Soliloquy in an International Cloister

Watch your step as Brother Lawrence takes you inside the monastery walls of a five hundred year-old international order. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish you had ignored your hormones and joined the monastery.

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Location: Rome, Italy

29 March 2008

Legenda Fratrum, Pars XV

Brother H had a cold just as Holy Week was approaching. Not wishing to deprive his congregation of spiritual nourishment during the holiest week of the year, he decided to tape his homily before completely losing his voice. At Mass a few days later, when it was time for the homily, he turned on the tape recorder and sat down while the recording played.

At the end of the recording, Brother H made no move to turn off the recorder. In fact, he made no move at all. Finally, the server was forced to nudge Brother, who had gone to sleep during his own homily.

22 March 2008

The Way We Were, Part I

According to Blogspot, this is my 100th post so I feel an obligation to make it an especially good one. Fortunately for me (not so much for you), I've been trained to ignore my feelings.

However, I will take advantage of this "postversary" to launch a new series entitled, "The Way We Were." These posts will focus on monastic practices that have gone the way of civilized public discourse. I hope you enjoy them. Today's topic is The Discipline.

What is the Discipline? A young man being initiated into our Order once posed that question to an older brother. In terms of succinctness, there is no better answer than the one he gave: "Hehee. You beat your ass, brother. You beat your ass!"

The Discipline was both the practice of beating your ass and the instrument with which you did it. The instrument was a leather strap about nine inches long (or about 23 cm for those who use that godless metric system). Four or five metal chains about 10 inches long were attached to one end of the strap. At a certain time each day, usually just after supper, all the brothers would line up along the walls in a large room. The shades were drawn and the lights turned out so the room was in complete darkness. At that point, the brothers lifted their robes and lowered their drawers to expose their bare buttocks. Then each brother would swing his Discipline back and forth so that the metal chains would strike his buttocks--not hard enough to draw blood, but presumably hard enough to cause some red welts.* This was done for a prescribed period of time then, at a signal, the drawers came back up and the robes back down.

The purpose of this exercise was to "mortify the flesh." That is, it was supposed to train the brothers to be able to ignore fleshly temptations and worldly allurements. Since the practice was stopped in the late 60's or early 70's, before I joined, I cannot vouch for the effectiveness of the method. However, having taken both Psychology 101 AND Psychology 102, I feel highly qualified to give an opinion on the matter. I suspect the process would have worked something like the following: as the brothers beat their asses, they would have been reminded that they should ignore fleshly temptations, such as thoughts of naked women, and thoughts of naked women in the shower, and thoughts of naked women wrestling with each other, and thoughts of naked women ... well, you get the point. All these thoughts about the naked women that they were supposed to be ignoring would arouse them. Finally, the impressionable young minds of the brothers would have associated ass beatings with getting to think about naked women, leading to generations of sado-masochist monks. If B.F. Skinner hadn't come along to explain all that stuff about positive and negative reinforcement, we might still be doing this crap today.

When things in the Church and the world began to change in the 60's, the younger brothers began to lose respect for this venerable old tradition, which, by the way, was practiced by many religious orders besides the one to which I belong. In one story I heard, a certain brother would sneak a pillow into the room under his robe. When the lights went down, he pulled out the pillow and loosed his fury on it with his Discipline. It made such an impression on the others that the Superior felt compelled to call out, "Moderatio, frater! Moderatio!" Such tomfoolery was the beginning of the end for this practice. So far, I have heard no talk about bringing this one back.

*Children, do not try this at home.

21 March 2008

Diplomacy, Indonesian style

When I was in Indonesia last month, I ate something that my body desperately wanted to get rid of several hours later. After trying various medicines I had at hand, I finally went to a very nice hospital in Medan to get the problem diagnosed and fixed. I was immediately ushered to a bed in the emergency room, where a nurse began taking my temperature, blood pressure, etc.

Nurse (after removing the blood pressure cuff): You have high blood pressure.

Me: Really? I've always had good blood pressure readings.

Nurse: No, it is high. For an old man it would be okay, but for you it is high. How old are you?

Me: [insert age]

Nurse: Your blood pressure is okay.

