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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Monks, Priors, Nuns, Oh My!

We of the Christian faith in these times have long held the view that monasticism was a mistake. –A chanting, incense-smoking mistake…but a mistake, nevertheless. –That the man or woman who so had the desire to dedicate their entire life to prayer, study, silence, and a sort of solitary community among others of this profession, that these drab individuals have missed the point of Christianity and that we have truly seized the truth of Christ in its full freedom and…indulgence (?)

However, things could not be further from the truth. If anything is missing from the belief that I was brought up in, it has something to do with the quiet humility that such a monastic life is wrapped up inside.

Bobby Jackson, at my church had had slight interaction with a monastery up in North Alabama. When he invited me to go with him last week to this same monastery, (an institution that I, hitherto, thought was in nonexistence in this state), I couldn’t help but jump at the opportunity.

I had been to several monasteries in my time. There was Sergey Posad, an ancient relic of a monastery shining as a lost token of what was once Holy Russia. And then there was Meteora, the mountaintop hermitage of Greek monks who were nested up in the skies like bearded hawks of Christendom. –And then, outside the faith, there was my unforgettable romp with Buddhist monks in Tibet. However, this all posed problems for a sad monolingual as myself; the language barrier was too thick and most interaction was forced into a impassable vow of silence.

So Bobby was heading up that way to a Catholic monastery to deliver an air conditioner, repair a statue, and talk to the prior…and I rode along with him.

The Sacred Heart Community in Cullman, Alabama is composed of an entire convent, and down the road, an entire abbey. These monastics were of the Benedictine Order. My first encounter with any of this community was when we walked up to the convent’s door and there in the doorway stood two nuns, without their habits, about to go outside. The picture that was painted before my eyes was the utter spontaneity of these nuns, for I forgot to mention that it was starting to drizzle and the nuns saw this rain as a perfect time to walk in their gardens. And what irony this event played on my preconceived notions of what a nun is supposed to be, was a herald to the ironies that soon became known during my visit.

For some reason, we of the Protestant background are of the assumption that if we truly lay down our lives for Christ, then we will be lifeless…it’s as though it never occurred to us the more we lay down our lives the more life dwells in us.

And so after we delivered the air conditioner, Bobby squatted in the convent hallway fixing the shepherd’s staff of St. Benedict. Bobby is a sculptor. You know those little, bitty statue-toys of Fantasy book characters that all those kids who like to dress in black collect? Well, he sculpts those. Makes a living from orcs and trolls. Feeds a family with elves and dwarves.

So this man was doing his God-given talent to help out the nunnery when one of the sisters walks up. Introduces herself, and before long she is showing me around some nearby rooms of the convent. Telling me stories about the antiques and artwork. They had this large mirror that was rumored to be Josephine’s, the wife of Napoleon. I glanced into it thinking that this conqueror’s lady may have stood before the same mirror wondering if her heels would make her tower over her man and would he go off and plunder another nation because of it.

Decoration is very catholic; Symbol is even more catholic. And that’s what I found walking around. Instead of the renunciation of the beautiful, you find the exquisite appreciation of it. For the nuns understood the concept that all beauty comes from God. I was brought up thinking, indirectly, that the appreciation of the beautiful was in competition with God. But no, a beautiful object is the evidence and the jagged trace of a God. Things very fine and cultured where brought before my eyes, which is what church should also share in. Many of the learned of today, believe that church and culture cannot mix. That church has been, from epoch to epoch, about destroying culture and contending with knowledge. But anyone who actually knows history, will see that the church actually guarded culture and preserved knowledge. Dante scribed the true journey of a man, Michelangelo painted God and Adam on a ceiling, Gutenberg first printed the Bible, and Mendel the monk played with peas and the world has never stopped changing since.

