Of Carmelites and African Greys

Brother Gabriel, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Joseph Abbey, tends to his African Gray parrot.
Brother Gabriel Rivet, OSB
In a mostly abandoned seminary building, I climb a flight of stairs, pass two meowing cats, and knock on the door of an old prefect’s office to rendezvous (as I do every Saturday afternoon) with Gabriel Rivet, a monk of Saint Joseph Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Covington, Louisiana, a bedroom community of New Orleans. The office is musty, retired parrot feathers garner the air and there is a strong scent of vegetables, parrot mix and the lulling hum of daytime television. “Mostly to entertain her,” Gabriel tells me pointing to the African Grey who does, in fact, seem to be watching TV, her head cocked to one side, intent, soaking it all in. Newspapers line the bottom of Jocko’s cage, old Times Picayunes and church bulletins; Br. Gabriel is exceedingly insistent that I place three layers of print to cover Jocko’s cage and to make sure I secure the edges with scotch tape. While he prepares Jocko’s egg – a treat the avian companion gets every afternoon – we talk about Saint Thérèse, Saint Benedict, and monasticism. “You want your egg, Jocko?” Gabriel croons, motioning to the bird with a plate he places on top of the cage. Jocko knows the routine and determinedly climbs up to eat her fill of the yellow yolk. Usually, the monk, who will celebrate his fiftieth year of monastic profession this summer, offers me the white of the egg. “It’s not good for her. No nutritional value.”

Although this Benedictine monk’s love of birds predates his falling in love with Saint Thérèse, I would venture to guess that they both rank high in his own personal spiritual echelon. And as a way to connect his penchant for avians and his love for Thérèse Br. Gabriel is quick to point out that Thérèse’s father, Louis Martin, had a bird: “I like to believe it was an African Grey,” Br. Gabriel tells me. He had his first bird (a German roller canary) while growing up in New Orleans – his mother permitting it even though the bird impinged on her upkeep of a well-ordered house. His love affair with Thérèse did not begin until his entrance into the Seminary as a young boy, a love that has remained with him through his years of seminary training, into his years of Benedictine novitiate and throughout the vicissitudes of community life.

His love for Thérèse is attested to by the photographs that line the walls of Jocko’s room. He shows me his favorite, a young Carmelite holding up a holy image of the child Jesus and an image of the suffering face of Christ. In another image the young novice is filling a ciborium with hosts, preparing for Mass. Under his black monastic habit, he shows me a chain and medal that holds a relic of Thérèse, a possession he holds quite dear. He was there to help carry her traveling relics into the Chapel of the Mother House of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel when they were brought to New Orleans. He still has a freshly awed face when he recounts to me his trip to the Basilica of Saint Thérèse in Lisieux when he viewed the “arm of the autobiography,” the relic of the 
right arm of Thérèse that wrote her inspired memoir, Story of a Soul.

I ask him what it means to be a Benedictine in love with Saint Thérèse. He tells me he sees no contradiction in loving Thérèse and following his commitment to the Benedictine way of life. He told me he sees something different in Thérèse, a uniqueness that separates her from John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Thérèse had unprecedented trust in God and trust in God’s mercy, he tells me. Thérèse taught that our sins cannot offend God. Not only did she write about God’s mercy but she attempted to live it out in her existence as a Carmelite, similar to Benedict, blessed in the role of friend of God and friend to others. Thérèse did not pray over poisoned bread nor did she instruct her novices to walk on water like Benedict, but yet Thérèse is palpable, especially for us living in the twenty-first century for she is simple and graced.

Saint Benedict wrote a little rule, a rule for beginners, a way to listen to the words of the Master. Thérèse too wrote a little rule, a rule for beginners called the little way. It makes perfect sense that a young Benedictine would have fallen in love with Thérèse and incorporated her spirituality into his own rhythm of ora et labora. As a monk, Br. Gabriel spreads the news of his love for the saints. He tells me this as we lock up the door of Jocko’s room and walk back to the monastery for vespers, “The Saints – Saint Thérèse – are my role models – the best role models you can have”.

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