The View from a Monasteryby Benet Tvedten
Hundreds of tourists visit Blue Cloud Abbey every year, and many more have read Kathleen Norris's accounts of this South Dakota landmark, but few have seen it as it is portrayed here. Brother Benet demystifies a way of life that, to many, seems harsh and restrictive, but which he shows us can be liberating. The Rule of St. Benedict offers a vision of stability, honesty, temperance, and responsibility, all of which are in short supply in modern society. In a world where almost everyone is looking for the newest, the fastest, and the best, a monk lives a quiet life with a small group of men whose vocation may be the only thing they have in common.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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In the northeastern corner of South Dakota where I live, there are two attractions to which sightseers are drawn: a cheese factory and a monastery. The monastery is located two hundred miles west of Minneapolis and one hundred thirty miles from both Fargo and Sioux Falls, the two largest cities in the Dakotas. A sign at a roadside park on U.S. Highway 12 indicates that the monastery is one of the nearby points of interest, and motorists who pass through frequently swing by for a look. On Sunday afternoons, people who live in the area like to drive out to see the monastery. During the week, a busload of people might arrive, bearing a homemakers' club, school children, or a group of senior citizens. Sometimes they have come directly to the monastery from the cheese factory.
I have lived in the monastery for over forty years, and I have witnessed this unending stream of tourists. Neighbors of the monastery often like to bring visiting relatives and friends here for a tour. One day the guest register was signed by people from Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida, California, and Norway. On occasion, I have had the responsibility of showing the monastery to people who have arranged a tour. Many of them appear genuinely impressed by what they see. Others are obviously baffled. This is understandable because monasticism will always be a mystery to most people. Some tourists are concerned only about the physical structure of the place. They compliment us for having constructed the monastery ourselves and seldom ask about our prayer life.
There are many false notions about monasticism. Pious people think that monks are holy. People who don't know much about religion think we are peculiar. The truth of the matter is that we are neither, though I have known individual monks who were both. Most of us are ordinary men who find that it is easier for us to be holier here than in some other place.
Brother Patrick was holy. His holiness was not the kind that is commonly associated with sanctity, but he was my kind of saint. He was not a plaster saint. He had a solid piety without being the least bit sanctimonious. Ambrose Bierce, the nineteenth-century American writer, said, "A saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited." I prefer remembering Brother Patrick in all of his originality. He came to the monastery when he was in his fifties and lived with us for fifteen years. On his deathbed, he told us that the happiest years of his life had been spent in the monastery. Earlier he had worked on the General Motors assembly line in Flint, Michigan, and before that he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. If we had been naive, we would have been convinced from his tales that he had won this decisive battle of World War II single-handedly.
Brother Paddy worked in our laundry for a while. By the time we had grown accustomed to pranks like having our underwear starched, he was transferred to the monastery kitchen. His menus were posted so that we could always be prepared. We learned not to expect much for lunch on "T.T. and R." day. No one was ever able to establish whether "Turkey Turds and Rainwater" was an army term or if Brother Paddy had invented it himself. The other veterans in the monastery claimed never to have heard the expression.
Paddy had been on the winning side in the Battle of the Bulge, and in more recent years he had won his own personal battle with alcoholism. Now, however, he knew that cancer would win the last battle. He'd had two skirmishes with it. This time it was inoperable. A week before his death, he was as eager as ever to entertain all of the "brethren" (as he called us) who gathered at his bedside. Sitting on the edge of his bed and chain-smoking cigarettes ("Why not? I don't have lung cancer"), he regaled us with war stories and recollections of his youth in an upstate New York town where he could buy a bucket of beer for a nickel.
When Brother James was alone with him one day, Brother Paddy told him, "Jim, when you see that I'm gone, grab this watch off my wrist. Don't let any of the brethren get to it first. It's a good watch, and it'll keep time for you the rest of your life."
A day or so before he lost consciousness, he told those of us who were in his smoke-filled room, "I hope you bastards have to bury me on the coldest day of the winter." We could have pleaded with him to wait for spring, but he was ready to leave and he seemed assured of his destination. We carried Brother Patrick to the monastery cemetery not on the coldest day of that winter but on a day with a windchill factor that would nevertheless have pleased him.
There is some misunderstanding about where monks come from, a notion that we are conditioned from childhood to enter a monastery, or that our previous circumstances in life were different from other people's. This is not so. We had other alternatives. One monk gave up a navy career. Another abandoned his studies for a doctorate. Others had to dispose of a farm or a business.
Some of us came to the monastery from citiesMilwaukee, Seattle, Indianapolis, Minneapolisand others came from farms and small towns in the Dakotas.
Why did we leave and come to this place? I know when I look down into the valley at night. The monastery is built on a rise from which the flat farmland of the Whetstone Valley can be seen. In the dark, the fields are not visible, but the lights are. The lights from Ortonville, thirty miles away in Minnesota, the lights from Milbank, half that distance, and the lights of the smaller townsWilmot, Corona, Twin Brooksall these lights and the yard lights on the farms create an illusion. I look at the valley and I think that I see an enormous city. It is distant and I am removed from it. This is the way it should be, I tell myself.
This is the way it was in the third and fourth centuries when throngs of Christians fled from the cities and went to live in the desert. They believed the parousia (the second coming of Christ) was imminent. They wanted to be ready. In the desert, apart from the rest of mankind, these hermits could prepare themselves by prayer and penance. The word "monk" comes from the Greek monos, alone, solitary. Gradually, these hermits-monks evolved into communities. The parousia didn't occur, but monasticism became firmly rooted in Christendom. Fuga mundiflight from the worldis no longer a retreat to the desert, but men still seek to live apart from the rest of society in monasteries such as ours. Although we can hear the muffled sounds of traffic along U.S. Highway 12, there is an appreciable sense of solitude on our hill.
Near the end of the fifth century, St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, abandoned his studies in the city of Rome and went to live in a cave. I can understand why St. Benedict left the city. Sometimes when I look at the lights in the valley, I think of the things I'd like to do in that imaginary city. Most of the time, though, I am satisfied to be where I am. And at dawn when we are on our way to morning prayer, and the lights in the valley are going off and the sun is rising, then I can see realityhay bales and fields of corn and alfalfa.
It is much better for a monk to live in the country. Agrarians can understand our need to work the land, to grow much of our own food, to provide bread for both the table and the altar. People who are into Zen and Transcendental Meditation can appreciate our need for contemplation. Communitarians know how important it is for us to depend on the resources of those with whom we share our lot. We hold all things in common and the whole community benefits, directly or indirectly, from the abilities of the individual monksthe teacher, the carpenter, the potter, the beekeeper, the weaver, the priest, even the writer. People who come here to make a retreat, to absorb the atmosphere of the monastery, know what we are about. Still, there are countless others for whom we remain mysterious.
Between the monastery church and the Whetstone Valley is the cemetery. The trees surrounding the cemetery are obscured by the night. In the moonlight, I cannot distinguish a Russian olive from a spruce, but I know the trees are there and I know that they enclose the graves of monks. There is no illusion here. This is where our bodies wait for their resurrection. You see, monks still believe that the [parousia will happen. This is why we came to the monastery, and, perhaps, this is why we will always remain an enigma to many people.
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