Out in the hallway, Bobby had finished repairing St. Benedict’s staff. Then he and this sister began talking and it was revealed that she too was a sculptor. It was agreed to look at some of her own work after we viewed the convent chapel. High Church chapels have very high ceilings. Why? To get that feeling that we are indeed very small. This is a very important concept…actually the first concept to be taken if one so desires to approach God…which I think may have been forgotten somewhere among the morning donuts and the deep conversations about football out in the church lobbies of a few places I’ve been. (I’m not against these…just think that leaning strictly towards one…makes you leave the other side out.) Also, the sense of quietness in these chapels is something to be commended. In silence lies God’s best proclamation. In praise bands, entertaining speakers, and biblical discussions, half of what is being heard is just plain noise. But in silence…that absence of sound is replaced by the soothings of something a bit holier.

The sister then showed us down into her studio where she spent a lot of time creating. And this was eye opening. Why, I had no idea nuns were into art. She retorted that they weren’t “into” it. But thrived on it. And this comment resounded something within me…that with art, there is something sacred in it. The light of Christ is so dazzling to those who put Him on that the acts of creation will seek for a place to transpire. The Beautiful cannot rest inside that person…that perhaps, he or she, may pick up a lump of clay, run to the piano, or grab a pen, and give form to what is being formed inside us. Creation is not some ancient event that apologists argue about. It is the movement and reaching of the divine in the moment. Everything can take part in this symphonic transformation. That is, if we let it. I saw beautiful objects. Not entirely beautiful by itself, for beauty never resides in a single object. But more in a succession, or the sweep of energy, and the grappling for Life’s Spirit in everything portrayed.
I saw one of my favorite quotes hanging in her studio. It read. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” –Einstein. Perhaps, it is through knowledge that we come to know our limits as men of the world; it is through imagination that we come to know our capabilities as children of God. An imaginative, sculpturing nun, I thought was as rare as a Calvinist comedian…but I was entirely wrong.

Bobby and I then proceeded to the abbey. He was to talk to the prior or abbot of the abbey. Bobby was thinking of becoming an oblate. The oblate in the Catholic Church is a role for those who have a wife and family who live out in the world but still take on the monastic order with their focused virtues of Humility, Compassion, Charity, and so forth. We waited out in the parlor when this old man approached walking very slowly.

This was Father O’Conner and he was the ripe age of 87. But he looked much younger than that. For some unknown reasons, cloistered nuns have the longest life span in the world. I guess this long life span comes to the monks as well. He offered us tea or coffee. We passed. And we sat down on this large couch. While the father sat in a chair. There was this pervasive sense of humility and good will twinkling in his eyes. He spoke as one wise, though not really wanting to be seen as wise. This man had certainly seen a lot. He had fought during WW2. He commented how war was hell. And then told this story about General Patton reading a Bible…when Patton was asked if he read the Bible that was laying on his coffee table, Patton retorted, “You’re goddamn right I read it everyday!” The old monk’s face beamed as he told us this story and chuckled at the conclusion. No shame in the words he just said, only humor and good will. And next, he spoke very carefully about the responsibilities of the commitment of oblation. And concluded that God was Love and once again his faced beamed. All his movements were very deliberate. They lacked any impatience or turmoil. Here was a man who had lived through a lot, but still had the assurance of a child. Bobby and I rode back that day talking. He’s still pondering and praying about taking the Monastic Order, and I’m still admiring everything that I saw there.


Blogger Ken Haynes said...

Great post- good to hear about the adventures on the roadtrip last week....

6:33 AM  
Blogger Greg Newton said...

Of nuns, and abbots, and sculptor, . . . and God!

7:47 AM  
Anonymous priest said...

thanks for capturing that, bro.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Brian Harrison said...

Thanks for reading, you guys.

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Abby Hebert said...

Brian - thanks for your beautiful expressions of spiritual/life contemplation. And thanks for your hilarious mascot stories at the Haynes tonight. I'll be laughing all week.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Brian Harrison said...

Thank you. I'm glad that my mascoteering is worth some laughs, at the cost of frowns from others.

8:24 PM  

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