Community as Purgatory I was intrigued by a comment that Pope Francis made during a visit with the nuns of San Damiano during his recent trip to Assisi. Actually, a lot of what he says intrigues me, which is well-nigh miraculous in this day and age, and it’s a story best-addressed another time. In his comments to the nuns, however, he tossed out a throw-away line that must have hit home to everyone in the room. Pointing out the obvious, he said that “community life is not easy.” But then came the clincher: ”…make sure that the monastery is not a purgatory.” For those who are married and might imagine the monastery as some sort of idyllic escape from hell, this must come as a bit of a surprise. And for those who think that life in community is the solution to loneliness or freedom from the petty cares of the world, I have news for you. The truth is, life in community can indeed be a purgatory, except on those days when it tip-toes across the threshold into hell. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the nuns at San Damiano; or for that matter, ask the next monk or nun you meet. Better still, ask the Pope. On this issue he speaks infallibly, and he needs no throne or Church council to ratify his observation. I don’t want to leave the impression that life in the monastery is one long Bataan death march through this valley of tears. Far from it. In fact, there are terrific days, and sometimes those days can stretch into weeks or months. But if a monk or nun doesn’t bump up against the presence of sin within the ranks, it’s probably because they are residents of the cemetery. And it’s also because they’ve not looked into the mirror in a while. It’s not that most monks don’t try to do well. And it’s not that Saint Benedict didn’t try to set a high bar. In fact, I think he hoped that the community might replicate a mix of the Garden of Eden and the community of believers in Jerusalem, as outlined in the Acts of the Apostles. In the case of the first, tranquility and a daily walk with God marked the lives of Eden’s residents. In the case of the Christian community in Jerusalem, all shared what they had, prayed together, and got along swimmingly. But I’ve never been under any illusion that peace and harmony began to fray just about lunch-time on the first day. By mid-afternoon they were already pushing the boundaries into purgatory. In some respects Saint Benedict can seem pretty naive in his prescription for the monastery. All are to have enough to eat, enough sleep, decent clothing, rounded off with a balance of prayer and meaningful work and study and sacred reading. All are to see the face of Christ in whomever they meet — including the abbot, the young monks, the elderly and the guest. ”How hard can that be?” the non-monk asks rhetorically. Well, to be candid, it’s easier to see Christ in the total stranger whom you’ll never see again in your life than it is in the guy whom you sit beside for years on end. There’s no point in giving an exhaustive list of cases in which you have to squint really hard to see Christ in your monastic neighbor. Besides, to paraphrase Saint John the Evangelist, there are not books enough in the world to contain them all. Still, it doesn’t hurt to cite a few, just to give a sense of things. Take, for instance, the monk who returns from Saint Cloud with a foot-long scrape on the side of the car. And worse still, what about the monk who returns the car on empty, and you’re the next driver to use it and you’re behind schedule already. Or the monk who’s chronically late for prayer and wears clunky shoes that announce his every step. Or the reader at table who thinks he doesn’t need to prepare. And what of the monk who gets up at every meeting to offer some inane comment? About him I will remain silent, except to note that he elicits a rolling of eyes and a collective “How long, Oh Lord?” And I’ve not even begun to cover the things we say or do to each other that are actually intended to irritate. I hope I never forget the dinner at which one confrere muttered within earshot of another whose table manners were less than elegant: ”That guy oughtta be out in the barn.” This elicited ripples of uncontrolled laughter, partly because it was the pot calling the kettle black. But we also dreaded the revenge that was sure to follow. That’s how life-long grudges get started in the monastery, and Saint Benedict was wise enough to devote some ink to the issue of nursing grudges. In short, this is when community life morphs into purgatory. But don’t be under any illusion that it can’t or won’t get worse. I’m not about to venture into the really big stuff because, after all, I do have to live with my confreres, and they with me. But in fairness to monks and nuns everywhere, I would offer that we have no monopoly on these sorts of things. And I’ve been around the block often enough to know that they happen even outside of the monastery. As supporting evidence I offer up one of my favorite movies of all time, The Lion in Winter. After a particularly nasty knife fight among Henry II and their three sons, Katharine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine collapses in a doorway, turns to the audience and confides: ”After all, what family doesn’t have it’s ups and downs?” So there you have it. Whether monastic or otherwise, every family does have its ups and downs. But when purgatory or even hell become an accepted way of life, then we need the conversion of life of which Saint Benedict writes. Conflict is certainly part of life, but it’s no substitute for a life well-lived. And a life well-lived only comes with regular self-examination and good communication with your brothers and sisters. And whether we like it or not, conversion of life must begin each and every morning, and we have to keep it up all the way through to bed-time. And then we start at square one the next day. I’d be curious to know what effect, if any, the pope’s words had on the nuns at San Damiano. Did things return to business as usual the minute the doors closed behind Pope Francis? Did his words prompt a bit of soul-searching? I’d like to think that there were some knowing smiles. I suspect that more than a few turned to each other and said: ”Good Lord, and we thought we were the only ones who did that.” Notes +The weather in Minnesota shifted decidedly to autumn this last week, but the fall colors have been very slow to come. Absent any brilliant display of gold and red leaves, I’ve included in today’s post the last hurrah of flowers at Saint John’s. Tucked away here and there are pockets of color, which all seem to appreciate as they walk by. Little do the flowers know what awaits them with the first autumn frost. But for now, let them bloom on. +On October 4th I attended and spoke briefly at a reception at the home of President Thomas Mengler of Saint Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX. Since my father grew up north of San Antonio, it is always a treat to return to places that are firm in my own childhood memories. Also in attendance was the Archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo Garcia-Siller. Archbishop Gustavo is a member of the Holy Spirt Missionaries, and he was born in Mexico. For several years he headed the house of studies for his Order, which it conducted in cooperation with Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. So he has a strong affection for the Benedictine tradition.
A Monk’s Chronicle: 7 October MMXIII — Community as Purgatory
October 7, 2013 by monkschronicle