The Word Made Strange
Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts is a former dairy farm turned into one of the largest Catholic monasteries in the country. The monks of Spencer are Cistercians, also known as Trappists, which means their religious observance is among the most strict in the Catholic Church. Their monastery is a bastion of the kind of Old World faith my parents have spent their lives trying to reform, and it is a place I felt drawn to as if it was a homeland I had never seen.
Late in November of my senior year of college, I rode a bus from Northampton to Worcester, which was as close as one could get to Spencer without a car. When I stepped off, I saw a man standing in the glow of the Peter Pan/Trailways sign, his silver hair tinted green by the neon. Despite the chill in the air, he wore his light fall jacket unzipped, holding it open like a flasher, showing off his black shirt and white plastic collar to everyone who walked by.
“I never wear this get up,” he said when I introduced myself. “But I wanted to be sure you’d recognize me, and the habit can be a bit of a spectacle away from the abbey.”
His name was Father David and up until then we had spoken only by phone. A month before, I’d written a letter to Saint Joseph’s telling whomever received it that I was a somewhat lapsed Catholic and a student of religion. I explained that reading Thomas Merton had led me to study monasticism, and now I was interested in learning more.
“You’ll need to visit for a few days to get started,” Father David said when he called. “Do you have any time off from school in the coming weeks?”
That was all it took. Some small part of me had expected the clouds to part, the heavens to open, when I planned my entrance to the monastery, but I might as well have been talking to a travel agent. We settled on an arrival date, the weeks passed, and I boarded the bus. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a monk’s Oldsmobile in the green light of the Worcester Peter Pan terminal. Next stop Never-neverland.
We drove past the city limits, into the sleepy town of Spencer and through what felt like twenty miles of trees. The road dipped and we entered a thick fog, as if the forest all around us had been set on fire. I could only see ten feet in front of the windshield in the beam of the headlights, but I knew we were getting close. Over the hum of the engine I heard a church bell toll.
For the week that followed I lived by its schedule. Every morning after Mass, a bell brought the arrival of Brother Chris to the door of the postulants’ cottage. He was a burly man with a boy’s face that hadn’t seen much of the world; he had entered the monastery as a teenager thirty years before. Six foot four, ruddy Irish cheeks, it was easy to imagine him turning a field back in the Old Sod.
As on the farm it had been, the day’s work at the abbey was often determined by the weather. That first morning, the fog of the evening before had turned to rain, so when I met him he was waiting for me with a mop in hand and a cheery grin bulbing his cheeks.
“Morning, brother! Today we mop!” Whenever he opened his mouth a voice as big as he was boomed into the room. He blushed at the sound of it, as if he kept forgetting about the vow of silence that preserved the monastic calm.
Inside the cloister, Brother Chris pointed down the long glass-walled walkway to the church. “There are four halls like this, then the chapter room, then the refectory, the kitchen, and the infirmary. Shouldn’t take but a couple of hours.”
I was mopping all week. With a wheeled bucket and a wet floor sign I made my way up the length of one cloister walk, then another. The monks, dressed in the daytime habit – white robe with black hooded apron and cape attached, all held together by thick leather belt – passed by en route to the library, the church, or the kitchen. They nodded and grinned their greetings, never using actual words, since technically, according to the Rule, they were not permitted to speak. Occasionally one monk or another would pass with a puzzling hand signal and a wink. They had an elaborate sign language system consisting of several hundred gestures. A hand swiped over the face meant, “Beautiful.” Fingers tapped together and pulled apart meant, “Stop.”
When I finished the cloister, I moved into the chapter room, where meetings of the full community convened. It resembled a hotel banquet hall, just four walls and an empty floor roughly the size of a basketball court. Next, it was onto the refectory, where the monks took their meals, and the kitchen, in which a dozen brothers manned giant steel vats producing Trappist Preserves, the jams and jellies they shipped around the world and sold in supermarkets across the country. Complete with a logo showing a monk mixing a cauldron over a fire, the little jars were the abbey’s main source of income, and, with jam available at every meal, an obvious source of pride.
Finally it was on to the infirmary, where a number of the most senior monks now lived full time. They shuffled down the hall in slippers and winter hats, cardigan sweaters pulled over their habits. I mopped thin stripes along the floor, careful to let one dry before beginning another.
