Seminary, a Benedictine Monk, and Flannery O’connor

It is finished. τετελεσται. This week I completed the work necessary to complete my Masters of New Testament and my Masters of Theology. It has been an interesting journey. It never ended up being exactly what I expected. I suspect, however, it was what God thought I needed. I was blessed to have, as my final assignment, an opportunity to visit a Benedictine Monastery. In many ways this journey was characteristic of my journey in seminary, almost allegorically. So, with that, here is my story:

“The Misfit” and I

I arrived at the monastery around eight in the morning, about an hour before mass. It was a cool, rainy morning. It was not burdensome or violent rain, nor was it the kind of rain that would keep one from going outside. It was the type of rain that caused the air to be wet and appear like fog. It was a mist that shrouded most of the monastery in an opaque haze. Even the church, with its steeple rising above the tree line, was shrouded in mist until one was right in front of elaborate oak doors. It was a quintessential spring morning in the Appalachians, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I was greeted by Brother Isidore. He was exactly what one would think of when one thinks of a monk. He was wonderfully awkward but had a charm that is somehow unique to those who have accepted these Holy Orders, and yet, he also had a presence that, in a humble way, displayed his wisdom and spiritual maturity. He walked  me around the small monastery, pointing out the church, the refectory, the priory, and the guest house. All the while, he walked with his hood on because, as he said to me with a smile, “I don’t want to get my hair wet.”

After Brother Isidore left me, I took my own look around the guest house. I found the most comfortable couch I could find, in front of the largest window I could find. I pulled out my small copy of the Rule of St. Benedict and began reading. It was not long thereafter, however, that it was time for mass. I walked through the mist to the church. I had been to Roman Catholic mass before. It’s a weird feeling to sit through this liturgy. It’s beautiful and worshipful and yet, in the end I cannot sit at the same table as the brothers and sisters with whom I had just chanted: “In union with the whole Church we honor Mary, the ever-virgin mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God. We honor Joseph, her husband, the apostles and martyrs Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all the saints. May their merits and prayers grant us your constant help and protection. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” So, I left hungry.

I left the church to spend more time with St. Benedict. “O God, who didst vouchsafe to fill thy most blessed Confessor Benedict with the spirit of all the righteous: grant unto us thy servants who celebrate his Solemnity that, being filled with the same spirit, we may faithfully accomplish that which thou hast enabled us to promise. Through Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, who with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth God, world without end. Amen. Blessed Father Benedict, pray for me. Amen.”

I finished reading through our Blessed Father’s rule that morning. The one thing that most stood out to me was a final chapter titled “The Good Zeal of Monks.”

Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates form God and leads to hell so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This then is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love; They should each tory to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom. 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weakness of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brother; to God, loving fear; to their Abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, an may he bring us all together to everlasting life. (RB 17)

“A good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life,” this is what I wanted, the good zeal of the monks. “O lord, this is what I want! But at present, I am lowly.”

I ate my lunch after Sext silently with the brothers. I remember there was a reader for lunch, as there is typically at a meal with Benedictines; however, I neither remember what he read nor where it was from. But what I do remember, in great detail, is the silence and being in the presence of “the good zeal of the monks.” It was a heavy feeling. It weighed upon my chest as though each passing moment was another brick laid upon my sternum, each breath harder and harder. Each of these brothers, clad in black robes, had something that I did not. Again, I left hungry.

As the sun further rose to the height of the afternoon the Appalachian morning mist burnt off, and I found a dry spot on a picnic table to sit. And that’s what I did. I sat. I sat and I watched as the weight of the water from this morning’s rain caused the leaves to fall to the ground. I sat and I watched the wind blow the Crape Myrtle flowers unceremoniously from their perch. I sat, I watched, and I thought what it would mean for me to have the good zeal of the monks. I scribbled fervently in a small brown moleskin notebook what I thought would bring me to this zeal. I scribbled out a rule of life as if to say “Lord, what I am asking for is really very ridiculous. I am saying, at present, I am lowly, but give me the good zeal of the monks, immediately.”

I went to None that afternoon. It was just the monks and I this time. The sisters prayed this hour in private. The monks processed, in followed by the abbot. They took their seats and we sat in silence. The abbot then, by rapping the pew in front of him with his first knuckle, gave the signal for us to begin. We stood and began to say the prayers to ourselves, but I was distracted. “Our Father, who art in heaven… I am lowly, oh God…..hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done…grant me the good zeal of the monks, oh Lord… On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread… but the Lord can do that, can’t he?…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen… The Lord can grant the good zeal of the monks to the lowly.

We finished the liturgy and the monks processed out. I stoped and stared at the altar. I, myself, then processed out. I dipped my hand in the Holy Water Font, crossed myself, and left the monastery. I left hungry, but hopeful.

And so, I leave seminary hungry but I leave hopeful.

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One thought on “Seminary, a Benedictine Monk, and Flannery O’connor

  1. Elizabeth

    One of the most beautiful sermons you have ever “preached” dear son. How beautiful to God is the one who seeks him thus.

    Reply

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