Tag Archives: Monk

A Monk’s Story Part 5

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

A Monk’s Story Part 5

by Beckett

English: Roman Catholic monks of the singing o...

THE RINGING OF THE BELLS

One of my favorite jobs in the monastery was ringing the church bells.

The prior assigned that work to junior monks like me.

Each of us took turns ringing the bells one week a month.

There were six bells. Each had a name.

Raphael, Blaze, Laurence, Gabriel, Sixtus, and Angelo.

Each bell had a long rope that stretched from the bell tower all the way down to the church, into the ambulatory – the hidden walkway that reaches around the back of the church, behind the main altar.

The ropes were worn from years of use.

We rang the bells almost every day for prayer.

The bells were a way of communicating. We had sacred silence in the monastery. Ringing the bells told us when prayer began. Tolling the bells told us how prayer was ending.

For ringing, I simply continued pulling on the rope to keep the bell swinging with momentum.

Tolling means I could only let the bell ring once. It was a controlled clang.

We had four kinds of days of prayer. Each kind of day required a different way to ring the bells.

Most days were ordinary. We rang and tolled Gabriel then. He was the middle bell.

We never heard him at the first prayer service, Matins, just before 5 am. That was still a time of silence.

 

Gabriel was first rung with the sunrise, at 6am, for our Laudes service.

 

His note could be heard for about half a mile, all the way down to the Carmelite convent, where gentle sisters were also gathering together for their own morning prayer service.

 

We run Gabriel before mass, before Vespers (evening prayer), and before Compline (night prayer).

 

He was also tolled for our Angelus Prayer, which began after Laudes and Vespers. That was a prayer remembering how the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary, the mother of God.

 

Tolling Gabriel for the Angelus Prayer was tricky. He had to be tolled three times, then three more times, and then three last times. And then he was rung for a full minute.

 

Tolling bells was difficult for me at first.

 

Each bell had its own personality, and this was especially true for tolling.

For the lightest bell, Angelo, you could pull his rope down once, and hold it so that one note tolled out.

But you could not do that with Gabriel. He was too heavy. I had to pull his rope down just enough so that the hammer in the bell was about to strike a note, and then I’d release him, so that his bell tolled on the upswing. But then I had to quickly grab the rope again, to stop the bell from swinging back, preventing any further notes from knelling.

Tolling was an important aspect of monastic work.

Another kind of prayer day was memorials. That’s when we remembered an important event in the church’s history, such as the death of John the Baptist. On those days we’d ring two bells.

And after Laudes and Vespers, we’d toll just Gabriel again.

Fewer than ordinary days and memorial days were feasts. But they were more celebratory. Those were days when we remembered important events that shaped our relationship with God, such as Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.

On those days I’d ring three bells. This meant that I would have to get another monk to help me. Sometimes I couldn’t find another brother. Trying to ring three bells at once was challenging, but it was possible, albeit awkward. I’d have to pull the rope of the two lighter bells in one hand while pulling the rope of the heavier bell in the other.

Fewest of the four prayer days were solemnities. They were the most important celebrations of our year. On those days, we remembered events that we believed changed the course of human history, such as Christmas and Easter.

On those days, all six bells were rung.

I had to get five other brothers to help me, and sometimes we had to make do with only four.

Each kind of day – ordinary, memorial, festal, and solemn – had a special sequence for the ringing of the bells.

Most days I’d ring Gabriel for a minute or so, while the monks walked in statio from the cloister to the church. I’d ring until they processed through the church and took their place in choir.

On festal days I’d ring the bells in a particular sequence for about five minutes. The sequence began with all three bells ringing for a minute. Then each bell was rung alone for a minute. Next two bells were rung together for the last minute. Finally all the bells were rung together.

Solemn days were wonderful! For mass, all six bells had to be rung for 15 minutes. This sequence began with all six bells ringing together for five minutes. Then each bell had a turn alone for a minute. Some bells were coupled together for a few minutes. At last, when the celebration was about to begin, all the bells had to be rung together.

The noise was grand, especially on the Easter Vigil, which began at 10pm and finished at 2am.

Before then, we had 40 days of Lent. We didn’t ring bells during that time because bells were considered celebratory instruments, and for us Lent was supposed to have greater gravitas.

Instead of ringing bells we had what we called a “clacker.” It was a wooden instrument with a handle that had to be cranked around, like an organ grinder. Yes, it made a *clacking* noise. It was penitentially loud.

We were glad when Lent finished for many reasons, Easter being principal, of course, but also because we put the clacker aside.

At the Easter Vigil, all six bells were rung for the first time after 40 days. It was a welcomed sound. We were celebrating the fact that we weren’t afraid of death any more because we believed that Jesus defeated it by rising from his tomb. All six bells announced our joy.

The bell ringing commenced two hours after the service began, right at the stroke of midnight.

