is bothered by someone.
It’s a part of human nature.
But Father Ambrose continued helping me see that human nature also has a surprising capacity to transcend brotherly hate.
At that moment I understood: That’s what it meant to be a monk.
Being a monk wasn’t only about the work of prayer. I was supposed to be working what I’d learned in prayer.
I had been unjustly judging Brother Simon. I was looking at the outside of the man, yet I wasn’t searching for the interior life of the monk.
You see, not all monks are the same. We were simply men who had one important common bond: We have a deep interior life that searches for an existential truth by means of work and prayer.
We worked together. We prayed together.
Yet sometimes we struggled to be in the same church together.
The thing that kept us working together and praying together was our long-term goal of discovering truth along the pathway of self-discovery and self-sacrifice.
The more we discovered about ourselves, the more we were challenged to sacrifice.
Father Ambrose had handed to me a profound helping of self-discovery. Now it was time for self-sacrifice.
So, Brother Simon and I talked.
It was all that needed to happen.
Brother Simon and I communicated our struggles. We shared our fears and our hopes and the things that confused us. Most importantly, we listened to one another.
Today Brother Simon heads the media department at the monastery.
It took some time, but I have come to admire him greatly. He has excellent taste in the visual arts. He’s a wonder with Photoshop.
And today, if I’m in insufferable traffic, or if I’m behind a penitentially slow person in the supermarket checkout, or if I’m struggling to like the person sitting next to me, I recall Brother Simon, and Father Ambrose’s lesson…
If I’m not bothered by this person, I’m going to be bothered by someone else.
I can’t rid myself of temptations to hate. That would be impossible. Temptations are natural. Hate is natural.
But sacrificing my “self” is also a natural action.
In the same way I chose to start seeing the inside of Brother Simon, I try to see the heart of the brother or sister beside me.
Does it expunge the temptation to hate?
No. But it does diminish it enough for me to work with kindness and patience.
Do I always succeed?
But the purpose of my life isn’t to be pure perfection. It’s to accept myself as a perfectly imperfect person, struggling to surrender.
What am I surrendering to?
A truth that I’m still trying to accept: I don’t know everything.
But I know enough to be kind.