Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Hardest Thing to Do - Chapter 1

The Hardest Thing
Crossway Books (July 31, 2011)
Penelope Wilcock

Chapter 1

Brother Thomas sat impassively in his stall in the choir: he felt irritated nonetheless. The air was astir from Father Chad’s bustling as the prior made his way with exaggerated purpose to the abbatial seat. The energy of his going generated a crack and flap of robes that grated on Brother Thomas’s nerves.

Why can’t he just tread quietly? Why does he have to exude this self-importance every blessed time someone gives him something to do? Oh, ye saints and archangels, just sit down, Chad—whatever it is I bet we’ve heard it all before.

Ash Wednesday. The smell of the burnt palm crosses mixed with chrism pervaded the chapel.

Prime, then the morrow Mass and imposition of the ashes: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris... Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return... Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Tom rose to his feet, his brow marked with ashes by the prior’s thumb. He returned from the altar rail to his stall, where he sank down to his knees again, wanting to repent about Father Chad and not finding it possible to rid himself of baser thoughts: His voice is annoying. His face is annoying. That little nervous laugh is annoying. The way he says “homo” sets my teeth on edge.

There exists nothing that God has not made. Is God annoying? Did Chad spring fully-formed from some irritating, halfbaked little crevice unacknowledged in the mind of the Divine?

Lent is hard. Cormac’s bread is hard, but in hard Lent the bread is even harder: just flour, salt, and water, no leaven. No eggs, no meat, no cheese, no butter. Beans and roots and cabbage; cabbage and roots and beans. There are no alleluias in Lent. But the hardest thing to do is to take away every comfort, every grace note from the daily round, and still remember not to look at Chad as if you wished he’d crawl right back under his stone.

Come soon, Brother John. This place needs you. I need you. The community filed through into the chapter house to hear the reading of the Rule, the superior’s homily, and the daily discussion of community concerns.

“Brothers, there has come unsettling news of a tragedy.” Father Chad’s voice resonated with the frisson of awful tidings. “One of our guests who was with us on Monday night brought word yesterday of a great fire that has broken out, he said, in a monastery but a few days’ ride from here. I pressed him for more detail, but he had heard only rumors—talk of complete destruction, of ashes floating on the wind across the neighboring country, and many lives lost. When I hear tell of what community has suffered this dreadful calamity, I will bring you news: for now, dear brothers, please keep those stricken in your prayers.

“Please pray, of course, also for our brother who is traveling home to us and will be with us any day, we hold good hope. We beseech God of his great kindness that our brother may be kept in safety from danger, disease, wild animals, and violent men, that he may soon be received under our roof with all charity and rejoicing.

“And we keep in our prayers before God all who are sick and frail, especially Brother Cyprian, whose health is failing.” Father Chad turned to the Rule of St. Benedict and the chapter for the observance of Lent, exhorting the brethren to keep their lives pure and to wash away in this stretch of extra effort the creeping negligences that gradually attached themselves through the rest of the year. The chapter urged each man to seek out some extra offering of his own self-denial—some item of food or drink, another hour of sleep, forbearance from conversation—to deepen the penitential journey of Lent and heighten the joy of spiritual desire for Easter.

Tom noted the enriched timbre of Father Chad’s voice as he read from the Rule: “Let each one, however, suggest to his abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval. For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward. Therefore let everything be done with the abbot’s approval.”

Tom considered the possibility of humbly asking Chad’s permission to keep out of his way for six weeks—for the good of his soul. Then he felt a sudden stab of shame at his lack of charity.

Father Chad had proposed that the admission of their new abbot be incorporated into the Easter festivities as a grand and joyful occasion. Brother Thomas had seen things differently. “It’s not for show; it’s not about the pomp and ceremony!” he had wanted to say, but had stood in silence, biting back the flood of criticism that had wanted to tumble out, until the prior asked him, “Yes, brother?”

And with an effort he had kept his words honest and simple. “Father, I think Brother John likes things done quietly. I think the receiving of our new abbot is a private, family thing. I beg to offer that we do this simply, just among ourselves, and let Easter have the glory that belongs to it, without us trying to gild the lily.” Father Chad had nodded thoughtfully, alert to the quiet stir of assent that reached his ears.

“That sounds like wisdom, dear brother,” he conceded. He hesitated, then added, “We shall be empowered to do this because the bishop has given us permission to admit our new abbot as soon as he arrives among us. I am permitted to act as the bishop’s commissary.”

Tom nodded, keeping his eyes lowered. He understood what he was hearing. Chad had no confidence in himself, no natural authority. He swung between the paralysis of hopeless inadequacy and preening himself on account of borrowed authority. He was not the abbot of this community and felt the deepest relief to know he never would be. He entertained not even a fantasy of becoming a bishop. Responsibility frightened him, administration confused him, and pastoral ministry frankly terrified him, but to pull borrowed rank occasionally restored his self-esteem.

That was settled then. Their new abbot would be installed privately, quietly, simply, as soon as he had come back home to them.


“Brother Conradus, you’re late.”

This was undeniably true and not atypical, but Father Theodore understood how to soften the rebuke. Only recently clothed in the habit of the Order, still relying on friendly hands to steer him into the right place at the right time, the short, plump, young novice clung to his name in religion and the right to be a brother of this house as a consolation amid chronic weariness and bewilderment. Brother Conradus—the words brought exultation, even when they were normally a mere preliminary to correction.