We rang all six bells for almost ten minutes.

The bells could be heard for miles around. Many families lived down the road from the abbey. I never heard of any neighbor complaining.

Easter was beautiful because we celebrated life from death.

But funerals were equally important.

Only one bell could be heard at our requiems, Raphael, the largest.

We seldom rang him. He was seldom heard.

Most often we rang him with his five brothers, such as during Easter.

He was so heavy that, if you held on to his rope, he would pull you up into the air, which was often the case when it was time for the bells to silence.

I had to put all my weight into stopping his momentum. He could lift me five feet up.

But Raphael was never rung for the monk’s requiem: He was tolled.

Tolling him was the most challenging task. But I believe it was also the most important.

Like Gabriel, I had to pull Raphael down to the point where he was about to make a sound, and then I let go of his rope, so that the bell tolled on the up swing.

You see: Only one other noise preceded Raphael’s tolling: It was the noise of a hammer nailing the deceased brother into his coffin.

Our coffins were simply wooden boxes. The lower half of the brother was always nailed up. The upper half was exposed for the rest of us to view.

Once our requiem ended, the upper half was nailed closed. The hammer striking the head of the nail was the only sound in the church.

Some brothers couldn’t stand that noise. It sent them running from the church in tears.

So tolling Raphael the right way was important. It was the last celebratory noise we’d make for that deceased brother.

It was the last send off. It told everyone within earshot: Here is a brother who meant something to us. Here is a brother who did his best. Here is a brother we loved and served and helped grow closer to God. Here is a brother who acted as a channel of God’s love for us.

Several brother monks would carry his coffin from our church to our churchyard, where a grave had already been dug.

For Brother Gabriel’s funeral, I worked hard to toll Raphael just right.

It was my way to say goodbye, and ask forgiveness for the times I failed him.

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A Monk’s Story Part 3

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

A Monk’s Story Part 3

by Becket

At the heart of every religious vocation is the call to love. Love one another as we are loved. Sometimes love is prayer. Other times it’s work.

Before I entered the monastery, I don’t think I loved myself. Sure, I had a healthy hope of survival. But that’s not the same as healthy self-love. To be perfectly blunt, I didn’t love myself because I couldn’t. I didn’t know who I was. How could I love someone I didn’t know? This question begged another: If I don’t love myself, how can I love someone else?

Before the monastery, I didn’t fit in. In high school I clique-hopped. Early college too.

I couldn’t do that in the monastery. There were no cliques. There was only a small group of men working everyday to be kind to one another.

So my first year in the monastery was the quintessential pivot-point of my life. It shifted me from self-ambiguity to healthy self-love.

St. Joseph Abbey Church

As a novice I had to have a spiritual director. Usually this is an older or more experienced monk acting as a guide to monastic formation.

One monk in particular I hoped would be my spiritual director, Fr. Ambrose. He was elderly, wore large glasses, and had a long white beard. He was always reading, always quiet. He seemed to have an appealing grandfatherly kindness.

So I was greatly shocked when, upon asking him to be my spiritual director, he said, “No.”

Later I came to know him better. Today I believe he denied my request because all he truly wanted was to diminish before his brothers. That is, he wanted a more hermetic life. Quiet, simple.

A brash novice like myself was a thunderclap in his serenity.

Despite my disappointment, I returned to him twice more.

Finally he consented. I became his spiritual directee.

Quickly I discovered that he and I had different personalities, and that we appreciated different ways of communicating. Nevertheless, he proved to be the best spiritual director I ever had, and one of the best men I’ve ever known.

As my religious brother, he observed me in community, at meals, at recreation, and during prayer and work. As my elder, he called me on many faults. “A monk must let go of the world,” he would tell me. “You’re thinking too much about temporary things on earth and not about the heart of eternal love.”

The greatest fault he caught in me changed me life. He saw my great fault. It wasn’t something that I did consciously. You could say that from my youth I was taught to behave in a particular way. It wasn’t bad behavior. It just wasn’t healthy. Fr. Ambrose saw that how I was was not who I could be. And he said to me in so many words: “Whether you stay a monk or get married, whether you make monastic vows or wedding vows, you can’t give to anyone else something you do not possess. And healthy love is a possession that must by its very nature be given away freely.”

What didn’t I possess, Fr. Ambrose?

“Your self,” he said to me.

The true journey of my monastic vocation began at that moment.

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Hope in Exile

 

It happened one day that one of the brethren in the monastery of Abba Elias was tempted.   Cast out of the monastery, he went over the mountain to Abba Anthony. The brother lived near him for a while and then Anthony sent him back to the monastery from which he had been expelled. When the brothers saw him they cast him out yet again, and he went back to Abba Anthony saying, ‘My Father, they will not receive me.’ Then the old man sent them a message saying, ‘A boat was shipwrecked at sea and lost its cargo; with great difficulty it reached the shore; but you want to throw into the sea that which has found a safe harbor on the shore. ‘When the brothers understood that it was Abba Anthony who had sent them this monk, they received him at once.

