- Weekend Monk
I regard monks and poets as the best degenerates in America. Both have a finely developed sense of the sacred potential in all things.-Kathleen Norris
I am a slow and bumbling pilgrim.
So I couldn’t watch both the road and the pulsing blue GPS dot on my little iPhone map, and got lost somewhere near Dubuque. I’d accidentally spun the whole map upside down with my index finger, so nothing made sense. North was no longer north. I grew up just thirty miles away, but the dusty county road winding through the endless cornfields looked like a hundred others I’d traveled. And my internal compass is less reliable since I’ve grown reliant on digital ones. But finally, with a paper map, I found Monastery Road, and followed it to an asphalt lane, which led through a row of towering [End Page 169] white pines, and opened to the yellow stone entrance of the New Melleray Abbey. Like many small Iowa communities, it’s easy to miss, in the middle of nowhere, and quite beautiful––to those who can see where they are.
A pamphlet for guests in a rack near the Abbey’s entrance serves as a guide for visitors.
The monks describe themselves as “Christians professing the Rule of St. Benedict…” As you make your retreat at New Melleray, you will learn more about the monks, the Rule of Saint Benedict, and a life oriented to contemplative prayer.
That’s partly why I had come—to remember how to pray. Not that I ever knew, but I used to practice more––in seminary, which is where I first read about the Rule of St. Benedict. In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia, an ascetic monk, who lived in a cave in Italy for three years, wrote a book of rules for monastic communities. It prescribes a life of prayer that is separate from “the world,” obedient to Christian ideals, and under the authority of an abbot. The Rule later became the guidebook for monastic life, and for fifteen hundred years, monasteries around the globe have followed it, including New Melleray.
When I arrived at the Guestmaster’s office to get my room assignment, a stocky, balding, seventy-something monk was leaning on his walker and thumbing through a folder. He clearly didn’t expect me, but quickly found my reservation. “You’re in 218,” he said. “There are no keys. Meals are downstairs in the refectory after prayers.” When he asked where I was from, I mentioned that I’d taken classes at Chicago Theological Union (CTU)––a respected Catholic seminary. “We call that the Cesspool of Theological Uncertainty,” he said, smiling. Given this barb, and my own eclectic theology, I didn’t respond. For me, the “study of God” (ology theo), and religion itself, is rooted in uncertainty, in questions.
After my five-minute orientation was over, I had a “What am I doing here?” moment. Was I some ridiculous wannabe monk? I wasn’t Catholic, didn’t know how to pray or cross myself or bless myself with [End Page 170] holy water, or chant psalms melodically, or bow at the right times, or anything else. In spite of this ignorance, I still wondered if I might have a spiritual epiphany of some sort during my four-day stay—as if I could schedule, and recognize, such a revelation.
I thanked the Guestmaster, went to my car, grabbed my bag and books, and climbed the stairs to my “cell.” Cell. I like this word. It turns a monastery into a prison, a pilgrim into a prisoner, highlighting the isolation and suffering of monks and artists and other willing captives. Monks and artists seek to be creatively freed in their confinement, in their simple, boiled-down lives. They are not “doing time” but making it. That’s what the word poet (poetes) means: “maker.” An artist too has faith––in their search for meaning amid the mystery of creation––in how they trust and listen to the stillness.
And it was still––eerily quiet. The monks took no vows of silence, yet...