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

13 June 2008

Tribute to Brother Pilgrim - The Friend

When I finished high school, the paths of Brother Pilgrim and I diverged for many years. It wasn't until about twenty years later, after I had been in the Order for about 15 years, that I began to get re-acquainted with him. I had been put in charge of one of our monasteries. He lived in a different monastery in the same city and, because he was semi-retired, he would come to our monastery twice a week to cook for us. And, oh, what a cook! But that's beside the point. It was during this time that our relationship changed from teacher-student to brother-brother. I can pinpoint the exact moment. A guy showed up at our door one day saying that he was thinking of joining our Order. He looked a little weird, but, hey, we have our share of weird-looking brothers so I invited him into the kitchenette and offered him a cup of coffee. I asked him a few questions, which he answered in long, run-on sentences. Soon, he stopped waiting for the questions and went into a non-stop monologue. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration—he did stop long enough to ask for another cup of coffee. I should also mention that at one point, he pulled a small, very frightened looking puppy from his inside coat pocket. You're getting the picture by now. The whole time, Brother Pilgrim had been in the kitchen, quietly working on the evening meal. About an hour into the monologue, Brother Pilgrim said to me in an urgent tone of voice, "Brother, did you forget your appointment?!" Instinctively, I stood up, looked at my watch and said, "Oh my God!". The young man apologized for making me late, and left immediately. As I was showing him out, I realized that I had no appointments that day and, even if I had, Brother Pilgrim would not have known about them!

As Brother Pilgrim got older, he began acquiring an impressive collection of illnesses: diabetes, hepatitis, heart disease and osteoporosis, among others. This latter was to cause him the most problems. He broke bones in his arms and legs at least seven times. At one point, doctors screwed a metal rod onto one of his femurs in an attempt to hold it together. It worked for a few years until his brittle bones could no longer hold the screws in place. The loose rod then became an additional source of pain and had to be surgically removed. [A sidebar: A co-worker and I went to the hospital after the surgery and asked the receptionist if he had come out yet. She called the surgical unit to see and, after she had hung up, announced, "She just came out of surgery." (His real name could be used by either gender.) I turned to my co-worker and exclaimed, "She?! I told him he should have marked his bad leg!"]

Once, after another fall and another broken leg, it was decided that he could no longer remain in the monastery where he had been staying because no one could take proper care of him. He was given the choice of going into a nursing home or choosing a different monastery. He chose to transfer to the monastery where I was living because one of the other brothers there was a friend of his. Although he had mobility problems, he had an active mind so I was happy that he was moving in with us rather than going into some depressing nursing home. It wasn't an easy move. For instance, all the bedrooms were on the second floor and we had no elevator so we would have to help him up and down the stairs. I can't say that the brothers never got annoyed with the interruptions, but somehow we knew that if the tables were turned, he would do the same for us. He also never took any of it for granted. As soon as his leg had healed, he started cooking our evening meals, and he kept that up as long as he could. Even when it became too much for him, he continued to do the meal planning and supervised the hired cooks.

Brother Pilgrim kept his love of theater throughout his life. A few times a year, I took him to see shows at the local theaters. He would try to take part of his annual vacation in New York, where friends would get tickets to Broadway shows for him. He would return a week later exhausted, but beaming. Sometimes while he worked, he would play (much too loudly) the CD's of musicals he had seen. He had an amazing knowledge of actors, directors and the workings of the theater.

Something I didn't know about him until he came to live with us was how many people he was in regular contact with. Daily, he received telephone calls from his former high school students, from nurses and staff of the hospitals where he had been a chaplain, and even from some of the former patients in those hospitals. This was the most amazing thing for me. One of those former patients would fly 1000 miles every year just to visit him for a few days. This simple, unassuming man had a profound effect on everyone he met. He rarely talked about religion, but I believe he brought more people to God than a busload of preachers.

One of the great things about Brother Pilgrim was his ability to listen. When I was having a bad day, I could always talk to him. There wasn't a damn thing he could do to help me, but somehow I felt better after talking to him. Maybe it was because seeing him in his wheelchair made me realize that the sum of my problems paled in comparison to what he must have gone through in just getting out of bed each morning. Then again, he wasn't just a passive listener. He often came out with an insightful response that would help me see a question or problem in a new light. He also had some wickedly snarky comments about people he didn't like. Oooh, I loved those! God knows, he probably made similar comments about me, but I'm okay with it coming from him.

The day before he died, I was told, Brother Pilgrim was in the kitchen helping prepare the brothers' dinner. He probably felt like hell, but no one knew it because he rarely complained. He talked to the cook excitely about his upcoming trip to New York and the shows he wanted to see. The next morning, he quietly started on his final voyage.