—-Sayings of the Desert

This saying deals with a very difficult dilemma. I am going to assume that the brothers who expelled the monk had a legitimate reason to do so. When people live in community, or attend the same church, there are times that personalities clash, mistakes are made, and the boredom of sameness hits. In all these situations there is usually a more guilty party that pays the price of the conflict, but there should be a desire for reconciliation. Abba Anthony reminds us in this saying that we are all potential victims of a personal or spiritual shipwreck. Further he tells us we would never turn our backs on the victims of a true shipwreck that comes to our shores. The real key to the saying is this; when someone asks to be reconciled with the community, we must give them a chance at redemption. Permanent exile, or expulsion, is not the way of the Christian.

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Filed under Antony of Egypt, Christian Living, Church, Church Conflict, Community, Desert Fathers

The Ear of Your Heart

English: Retreat at Monastery of the Holy Spirit

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the following statement: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” Though Benedict wrote his rule for monks, it can easily be applied to all Christians. Today’s society cries out for a rule, a guide, or just something to help us cobble together some meaning and order in our lives. In the day of New Monasticism, perhaps it is a good time to look at the basic structure of “old monasticism.”

Benedict gives us two very key concepts in his opening statement, the concepts of listening and listening with the ear of your heart. The first is listening – listening in such a way that we truly hear. Our buzz phrase is multi-tasking. In this multi-society, the very idea of giving anything your undivided attention seems to be outlandish. Benedict, on the other hand, calls on the monks to listen to the instructions.  Not only to listen, but to do so with all that we possess.

The type of listening that would serve the monks, and the ordinary Christian as well, is one that seeks the words of a master. Our real challenge is to let go of our egos and seek the master. We can very easily call Jesus our master, but we need a companion or a guide to help us to better understand our Lord. Throughout history men and women have gathered together in churches and other places dedicated to understanding our creator. In these places people have argued, disputed, and parted company to find meaning and truth. Benedict challenges us to listen, and with listening, God will speak.

We hear God with the ear of the heart. Over the years we have heard all sorts of things, some enlightening, others ridiculous, and all claiming to be the message of God. The ear of the heart is the listening given to us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised not to leave His disciples orphaned, but to send an advocate to be with them. That advocate is the Spirit of God that lives within us. By attuning our ear to the Spirit we can listen and hear His instructions. At church, at work, at home, listen with the ear of your heart and God will pour out His blessings to you and fill your life with praise.

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The Monastic Path

Some sixteen hundred years ago men and women who sought a deep relationship with God went to the Egyptian desert to find a sense of peace and unity with Him. These men and women became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers (the Abbas and Ammas.) They lived a simple and somewhat isolated life of work and prayer, and followed a three step program to mysticism. The goal of every monk was to see and feel the mystical presence of God.

The first level was Purgatio, a time when the young monks through prayer and ascetic practices sought to control their “flesh.” Specifically they were challenged to control their desire for wealth, lust of the flesh, and gluttony. This period of purgation could last for years, and didn’t conclude until they realized that the only control was found through grace. This grace came directly from the Holy Spirit.

Then the young monk went to the second step, Illuminatio. During this period the monks practiced the paths to holiness as revealed in the Gospel, identifying strongly with the Christ who taught the Sermon on the Mount. At this point the monk began to guide others in their paths of purgation, helping them to discover the grace of God. They entertained visitors and took on students as their resources allowed. Often the monk stayed at this stage until his death.

The final stage was Unitio, a period in which the soul of the monk was meant to bond with the Spirit of God in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon. At this point, many monks withdrew to the deep desert, modeling their journey after resurrected Christ, when he hid himself from His disciples, and appeared to them sparingly.

Amazingly, we can learn so much from desert monasticism. These pioneers of spirituality provide for us a personal path to God that works so well. Just imagine what  life would be if we would follow the path of the desert, as we sought God. Many of the conflicts and worst church experiences could be avoided. If each Christian saw as his first task to purge himself of the desires of the flesh (not just sexual lust), and then share his journey, without judgment, with someone else, we would teach and hold up each other. It would be the burning desire of every believer to assist others in finding their path.

I am not sure that any of us will ever get to this final stage. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught an order of salvation: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Unitio and glorification are similar theologies, and Wesley concluded that glorification was not possible in our lifetime. I agree with Wesley’s conclusion, but we can have such a joyful journey if we are mindful of ourselves and those around us.

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Filed under Christian Living, Commitment, Desert Fathers, Methodist, Missional Living, Monasticism, Sermon on the Mount, Spiritual Growth