Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Monk tales

One of God's gifts to humanity is a healthy sense of humor, and living in a monastery provides plenty of opportunities to use and express that gift. Any household or group of people who regularly interact with one another is bound to encounter situations that seem so incongruent that all anyone can do is laugh. And when there are 60-70 people of widely varying ages, backgrounds, temperaments, education levels, interests, and abilities who live, work and pray together 24/7 as we monks do, a good sense of humor is even essential!

All this came to mind last evening as I prepared to wait tables in the refectory just before the evening meal. As I busied about, I noticed a single banana on a counter. Not a strange sight. Apparently, someone had set it aside. But I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had transcribed in permanent marker on the peel in block letters: "DONALD".

For some reason, that struck me as awfully funny, and it added an extra spring to my step as I continued preparations for dinner. Why in the world, I thought, would someone label a banana? Not five feet away was a huge bin of bananas (and in much better shape than "DONALD's," I might add). Now, to be fair, we have a Fr. Donald who lives in the infirmary. He is 93 years old, and is still pretty with it, although he can't move around as much as he used to be able to do. No doubt, the banana was intended for him. I can only guess that at some point, whomever had prepared his meal to be taken over to the infirmary had labeled the banana to identify his tray.

Whatever the case, here was an apparently forgotten, half-rotten banana near a bin practically overflowing with perfectly ripe bananas. But, lest anyone dare, the rotten one belongs to DONALD, so hands off !!!

Two things (among many) that I think monks do exceptionally well (in most cases) is laughing at themselves, and sharing stories with one another that are passed down through the years. Perhaps from time to time, I will share a few as I blog. Two such stories come immediately to mind. They didn't happen in my presence, but occurred within the last several years and have been told and retold. The stories with real lasting power, it seems, are not only funny, but also reveal some kernel of truth about a particular situation or person.

Br. Zachary likes to tell the story about Br. Stephen's smile. Br. Stephen died a couple years ago, may God rest his soul. He didn't smile much, although he had a wry sense of humor. In his later years, he could be a bit grumpy and demanding at times, which is only natural for those whose bodies are aging and infirm. Anyway, one day Br. Zachary was in the refectory quietly preparing for that evening's meal. Suddenly, Br. Stephen's motorized scooter roars into the room and comes to a screeching halt. Br. Zachary goes over to assist Br. Stephen to his seat. As he does this--God knows why--Br. Stephen orders him: "Here, hold this!" He then places something in Br. Zachary's hand.

Looking down, it becomes obvious to Br. Zachary that Br. Stephen has extracted his set of false teeth and deposited them in his hand for safekeeping.

Momentarily speechless, Br. Zachary finally says, "Why,  Br. Stephen, how lovely! You've given me your smile!"

Perhaps my favorite story is that told by Br. John Mark about an encounter he had with another monk shortly after he joined the monastery about eight years ago. The other monk was Br. Jerome, who is now 82 years old. One of Br. Jerome's pet peeves is running across a depleted paper towel holder. In his view, no one but him seems to want to take the time to replace them, although a cabinet full of fresh rolls is usually just a few feet away. This of course, is a problem that plagues every household known to humanity. It exasperates Br. Jerome, and he will say so--though he also proudly (and truthfully) proclaims, "I've mellowed" over the years.

One day, the still impressionable Br. John Mark--new to monastic life and eager to soak in the wisdom of his elders--came upon Br. Jerome in the hallway. Br. Jerome was juggling an armload of rolls of paper towels, and appeared none to happy about it. Br. John Mark, unaware of the other's ongoing struggle over the aforementioned issue, says, "Wow, Br. Jerome, you sure have a lot of paper towels there."

To which Br. Jerome responds quietly but firmly: "I live meekly in a state of war."


jrkirkham said...

As an Oblate, I enjoy these stories from the monastery. Community is a big part of what monastic life is about. I've lived in the same small community of 3,000 people off and on for much of my life. On one retreat at Saint Meinrad I stayed so long, enjoying the company of the monks, that I became homesick. As I watched my hosts interact with one another I realized that I, too, lived in a similar environment. I missed my community back home. Everyone was so much a part of me, yet they were so unique.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Yes, we are all "mutual sanctifiers" in God's family.

May he bring us all together to everlasting life!

Br. Francis