You never know whom you’re going to be sitting next to on a plane these days. That’s why I usually make a bee-line for my seat, mutter a pleasant “Hello,” and bury my face in the paper.
It’s not that I’m hostile or predisposed to dislike my new neighbors. For all I know they could be the nicest people in the world. But I never can know that for sure. And what if they’re not? Who wants to strike up a conversation, only to discover that you’re stuck next to a crackpot and have to endure a diatribe that lasts the entire flight? Who hasn’t exchanged business cards with the pleasant person next to you, only to learn that he’s an ax-murderer on the way home from a job? Actually the latter has never happened to me, and it’s because I never give out business cards on a plane. No, a plane is no place to go looking for the friends you’ve always wanted. A cautious reserve is always the best policy, even if you are lonely.
To be fair, this business is a two-way street. Others are equally wary, even though in my case they have nothing to fear. I know for a fact that I’m neither eccentric nor boring; but experience has taught me how pointless it is to spend half an hour trying to convince people otherwise. Some people never listen, which I know to be a fact. And the rest of them are close-minded. So I’ve always figured that it’s their loss.
Last week I violated my rule against talking with strangers on the plane. I hadn’t intended to do so, and clearly the woman next to me had every intention of maintaining silence as well. But when the flight attendant spilled cold water on the both of us, the time to be stoic was over. There’s nothing like a good spill to get a conversation going, and for a few minutes it was as if we’d known each other for years.
The chat didn’t go on forever, but there was time for her to relate one good story. Two weeks earlier some guy had spilled a glass of red wine all over her beige outfit. The flight attendant, who’d had nothing to do with it, looked on in horror and apologized profusely. The people across the aisle were equally aghast. I guess each could imagine showing up at a meeting reeking of alcohol and looking a mess. In fact, everyone had something to say about it, except for the guy who had spilled it all over her. He was conspicuous by his silence. No apology; no word of regret; not even so much as a “Have a nice day!”
But with the mess cleaned up, he must have thought he had permission to speak. To her utter astonishment, he launched into a forty-five minute narrative about his wife. She was leaving him. In fact, she was divorcing him. She had given no explanation, and he just couldn’t fathom why in the world she would do such a thing to him, of all people.
To cut to the chase, my new friend was just about to tell him why his wife was divorcing him, but they landed. She’d scarcely been able to get a word in edgewise, and by the time they landed all she wanted was to be out of there. So she ran down the jetway to put as much distance between herself and this clown as possible. And I was the first person she’d talked to on a plane since then. I felt honored.
It’s quite a stretch to believe that anyone could be as self-unaware as this guy, but in fact there are quite a lot of such people running around airports these days. And they also show up in companies and in families and even in monasteries. In fact, there seems to be a general overabundance of cluelessness in our society, despite all the professionals and all the books that stand ready to help.
Her story caused me to reflect on how monks try to stay in touch with the reality around us, and I have to say it’s no less challenging for us than it is for others. What makes it work for us, at least sometimes, are the opportunities for self-examination that we build into our day. The daily reading of The Rule of Saint Benedict certainly puts right under our noses the expectations that we took upon ourselves when we first became monks. The Rule can be hard-hitting at times, especially if you pay attention. But of course you can also assume that when Saint Benedict writes about faults that he is describing the other monks. However, on more than a few occasions I’ve watched as monks came late to table, just as we’re reading about monks who come late to table. It’s a stretch to think that Benedict is writing about the other monks — the ones who are on time and already seated. But the human mind is capable of great feats of self-delusion.
We also read the Psalms, which can be a tremendous source for self-awareness. The Psalms run the gamut of human emotions, and in the course of praying them one discovers an affinity with one or the other emotion. That too can lead to greater self-awareness.
And then there are the penitential rite of the Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation. Certainly it’s possible to go through such rites and assume they are meant mainly for the benefit of others. But sooner or later something hits you, and the veil of self-delusion is pulled aside ever so slightly.
But I think Saint Benedict relies most heavily on human interaction to keep monks spiritually and psychologically honest. Whether it’s the abbot encouraging or correcting the monk, or whether it’s one monk gently taking another to task, it’s that exchange that softens the rough edges. Sooner or later we discover our weakness and faults, but we also learn that we share them with others.
I’m curious to know what will become of the wine-spiller. Given the circumstances, he’s headed for a nasty divorce. Given his social skills, I’ll bet he will never have the faintest idea why she’s leaving him. And given his general cluelessness, he will never find a happy solution to this. Too bad he hadn’t talked honestly with his wife, years earlier. Had he done so, he might still be talking with her today, rather than looking for insight from a total stranger on a plane.
+On October 22nd I flew to San Francisco to be part of a five-day retreat for the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. The retreat took place at San Damiano Retreat House in Danville, CA, and about forty-five people attended. In addition to the conferences that I delivered, I preached on October 23rd. My sermon, To Whom Much is Given, can be found in the file Presentations.
It always pays to be well-behaved, even when you think no one is looking. On the first day of our retreat, as I entered the dining room, there stood my confrere from Saint John’s, Fr. Cletus Connors, whose sabbatical group was also on retreat at San Damiano. I was equally surprised to meet up with a monk-friend from another monastery, whom I’d not seen in years. The final act was running into the pastor of the church in Oklahoma City which my sister attends. It truly is a small world.
+On October 27th we celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey church at Saint John’s. Recently my confrere, Br. David-Paul Lange, delivered a lengthy presentation entitled The Design of the Abbey Church. Br. David-Paul spoke at a luncheon for staff members at Saint John’s University, and his presentation was part of a series sponsored by the Benedictine Institute at the University. I encourage you to set aside some time to enjoy his talk.
+On my recent visit to Rome I had the chance to revisit one of my favorite places, the Church of Saint John Lateran. This was the seat of the bishop of Rome, and remains so today — despite the popular notion that Saint Peter’s is the seat of the bishop of Rome. In the Middle Ages a community of Benedictine monks lived there and ministered to the pilgrims. The photos in today’s post all come from there.