The work was mind-numbingly monotonous, but that was the point. Laborare est orare, the monks like to say. To work is to pray. Wetting the mop, wringing the mop, slathering the mop around the tile floor, a line from scripture kept coming to mind: Wash me and I will be whiter than snow, wash me and I will be whiter than snow…. Even when the water in my bucket was less snow-white than beef-stew-brown, I mopped to the cadence of this biblical mantra.
The days slipped by. Few choices to make, no need for conversation, I was a cell of a larger organism with only automatic functions to perform. Wake pray eat pray work pray sleep pray, all of it as natural as breathing.
I fell easily into the monastic routine. Up before dawn, two hours of plainchant in church, an hour of reading, back to church for Lauds and Mass, then I tended to Brother Chris’s work assignment – “Today we rake!” “Today we dig!” “Today we move five hundred folding chairs!” – until the bell rang out and it was time to chant again.
A week after my arrival, a Nor’easter came in before Vespers and blew hard against the windows of the postulant’s cottage, dumping ten inches of snow in a matter of hours, with chest-deep drifts collecting in the odd angles of the monastic architecture. It had blown itself out by Vigils, so we all gathered as usual in the church and dedicated our psalms to those who might have been caught in the storm. At daybreak, the sun glared on the icy fields that sloped away from the abbey. The crosses in the monks’ graveyard stood buried to their heads; the cloister windows were so well covered we might have been inside an ant farm, looking out from a narrow tunnel behind the glass.
Just after breakfast, Brother Chris appeared in the cottage doorway with a sharp-edged icebreaker and a metal snow scoop in hand.
“Morning, brother! Today we shovel!”
“I had a feeling,” I said.
He kept the icebreaker for himself and gave the shovel to me. “North side of the abbey’s all plugged up. Gotta clear the exits. Fire codes, brother. Fire codes!”
When I reached the back entrance to the cloister, a young monk called Brother Sebastian was already hard at work. No longer in his novice’s hoodless robe, he wore deep blue dungarees, baggy in the seat and the knees, with a quilted black jacket zipped to the chin. From the moment he saw me he talked nonstop. The sun kept me warm though the wind blew squalls around us, and all the while came this great gush of words from my workmate’s mouth. He talked mainly about not talking.
“Some of the brothers make a big deal about the silence here but jeez that’s something I’ve never been able to get a hold of you just experience so much here there’s always something bubbling up….
“Like on Good Friday,” he said. “On Good Friday we have a procession through the cloister you know like Our Lord’s march to Golgotha all of us in our bare feet-” His eyes widened behind his glasses. “Our Bare Feet! Can you imagine! Nobody and I mean nobody sees my feet.
“I did it like everybody else and it wasn’t so bad but still how do you go through something like that and not talk to somebody about it…”
I focused on my shoveling but didn’t want my future monastic brother to think I was ignoring him, so I found a rhythm of scrape and scoop and nod to Sebastian, scrape and scoop and nod to Sebastian, that kept me working at a steady pace and seemed to add punctuation to his sentences.
“It’s a good thing we have spiritual directors” scrape and scoop and nod “boy if I couldn’t talk to Reverend Father about that kind of stuff wooo” scrape and scoop and nod “I’d just about burst last week he told me my interior life was like a big clump of overcooked spaghetti” scrape and scoop and nod “all these strands boiled too long they got all stuck together” scrape and scoop and nod “he told me I need to get them separated to figure out what it is that has got me in such a knot…
“You know trying to make sense of what God wants from me is a bit like shoveling in the wind,” he said. “I work and I work and I feel like I’ve cleared a path only to look back and see that it’s all covered over again it’s like I think I’ve gotten somewhere but then there’s nothing but white behind me like I’m right where I started…”
I scraped and scooped and nodded through two hours of this, cutting across a field of snow up to my knees. By the time the bell rang for Terce, the third prayer session of the day, we had dug a trench as long as the shadow of the bell tower. When we reached the iron and wood door to the cloister and brushed away the last powdered inches, Brother Sebastian finally stopped talking for a moment and looked at me.
“Hey you know I probably shouldn’t say this-” He paused again and we both stood helpless as a snowdrift fell like an avalanche, burying our boots, the doorway, the stairs. “-but you have got priest written all over your face.”
