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By Erynn Porter
*Editor's Note: Previously published in Extract(s).
The involuntary spiritual experience started when Rick wanted to introduce me to his neighbors. Trailing behind him, the first thing I notice is that it’s dark. Really dark, but the stars seem to puncture the blackness surrounding us. How can people live here? Rick is telling me how beautiful the landscape is during the day. He grins as he says they plant their own food to harvest and eat. That they tend to the grounds everyday as part of their meditations. It’s too dim to see the garden but the reflection of the moon gives me an idea of where the pond is. Where are the people? Where are the sounds of cars? Rick can’t wait to show me the Benedictine monks, his neighbors, who he and his wife first discovered when they moved into their new Vermont home.
That’s right, they live next to a church. Kristin is family and my mother’s boss and Rick is always nice enough but he never really talked much. Rick has his own quietness about him, maybe it’s something that comes with age. Maybe it’s more of a deep peace than quiet.
As I follow Rick across the grounds, detached headlights darken our shadows. We sit in the little courtyard area, waiting for the doors to open. There’s a faint light coming from the far side of the church building. The church is not what I had expected. Instead of having steeples, it has a flat roof and looks more like a giant cafeteria. Rick is bouncing up and down a bit. From excitement or cold, I can’t be sure.
He tells me about the bell they live by, how it only rings at certain times of the day—sometimes for meals, other times for prayers. It calls them to the church. I don’t see a bell. When I ask where it is, Rick laughs. I’m sitting in front of it. I turn around and squint to see a tiny bell compared to the Goliath I was expecting. It’s standing a little ways away in the well kept grass, lonely looking. I suppose alone in the grass is the same as alone in a tower.
A few people are herding themselves to the church, drawn like moths but the flames are few and far between. It’s dark inside the monastery which disappoints me. I anticipated lovely lights, maybe candles everywhere, the kind you’d see at a Christmas sermon. I can’t study anything except the floor, which is cobbled with huge stones. The silence follows me into the church. I fidget. This type of stillness isn’t natural. It’s disturbing; even the air is still. The only thing that breaks the monotonous quiet is people breathing, sounds like airy screams. The silence and darkness forces me to think about myself and my mind screeches to think of something else, anything else.
Maybe about how this calm bothers me as much as the silence after a fight, similar to the stillness after a devastating storm. Even though they don’t weigh the same, they unsettle me. This quiet is similar to the quiet where deep philosophical conversations and ideas pop out. How heavy the discussions force me to feel, the weight of words. Hushed pauses have always made me uncomfortable. It’s filled with failings, misunderstandings, insanity that seems to rise up out of nowhere when the pauses last too long. The kind of quiet that causes one to think about things they cannot change.
I sit stiff in my chair, waiting. I used to sit this way before sermons. Once I started thinking on my own, what my church tried to do to me didn’t make sense. When I was a kid, a church tried to organize me down to nothing but a piece they could force in their puzzle. They would go out of their way not to touch me and shared the not so quiet disgust in their eyes at the sight of me in my jeans. They called me spawn of Satan and I called them robots for having every word of the Bible memorized. I understood the lessons even if I didn’t know it word for word. The silence reminds me of the looks I got when I did something they deemed wrong. Like when they made me play the Virgin Mary and told me to cry but all I could do was laugh.
This is different I know, Rick isn’t even religious—he just loves the quiet and meditation that comes with being here. Rick works as both a professor and lawyer, on top of working with his wife and my mother. But here, here, he can sit in the silence and breathe. He allows himself a few moments of peace. But I can’t. I can’t help but think about those Sunday mornings. I squirm, my coat rustling, an echo.
My discomfort increases when an older man comes and sits next to me, practically on me because he can’t see in the dark. Our arms are touching. His warmth fights my cold. I can hear him breathing, lungs straining as if he had run inside. I hear the bones press into joints, muscles snap. The steady thump of a heartbeat. Is it his or mine? Each beat, a slamming door.
I can’t imagine living my life like this. Being fulfilled through prayer and meditation and nothing else. Living by a bell that rings occasionally, sounding nothing like the overpowering bellows of a Notre Dame Bell. Seeing it outside, so disappointingly small, I wonder if it’s this quiet in the daytime. If so, I couldn’t stand hushed days. How can they stand the silence? Do they live in the darkness too? Do they like it? Staring at what might be a platform, I wonder how the monks could deal with the silence. To live in it only interrupted by a bell or occasional conversation. Imagining living like this causes me to shiver. Why does quiet bother me so much? I live in a city where sirens sing a duet with birds. There is constant noise; beeps, horns, voices, yelling, ringtones, whispers, music blasting, mechanical sounds of construction. Wouldn’t being here be a relief?
Finally I hear clunking footsteps as an elderly man with a walker comes lumbering out. The oldest monk as I learned from Rick is ninety-years-old. A few minutes later a man with a cane comes, the second oldest monk, then two guys with guitars—one lights a single candle on the center of the stage, though it’s barely a light. Only shadows of their silhouettes and their breathing let me know they are there. More monks flood through and still no bright lights. They sit on each side of the lone candle, glowing weakly from its ornate pedestal.
The guitar players start to strum. The monks sing so calmly it feels like a lullaby. It sounds nothing like the hymns I was forced to hum, this is raw, not processed. Their voices join and blend together to create one intense tone. So in sync that it’s a little creepy. Soon the voice splits and they sing to each other, back and forth like a serious discussion with one another. Left side sings, right side responds. The candle in turn, sways back and forth as each side chants. And the voices rise, higher and higher, and it’s done. They file away slowly with the two oldest monks last. Then they prepare for their six a.m. prayer and blow out the candle.
#Real #Monks #TooQuiet #Uncomfortable #Spiritual #Candle
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