I am going through old papers, tossing out papers, and boxing up books so I can move out of my apartment on April first. I realized I could not find any photographs of me as Brother Bede. I used to be a Benedictine monk. But the traces of that life are quickly receding.
Leaving a Monastery
When I left Saint Joseph Abbey - a Benedictine monastery in Saint Benedict, Louisiana - I was twenty-eight years old (and six months). In my life as a monk, I was Brother Bede. I baked bread once or twice a week with my fellow monks, I went to daily prayers, ate with my community at the common table, worked in our college library - and I was a graduate student at the local university. That was nine years ago (and eight months, roughly).
As a monk, you are told: "To work is to pray." So I grew up in this dispensation. We were told that we were monks first. Our work was just something we did as part of our religious identity. If I was baking bread, or if I was studying Latin, I was merely living out my life of prayer and work. I was a monk. So don't complain.
The Life of the Monk
Life in the monastery followed a trajectory. And there were different stages of my life there. Depending on how you count the years, I was first a seminary student, then a novice, then a monk in temporary vows, then a monk in solemn vows - all for a total of ten years.
I had just graduated from high school when I joined the seminary. It's crazy to think that was twenty years ago. In May, I am going to Louisiana to celebrate my high school reunion. But I probably won't visit the abbey where I gave ten years of my life - formative years (if you want to put it that way.)
I fantasize that when I tell people I was a monk, they think I lived in a stone hut, spoke to no one and ate bone stew and hard bread. The truth is my life as a monk was at the same time innocuous and magical. Life follows a scheduled rhythm in a monastery. Vigils, Morning prayers, Mass, Evening prayers, and Compline. Monks were assigned jobs. And for the most part, we went through our day praying, eating together, and performing our tasks.
Why did I Join?
People often ask me why I joined a monastery. What was going through my head? And then they ask me why I left the monastery. And people seem to be pretty curious about the whole process. For me - I wanted to be a priest or a monk since an early age. I can remember pretending to celebrate Mass with Ritz style crackers while my brothers complained (they'd rather play other games). When I was in High School, I was very much into Catholicism - and I made it pretty well known that I wanted to join the seminary when I graduated.
Read more about why I became celibate after the jump . . .
|I was a novice monk in this photograph|
Deciding to Leave
Now. It was not easy to leave. I didn't just pack up my bags and hitchhike on the next ride to New Orleans. I spoke to my superiors, and I told them that I wasn't the same person at eighteen as I was now. I could not hang it for the long haul. And at some level the monks understood. And they let me leave. But I think it was a bittersweet parting. But since I was a professed monk - which means I had taken a vow - I was considered to be "ex-claustrated." What that meant was I was still technically a monk. At any time during the ex-claustration period, I was free to return to the confines of the monastery. So during my ex-claustration period, I moved to New Orleans, secured an apartment and became an English teacher at a Catholic High School.
Let's just say those were rough years. I had no idea how to live in the world. I had gone from having all my needs taken care of to paying rent and designing lesson plans. Those teenagers rolled me over like a wooden rolling pin on soft pizza dough. I cried after my first week. I remember holding down the fort for recess duty - and thinking "What the heck am I doing here? I could be in the monastery!"
Life after Monastic Life
But I thrived as a high school English teacher - but I wanted more. So when my time for ex-claustration had come to an end, I had to make a decision. I contacted the abbot at the monastery and told him that I planned to seek full absolution from my vows. That meant that I had to write a letter which would be sent to Rome, and the Vatican hierarchy would eventually get a seal of approval from the Pope to release me from my vows. So that is what I did. It was kind of like Catholic monk divorce.
It's weird because I still have dreams that I am at the monastery. In my dreams, which are recurring, I dream that I am visiting the monastery, but I have other duties - be it teaching, or whatnot. But the monks convince me to stay - so I end up praying in the church with half my secular clothes on and the other half dressed in my habit. If you didn't know - a habit is the uniform of a monk. Our habit was a black tunic with a hood, a belt, and an outer layer called a scapular. On a windy day, you looked like you were flowing in opaque waters. Especially when all the monks processed to the church - we looked like the flowing waters of the River Jordan.
Do I feel less lonely that I left the monastery? Did I make a right decision? Loneliness is real. The difference between my isolation as a monk and my loneliness now is that I feel like I have more control over how to assuage my solitude, and I have given myself the freedom to seek out intimacy without worrying about whether I had transgressed or not. As a monk, you assuage your loneliness through your prayer life. Which is funny. Because even now. While I do not attend church regularly, I sometimes wake up early in the morning and sing some of the songs I learned as a monk. And it is comforting. One of the chants we would sing went something like:
Accept me O Lord as you have promisedIn fact, this line comes from the Psalms. Monks sing it today when they take their vows. When I first sang it as a monk, I was praying to God to accept me, to accept my broken humanity. But now when I sing it, I sing it with a tinge of resentment and hurt. Why does God have to accept me? In what way has my humanity offended him? Of course. I look around. Humans are not the most congenial bunch. But that is the lot of this human mess. But maybe I am arguing too much with past religions. I am arguing with the Psalms. Which is probably not kosher. So I put a new spin on things:
So that I may live
And let me not be put to shame in my hope
Accept me O Lord because you have toI feel guilty though. I do not feel guilty for leaving the monastery - although that is probably somewhat of a lie. I feel guilty that I never looked back. I just picked up myself and moved forward. And in a way, I never really expected acceptance. It has been a long time since I even wrote about my experience. And I am not sure what inspired me tonight. Maybe it is the New York Times article published recently about the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey. Their numbers are dwindling. And I think of my monastery, and I wonder what monks are still alive, and which monks are still faring strong. And I still feel a sense of commitment even though I live a vastly different life now than I did when I was that twenty-eight-year-old monk thinking of parting ways.
Because I am still living
And let me rejoice in this hope - it's all I got
One thing that the monastery did for me was to teach me how to be silent. You may laugh if you know me because with my friends I am always talking. In fact, my mouth gets me into trouble. But I can sit in silence, shut out the world. And in this, I am deeply grateful.