I'm going to miss you, brother. Rest in peace.

09 June 2008

Tribute to a fellow pilgrim - The Trailblazer

About a month ago, I lost a good friend in the Order. His passing was not completely surprising since he has been on the brink several times before—I actually started writing this post last year—but this time he just crashed and never made it back. I had hoped that I would be there to say goodbye when the end was near, but as luck would have it I arrived a week too late.

I really began to know Brother Pilgrim, as I'll call him, only in the last eight years or so. He was a good twenty years older than I, and was one of my teachers in the all-boys high school I attended. Even though I was a self-centered little twit and distrustful of anyone in authority back then (it was the 70's, after all), there was something I liked about Brother Pilgrim. It may have been the sense of self-confidence he exuded. It wasn't a self-confidence that came from being smart, athletic or handsome. He wasn't any of those. He was overweight, walked with a limp and had only a GED, whereas most of the other brothers had masters degrees. I suppose that gave me hope that I wouldn't have to go through life battling my own insecurities. Then again, maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe I liked him because he showed us movies during religion class instead of lecturing us about the Trinity, Catholic moral teaching and other such nonsense. I also appreciated his sense of humor. As our class advisor one year, it fell to him to give us the standard lecture on proper behavior. I can still remember him telling us not to kick the soda machines when they weren't working, and "since the machines are physically incapable of having sex, there is no sense in asking them to do so." Wink wink. Nudge nudge.

Brother Pilgrim also directed the school plays, which was his real passion. Despite being a shy kid, I loved being in the school plays. It was during practices for the school plays that I learned my first lesson about Brother Pilgrim. He had a quick temper, but would just as quickly get over it. One moment he would be reading me the riot act for my stupidity, and a moment later he would congratulate me on a fine job. It infuriated me that he could so quickly get over his anger while I would stew about it for days. He once kicked me out of a play for arriving half an hour late for practice. I thought it was rather unfair since it was the first time I had been late. When he saw me later in the hallway, he gave me a hearty greeting, which I repaid with an icy glare. (Years later, he confided that he had never liked my part in the script, which had been written by another brother, because it was completely out of context. My late arrival gave him a convenient way of eliminating my part without hurting the feelings of the brother who wrote the play.)

One of the things that was unique about Brother Pilgrim was that he was not a priest. Non-ordained brothers are a minority in our Order, and back then it usually meant that you would be assigned only to manual labor, such as cooking, cleaning, sewing habits or making sandals. When Brother Pilgrim first entered the Order at the tender age of seventeen, that is exactly what he was assigned to do. He spent the first fourteen years of his life in the Order cooking for the brothers. When the fresh breezes of Vatican II started to blow through the Church, he saw other opportunities open to him. He asked and was given permission to pursue studies in theater and theology during the summer months. In his mid-forties, after many years of working in the high school, he enrolled in a Clinical Pastoral Experience program, then worked as a hospital chaplain for ten years. His trailblazing was important for me as I was making my decision to enter the Order. Seeing the various kinds of ministry that he was able to do helped me to choose not to be ordained.

Next: Brother Pilgrim - The Friend

01 June 2008

Legenda Fratrum, Pars XVI

We try to keep our elderly and sick brothers in the monastery as long as possible, resorting to the use of nursing homes only when we can no longer care for them ourselves. This worked very well when new vocations were plentiful because there were always a few zealous, young men around who were eager to score points, if not with God then at least with the superior.

As vocations have dwindled in the past years, however, the "younger" brothers now tend to be in their fifties and sixties. Which is to say that they are they noticeably lacking in the zeal department, and could give a flying f**k about scoring points. Although there are some kind souls who are willing to help the older brothers out of charity, others see it as an imposition. This sometimes leads to situations like this story I heard recently.

Brother C, the senior member of the monastery, had been confined to a wheelchair for years. He was generally depressed, spoke little, and spent most of the day slumped in his wheelchair. Brother S, the brother assigned to look after him, tried in vain to cheer him up and get him to take an interest in some activity. He was beginning to feel that Brother C was being purposely cantakerous, and it annoyed him.

One day, he came into Brother C's room to take him to the dining room for lunch. As usual, Brother C was slumped in his wheelchair. Brother S greeted him, but as usual, Brother C did not respond. Brother S chided him for not sitting up straight and for being so morose, then wheeled him into the dining room. He parked him at his regular table, told him again to sit up straight, then went to sit in his own place.

Just another day in the monastery. Except for Brother C. For as the other brothers at his table soon discovered, Brother C had already passed away, sitting in his wheelchair. One of the brothers loudly announced, "I believe Brother C is expired."