He fell to his knees before the novice master seated in the teaching circle. “I confess my fault of tardiness, my father, and I ask forgiveness of God and of you.”

It never felt hard to ask Father Theodore for pardon. Even as Conradus kissed the floor in penance, the gentleness of the novice master’s voice—“God forgives you, and so do I, my son; I do know you are trying your best”—brought comfort and the feeling of being understood. It was not impossible to make Theodore angry, but that happened only when deserved. Theodore could see the difference between human weakness and human sin. He was ready with a hand to lift you up when you stumbled, which was very often in Brother Conradus’s present reality. It was not easy to get used to plain food made awesomely plain in Lent. It was almost impossible, having tossed and turned on the lumps of a straw mattress on a February night and having finally fallen into an exhausted sleep, to waken at the clamor of the bell, then leave a blanket still barely warmed and join the subdued line of tired men stumbling down from the dorter at 2 A.M. for Matins, to pray for the king and the dead—the situation of either seeming infinitely preferable. The silence, the work, the unquestioning obedience—Brother Conradus thought everything was as difficult as he’d been warned and maybe more so. But he thought the hardest thing to do was holding it all together, trying to remember everything he’d been told and asked, where everything was and where he was meant to go.

Eager for Father Theodore’s morning lesson, Conradus took his place in the circle with the others, and peace settled upon him. Conradus did not know that when Theodore had passed through the novitiate the novices had sat in rows facing their master at the front. He did not consider Theodore’s reasoning in arranging the stools in a circle; even so, he was not insensible to the atmosphere of community in this room. Here was a place where people learned together, and everyone felt included.

The young monks and their novice master, all now gathered, sat without speaking in the circle—another innovation of Theodore’s. Invariably late to almost everything as a novice himself, his memories were of lessons begun and half missed: he used to miss the start because he was late, miss the next bit because he was overcome with bitter humiliation and selfrebuke, and miss most of the rest because he couldn’t quite make sense of it, trying to imagine what the bits he had missed might have been.

So he initiated the practice of starting the time together in silence.

“In silence we enter the room, brothers. In silence we take a place in the circle—any place, not my place or your place, not the same place always, for place is nothing to be possessive about. We sit quietly then and take in where we are. Sit with your eyes open or shut, it matters not; but be aware. Know that being a monk is not about withdrawal but about community, and feel the community here. We listen to our brothers . . . see them . . . smell them . . . [that usually brought a laugh] and we stay open to what else we can notice. Restlessness? Weariness? Friendship? Peace? Every day is different in community, and we are made more sensitive to the differences because every day is the same.”

Conradus liked to sit with his eyes open and rest his gaze on the circle of his brothers, because he had noticed that this was what Father Theodore usually did. Sometimes, like today, a deep sigh escaped from somewhere deep in his body, as he began to relax in this accepting circle. He looked at the smudges of ash on the faces of his brothers. The acceptance belonged to every day; but this was the day of ashes, and that set it apart.

Into the silence Theodore spoke quietly about miracles of transformation.

“A miracle alters the normal course of things, turning what comes naturally into something new. In the everyday world, we take a flint and a rag, or take a taper to a candle, and we make a light. We take the light to the hearth and start the fire. When night comes down and we cease to feed it, the flames die away, the embers grow cold, and all that is left is ashes.

“A vocation can be like that, or a marriage, in the everyday. Someone sets alight something new, it flames up warm and bright. But with time and neglect, it dies down, dies out. As the years go by while you walk this way, you will sense among your brothers those of whom this is true.

“The psalmist says, ‘Quia factus sum sicut uter in pruina, justificationes tuas non sum oblitus. Quot sunt dies servi tui? For I am become like a bottle in the smoke, yet do I not forget thy statutes. How many are the days of thy servant?’

“And when it is like that—as it can be for any of us at times—the going is so arduous. As you walk this path, my brothers, if you see that . . . if you see that your brother has become like a bottle in the smoke, just the used remnant of what must once have been a vocation, oh, do not judge him. One day it might be you.”

Brother Ced lifted his head, his face troubled. Father Theodore caught his eye, his face kind.

“But the miracle starts here,” he said, and he sounded so certain that Brother Cedd felt reassured. “A miracle is not the everyday way of things—light, fire, ashes. A miracle changes everything, challenges the order we know. In a miracle God smiles and says, ‘Try this for a change: ashes, fire, light.’ Inside a soul, when all is ashes—when a brother has become as grubby and unattractive as a bottle in the smoke—the secret fire of the Holy Spirit arises out of the kind desire of God, burning away the dross and the sin, kindling again the precepts, the statutes, the rule of life. Fire is painful, oh, God, it is painful; there is nothing warm and cozy about the mercy of God as it burns away coldness and indifference. But the flowering of the miracle is luminous; there comes light that is evident to everyone who has eyes to see; the inner light of peace betokening the house where Christ lives again: resurrection, I suppose.

“That bottle in the smoke—the empty, clouded, burned-out vessel—you notice the Latin word for it is uter—something we use, a useful container—but growing also into the word for a womb, the place where new life begins. The jar lying forgotten in last night’s ashes can be the womb of a new beginning.

“So the slow, painful journey of Lent takes us from ashes, through fire, to Easter light: reversing our tendency to fall asleep and neglect the flame, to let the fire go out.”

Theodore stopped speaking. His novices, shifting a little on the uncompromising wooden seats, glanced up to see what might follow and traced his quizzical, amused gaze to Brother Robert, who furnished a helpful illustration as he nodded off to sleep.

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