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

28 August 2011

Bicycling in Rome II

In an earlier post about bicycling in Rome, I mentioned that a bridge along the Tiber River bike path had been inexplicably closed for four years. It finally opened last March after the Inspector for Aged Oak in the Wooden Plank Committee of the Bridge Inspection Office of the Parks and Recreation Department certified its safety after deciding that he was too tired to go all the way to Tor di Quinto to look at a stupid bridge. As far as I can tell, the only change they made was to paint the railings. I have used that bridge for the last three Sundays while bicycling from the monastery to the Ponte Castel Giubileo and back—about 36 km altogether. It's wonderful! And on Sunday mornings in August, most Italians are on holidays or still in bed so it is relatively free of obstacles. Okay, I know it is sad to think about other people as obstacles, but many Italians on the bike path are out for a leisurely, social experience, while I am there for exercise. Riding a bicycle on Sunday afternoons provides me with many, many opportunities to practice patience and self-restraint!

This morning when I came to the famous bridge it was again barricaded (incompetently, however, so it was easy to by-pass). Some genius had decided to set fire to the grass underneath the bridge, which then spread to the wooden planks covering it. Yeah, wood is flammable Einstein! Based on past experience, I'd guess it will take only ten years to get the ruined planks replaced.

At this point, you are probably asking yourself, "Why doesn't the big whiner just go the other direction on the Tiber River bike path?" Well, I tried that two weeks ago, but that path is blocked by the booths for a summer festival. There are two banks for every river; why do they have to set up the booths on the side that has the bike path when the other side of the river equally suitable? Sigh.

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22 August 2011

A trip down memory lane

Moving not only provides an opportunity to throw out a lot of junk, but also to discover old treasures. Last week I rescued from the attic the first computer used in the monastery, which I had stored up there over 11 years ago. I was lucky to find it since much of that section of the attic had already been cleared out.

Of course, I should not be attached to earthly things; instead I should be storing up treasures in heaven. Yadda yadda yadda. Despite that, I was really happy to see the old girl. Some forward-thinking brother convinced the authorities in 1984 or 1985 that they should have a computer so they bought an IBM PC 5150 with 640K RAM and a whopping 20MB hard disk. They then invited an American brother to install some useful programs on it—a database program called TIM and the Leading Edge word processing program. After installing the programs, said American brother returned to America. Only one of the brothers in Rome knew how to operate it so it sat idle most of the time. In the hope of getting something useful from their investment, the authorities went searching for a brother who knew something about computers and was willing to live in Rome, and they found me. So this computer, you see, is responsible for getting me out of a teaching job that I hated, for showing me the world outside the U.S., for my learning a second language, for meeting some of my best friends, for discovering good Italian food and even, in a round-about way, for the existence of this blog.

(As an aside, our Order was late to the game; in the early 80's, some larger, more organized Orders spent mega-bucks on DEC mini-computers—systems that were obsolete within a few years. Sometimes it pays to be slow.)

At the time, the higher-ups viewed the computer as an exotic piece of equipment that should be used only for VERY SPECIAL, EXTREMELY IMPORTANT MATTERS OF THE ORDER. I'm not sure what they had in mind; top secret missives to the Holy Father, maybe. I saw it as an expensive tool that was going to waste so I began to use it for ordinary tasks, such as writing letters. A few brothers accused me of being wasteful because I {gasp} used the computer almost daily. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of resistance to my suggestion that computers were meant to substitute typewriters, not complement them. Eventually, however, that is what happened. Our proto-computer was relegated to ever more menial tasks, in the end serving to store the card catalog for our small library.

After carefully bringing it from the attic to my room, I dusted it off, blew the cobwebs off its motherboard, hooked up the monitor and keyboard, then flipped its switch. Lights blinked and the hard disk whirred as it (I imagine) wondered where it was and what year it was. A minute or two later I was greeted with the old, familiar beep and "C:>". Welcome back, old friend!

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18 August 2011

Sic Transit Curia, Monday

Our headquarters in Rome (called a "General Curia" in the arcane terminology of the R.C. Church) was built around 1900 and last remodeled around 1950. Even to us, who tend to classify the events of 1759 as "recent history", the time seemed ripe to remodel the old monastery. Much has changed in the last 60 years. Take the whole concept of personal hygiene, for instance. Gone are the days (thank God!) when a weekly bath was deemed sufficient. Usually, said bath was taken on Saturday afternoon, so as to be "clean and fresh" for Sunday's Masses. There were still one or two brothers clinging to this tradition when I started working here in 1988, and believe me, you did not want to be within 50 meters of those guys on a Friday, especially in the summer. So back then it was sufficient to have two or three showers in each wing of the building. With the increased level of hygiene, however, one sometimes arrives to find all the showers occupied.

It was also once the case that no one except a brother or perhaps the occasional visiting prelate would get beyond the ground floor of the monastery. Given the complete privacy, it made sense to intersperse offices with bedrooms on the first and second floors. That way, one could go right from his riposo to his work. Today, however, it has become necessary and common to invite consultants, technicians and other experts to our offices. This has occasionally led to an awkward moment, as an outsider encountered a towel-clad brother on his way to the shower.

We decided, therefore, to re-organize and modernize our building—new wiring, new plumbing, new climate control and energy efficiency. Given the scope of the work, we must completely vacate the building for around two and a half years. We have already moved out tons of books and paper—some to our new, temporary location, and some to the recycling center. We have probably supplied toilet paper to all of Italy for the next five years! The immanence of the move really hit me when they packed up the portraits of our former general ministers and carted them off to storage. Ghosts of the portraits are still clinging tightly to the wall outside my room. Come to think of it, that is probably a metaphor for my own reluctance to leave a place that has been the background for so many pieces of who I am.

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