That seemed to be the general consensus. With vocations to the priesthood at an all time low, I was treated at the monastery like an NBA draft pick. The brothers made me feel welcome, even loved, but I suspect this reception had less to do with me than with the fact that any new interest in monasticism was celebrated as an affirmation of it. It was not for nothing that whenever I mopped the floor in the infirmary one of the elderly monks would pat me on the arm as he walked by. As it had been for the priests and nuns my parents knew in their adolescence, there was only one way these men could be sure that the life they had chosen would not die with them.
And like my father before me, I discovered that when it came to priests, I was eager to please. As a group, the men of Spencer were the kindest, most sincere and honest I had ever met. They also seemed genuinely pleased with their circumstances – pleased in a daily, glad-to-be-alive way. To share, even for a short time, in the life they lived was to a gift.
Yet the longer I stayed at the abbey, the more difficult it became to ignore the obvious. The monks’ days were divided by prayer, and so too, I began to think, were their lives. Within the monastery walls it was possible to maintain the illusion that the world of women and bodies and sex didn’t exist, yet the only true break occurred within the men themselves. Perhaps someone with unambiguous, unfailing faith could explore such a rift and find a divine spark hiding inside. My faith was neither. What would happen if I stayed?
On one of my last nights in Spencer, I prayed for a sign. If I was ever going to make sense of the ambivalence I felt about this place, I decided, it would be at the day’s last gathering for prayer, Compline. It had become my favorite in my weeks at the abbey. The peace of the darkened church felt like falling backward into God’s arms. And when we sang the together, “Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit….” it was a moment at which anything seemed possible.
It may have been the tricks darkness can play on the eye sometimes, or else the peculiar monastic sleep schedule, or perhaps the cumulative effect of what by then had been hundreds of hours spent chanting psalms and hymns, but I had begun to see things while we prayed. There was something to the movement of the candlelight, the way it jumped in the drafty church, which made images appear in the shadows like flickering silent films. Once I’d seen a hooded face in the splash of light against the polished wood of the choir stall. At first it looked like a figure straight from the comic books that were my earliest scripture, sunken eyes in a skull barely covered with skin, but as I stared and as the psalms rolled on – “Teach us to number our days…” “The bones you have crushed will rejoice…” – I saw that the face was my own as it might be if I became a monk and remained in this place forty years or more.
That evening I looked away from the glow of candle flame, afraid what I might see. Instead, I stared up at the crucifix that hung above the altar, at the tortured man who had brought my parents together, making my life possible. How was it, I wondered, that a church with a body at its very beginning, a faith with a body as its most potent symbol, could come to so distrust the flesh?
At my side the monks began stirring. Compline was over. Now the church bell was bonging and bonging telling us it was the start of the Great Silence, time for the monks to return to their cells.
One by one they stood and formed a line leading toward the altar. I took my place behind them and saw that at the front each man was bowing to the abbot, a mustachioed monk wearing a large pectoral cross. Holding a holy water dispenser that looked like a gold-plated ice-cream scoop, he splashed a few drops on each brother as they passed, and then on me, the end of the line.
I was about to leave, to head back through the cloister to my cottage, but something stopped me. I had felt close to something the moment before the bell rang, and like someone desperately trying to get back to sleep to finish a happy dream, I figured all I had to do to experience it again was go back where I had been. I returned to my spot at the rear of the church, knelt, crossed myself, and prayed. To understand what I was doing there. To know what it was that I was supposed to learn. How could I feel called to be something that would shut me off from half of life, from women, from fatherhood, from sex? I thought of my mother and my father and my Great Uncle Fred. Of my family of failed priests and runaway nuns. Of faith and hope and bodies tied in a knot. Dear God, I prayed, couldn’t you for once make something simple?
“Please,” I said.
For a moment there was only silence, but then I heard a voice above me, an answer to all my prayers. The biblical cliché for such pronouncements is that it comes in the kind of “still, small voice” heard by the prophet Elijah. This one rang out like an Irish whisper.
“You don’t belong here,” it said.
Just a simple, obvious statement, but I felt a flood of relief wash over me.
No, I thought, I don’t.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes. White and black habit, thick leather belt, big blond head. It was Brother Chris.
“Yeah really sorry, brother,” he said, “but no one allowed in the church after Compline.” He shrugged, lifting his thick arms into the air. “It’s the rules.”
I stood and walked with him out of the church. When we reached the cloister, he put a hand to his mouth and tried to speak softly, without much success. “Weather report says more snow tonight, brother. Tomorrow we shovel again!”
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.