09 March 2008

I see dead people

I have to admit that for a religion that makes eternal life the center of its sales pitch, we Catholics have a deep fascination with death, or more exactly, with dead people. What other religion proudly displays statues of their dead savior in every place of worship? Another example is the practice of collecting and displaying relics of the saints in our churches. Having possession of the corpse of a saintly person was considered so important in the Middle Ages that grave robbing was not uncommon. When Saint Francis of Assisi died, he was buried in secret for fear that residents of the nearby town of Perugia would attempt to steal his body. It wasn't until 1818 (he died in 1226) that his tomb was found. Most of Saint Catherine of Siena is buried in her hometown, but somehow her skull found its way to a church in Rome. Finally, three different churches claim to have the head of Saint John the Baptist. While this may seem impossible, the explanation is very simple: one is of John as a young man, another when he was middle-aged, and the third when he was an old man.

The religious order to which I belong even goes beyond your average, off-the-shelf Catholic when it comes to dead people. Witness the crypts of our churches in Rome, Palermo and Brno. In keeping with this tradition, I attended a ceremony on Sunday, March 2, during which the body of one of our saints was exhumed. I don't want to mention his name (to prevent random googlers from landing here), but you can read about the ceremony here if you'd like. The procedure is quite normal—in fact it is normally required before anyone is declared a saint. One reason is so that the tomb can be secured to prevent tampering (see above regarding grave robbing). It is rumored that another reason for the procedure is to prevent the embarrasment of canonizing someone who lost his/her faith just before death. There is a legend, for instance, that when the tomb of the saintly Thomas a Kempis was opened, they found a contorted body and scratch marks inside the coffin lid. Apparently, his brothers mistook a good snooze for death, and buried him alive. Or maybe they were just playing a practical joke. Anyway, upon waking up, rather than calmly accepting his situation as the will of God, as any good Christian would do, he despaired and tried to claw his way out of the grave. Wimp!

Despite exhumation being a common procedure, in typical Italian fashion, there were huge amounts of hysteria surrounding the event last Sunday. A small group of people were opposed to mucking around with the saint's body so they asked a court for a restraining order to stop the procedure. The bishop in charge of the ceremony was informed a few hours before it was to begin that the police might be called in to stop it so he was as nervous as George Bush at a spelling bee. Normally, only four or five people would be present for the procedure, but because of the controversy surrounding it and of the saint's popularity, about 100 people were invited to attend. The large crowd merely added to his anxiety. We were given strict instructions before being admitted into the crypt: we were not to leave our seats until the ceremony was over; cameras and cell phones would be confiscated and the owner escorted out of the room.

Most of the ceremony was fairly boring: several decrees about this and that were read, some speeches were given and we said a lot of prayers. Finally, we got to the part everyone had come for. The tomb was opened and the casket lifted out. At one point, a pall-bearer tripped and almost fell into the tomb along with the casket. Great amounts of oohs and aahs. Then the seals on the casket were inspected. They were intact, which was not surprising since the casket had been under three tons of granite until a few days earlier. The outer lid was removed from the casket, revealing an inner lining of zinc. The zinc was cut away and removed, revealing a glass covering over the body. A buzz of excitement. People were craning their necks trying to get a glimpse into the coffin. Unfortunately, there was so much condensation inside the glass covering that it completely obscured the body. Groans of disappointment. The casket was then whisked away into a specially-outfitted room where specialists will work at preserving the body for future generations. Later we were told that despite all the measures taken to avoid it, the top part of the body was fairly decomposed. Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that.

So, you are asking, why were people opposed to the exhumation? According to the request for a restraining order, they merely wanted to prevent a desecration of the saint's body. A look around at the number of tongues, fingers, hearts, skulls and other assorted body parts on display in churches around Italy should be enough to convince anyone that there are other motives at work. One has to do with the large shrine that was built to honor this particular saint. Some people have accused the architect of including masonic symbols throughout the church. These same people are afraid that the exhumation is only an excuse to move the body to the new church. The most likely reason for the opposition has to do with money. Through some convoluted thought process, this group of people has concluded that moving the body into the new church will allow the Vatican to take control of all the donations. Some of those donations now go to the brothers, who in turn use the money locally. The Vatican, in this scenario, will take the money and spend it elsewhere, thus depriving the locals of their livelihood.

I sense an opera coming on.