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. This one is a little special because I had the great priviledged of being advised and befriended by Father Thomas as well. Irvin
THE YAT BROTHER & THE RETREAT HOUSE
The monastery runs a small retreat house. The monk who ran the retreat house was Father Thomas.
Father Thomas was a true New Orleanean – he was a “Yat” in the finest sense.
A “Yat” is a dialect of New Orleans. And New Orleaneans who speak this dialect are called “Yats” because you’ll commonly hear them say, “Where y’at, dawlin’?”
Saying “Where y’at, dawlin’” is a common Yat greeting.
I always smiled whenever I went into New Orleans and heard two Yat friends greeting one another on the street with “Where y’at, dawlin’?”
Ah, I love New Orleans.
I loved Father Thomas like a brother. He was my monastic brother and he was my priestly father. He took me under his wing and he taught me much.
I used to help him give retreats in the retreat house.
When he first asked me to help him, I knew little about giving retreat conferences. As a teen, I worked in a spiritual youth program called “Search”. My job was to give one “talk” to my peers that weekend about my spiritual life.
But as a monk, and as a 20-something kid, I had to stand before all sorts of people once a week, wearing my black monastic habit, and speaking about a spiritual topic that might be pertinent to a retreatant’s life.
Retreatants would come from all over the country just to get away from the helter-skelter of their lives for a week. Some were in their 20s. A few were in their 30s. Most were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Some were in their 70s.
Retreatants came not to forget about finances, or paying bills, or fears of bad parenting. They came not to forget about their spouse or the struggles of their job.
No, they came to be better parents, betters spouses, better employees. They came to find out what God was calling them to do with their life. They came to better understand their relationship with God and with one another. They came to be better people and better children of God.
I truly loved giving conferences. Father Thomas invited me back almost every week.
Each year Father Thomas developed a new spiritual theme to talk about, and each year I gave a new talk on a spiritual topic. Sometimes I talked about prayer. Other times I talked about the theology of the human body. I tried to make all my conferences accessible, relevant, and meaningful for the retreatants.
At the beginning of each year, I usually read my conference from notes. By the end of the year, my conference would be memorized and I would converse more freely with my audience, sometimes joking with them, sometimes asking them questions, usually engaging in a more Socratic method of spiritual instruction.
I hope I served as a channel of God’s love for them.
Some retreatants felt refueled at the end of the retreat week, and they returned to their lives with a greater sense of spiritual stability.
Other retreatants wept at the end of the retreat week. They did not want to leave the peace that our simple, small monastery gave them. They were the ones I usually saw return year after year.
Giving spiritual conferences became more than just a wonderful avocation of my vocation. It helped me better understand the meaning of our monastic motto: Ora et labora (prayer and work).
Giving spiritual conferences was as much a prayer to God as it was work for my soul.
Father Thomas and I quickly became good friends. He also became my spiritual director. Father Ambrose had been a great spiritual director during one season of my monastic life. But as my habit grew heavier, Father Thomas helped shape me into a better man for my brothers and a better monk for God.
I would go to Father Thomas to confess my fears, my wrongdoings, and all my dark thoughts. He would help me see the difference between sin and bad habit. He helped me see that what I thought was sinning against the Love of God was simply me enabling a bad habit because I’d never learned the discipline to do otherwise.
Father Thomas was a wise and good monk. He had such a delightful laugh whenever he looked at my bad habits mercifully — the way I hoped God would look at them. Father Thomas would laugh and he would say in his Yat accent: “Lawd, Becket, I love ya like a brotha, but you’re such a fool, dawlin’.”
Father Thomas confessed to me also that he loved being a priest more than he loved being a monk. Yes, he loved quiet and prayer and contemplation — the quintessential elements of a monastic vocation. But the prayer and work that fueled his monastic existence was wholly different from the prayer and work that enflamed Father Ambrose’s vocation.
For Father Ambrose, the priesthood of his monastic life focused on the interior dynamic of the brothers in the monastery. For Father Thomas, however, his priesthood focused on how the shockwave of the monastic life affected the surrounding neighborhood. One looked inward, the other looked outward.
Both men helped me become in myself the synthesis of a monk: A man working to be less selfish and more selfless.
Soon I became Father Thomas’ assistant retreat director. Sometimes he would have to go out of town and he would leave me in charge of a retreat week. It was my job to ensure that the retreat weekend went smoothly. Those weeks also gave me a chance to see what Father Thomas meant: His work was different from Father Ambrose’s work, although their prayers were similar. Father Ambrose attended every hour of community prayer. However, Father Thomas’ work required him to be away from many monastic services. I did not see him often at Laudes or Vespers, but he was usually at mass. His brother monks understood that his work required him to show constant hospitality to the guests in the retreat house.
Hospitality has been a monastic staple for over 1500 years.
Father Thomas was always hospitable to me.
After the final prayer of the night, Compline (our hour for bedtime prayer), I would go to the retreat house. The sun would have already set and the stars would have begun to twinkle as I made the short walk from the cloister to the place where I knew Father Thomas would be — in the kitchen.
He and I would sit in the kitchen and we would talk for a little while, sipping red wine. Sometimes we would play cards. We always played a card game called “Hearts.” We would usually invite Brother George and one other brother because the game was better with four players. Sometimes the fourth was Brother Elijah, other times it was Father Basil, or Father Killian, and once it was Abbot Justin.
We were poor men so we drank red wine from a box. Our cheeks would redden with the wine’s effect and we would raise our glasses in a toast, and with large smiles we would salute the wine in Spanish: “Vino de la caja!”
That was one facet of my life for many years, and to this day I remember the good things of those days and nights. The bad times were unfortunate accidents in a large machine, and today they have been washed away by love and nostalgia.
The year after I left the monastery, Father Thomas had a heart attack and died. He was the first true friend I had who died.
His body was nailed into one of our monastic coffins — a simple box that would house a brother’s remains until the Last Day. The large bell in the bell tower was tolled as the brotherhood carried Father Thomas’ coffin to our churchyard, where he was inhumed.
There would be no more conferences like those he and I gave. There would be no more games of hearts or toasts to “Vino de la caja.” There would be no more Yat Brothers – for me at least.
Another brother took over the work of the retreat house.
We were workers in the hive of God. The pollen we gathered were men seeking a deeper relationship with Eternal Love. The sticky honey we made was a good home of spiritual maturation. We worked, we prayed, and we hoped that we would go to heaven to be with one another for all eternity, where we will understand one another better, why we failed one another sometimes, and how we loved one another as best as we could.
I look forward to seeing Father Thomas again one day. I am eager for heaven where I hope he will greet me in his Yat accent: “Lawd, dawlin’, you’ve been such a fool, but I love ya like a brotha. Get in here!