Beyond Reason

No matter how you look at it, this is weird: Sitting, standing, bowing, and singing with two old men you don’t really know in a room on a mostly deserted hilltop. That was my Tuesday night.

The local Benedictine monastery has three resident monks, none of them young. This week, one of them is out of town, and on Tuesday, I was the only lay person at Vespers, the evening service in Catholic liturgy. So there we were, two monks and I, chanting the same psalms Benedictines have chanted for around 1,500 years and looking out through the chapel’s glass doors on a stunning vista of emptiness.

At multiple times during the service I thought, what are we doing here? What can we possibly hope to accomplish, two old men in robes and one middle-aged woman self-consciously trying to hit the right notes? We couldn’t be smaller and more inconsequential, and this thing we are doing is illogical.

I imagine many a parent spending hours on a carrot costume for the school vegetable play has wondered much the same thing, as perhaps has a teacher carefully marking every paper when only a few students will thoroughly read her comments. This is labor all out of proportion to any possible result. The purely rational mind finds these actions incomprehensible.

And perhaps that is the point. I absolutely cannot say why I was at Vespers, and that is why I will go again next week. Though a parent could list off the wonderful qualities of his child, that list wouldn’t account for the parent’s love. Maybe something at the heart of the inexplicable is calling to us. Maybe, if we listen, it will say what we are most longing to hear.

Good Things Come from Brooklyn

Father Tom Dentici, the priest who presided over my childhood, is one part dry humor, two parts conviction, and 100 percent Brooklyn-Italian. I think for him it might be one word, Brooklynitalian.

A snippet of conversation I recently overheard between Fr. Tom and a former parishioner:

Parishioner (excited, cheerful voice): “We’ll be thinking of you.”
Fr. Tom (deep, serious voice with a Brooklyn accent): “Don’t think of me. Pray for me.”
Parishioner: “I’ll tell my parents you’re doing fine.”
Fr. Tom: “Don’t tell them I’m doing fine. I’m not fine. Tell them I’m doing all right.”

At eighty-five, Fr. Tom now moves slowly with a cane, but mind and spirit are obviously still strong.

Fr. Tom preached the same thing every Sunday: God’s love. This was not butterflies and teddy bears love; this was serious love. He preached as if trying to speak forcefully enough to pry open our hearts and allow that love to rush in. Though he always stopped just short of, “You better let God love you or else,” you sometimes felt that’s where he was going, not because he wanted to proclaim punishment but because he believed that this was the most important thing in the world for our souls to understand.

In fourth grade I asked him about the fate of my Jewish mother’s soul, and in that same, grave Sunday-morning-sermon voice he said, “Your mother will go to heaven.” When I protested, pointing out that the New Testament said quite the opposite, he cut me off and repeated himself with such priestly authority that I couldn’t help but believe him. He saved God and Christianity for me that day.

At the same time, he had—and I assume still has—a wicked sense of humor. According to a visiting priest, he once pretended to be the voice of God when he saw a woman praying alone in a church. Though the story may have been apocryphal, no one in the congregation doubted he’d do it if given a chance.

One of my most enduring memories of Fr. Tom comes from the annual Octoberfest. In it, he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and leading the congregation in the chicken dance, which is being played by a polka band.

Thank you, Tom Dentici, for your faith, your sincerity, and the love with which you shepherded your flock.

Feeling Monkish

Explaining monks is a little like explaining to someone who wasn’t a teenager in the 1980s why The Breakfast Club deserves a place in the respected canon of film. That is to say, you had to be there.

Nevertheless, because I recently spent two wonderfully peaceful days at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, I’ll make an attempt.

Monks are not saints and will be the first to tell you so. They are men who have chosen to dedicate themselves to a certain way of life. That sentence contains three difficult concepts: choice, dedication, and way of life.

Looking at what monks provide their guests may help with understanding those ideas; they give you exactly what you need and nothing more. One frying pan, a large saucepan, a small saucepan, a colander. Four each of cups, glasses, large plates, small plates.

No unnecessary choices are offered to distract you from the most important choice: to spend some time with God. Monks are like that—focused on what’s important.

That is not to say their minds don’t wander. The monastic days that I’m familiar with contain at least four communal prayer services precisely because monks know they need a lot of reminding.

They know they’re likely to get annoyed with the guy in the next cell because of the way he gargles or his ridiculous opinions about the way the church should be run, and they’ve accepted that those irritations only pull them away from their center. They’ve chosen what’s important to them and structured their lives around it in a way that takes their humanity into account.

The result is this amazing capacity for love. Love for each other, love for their visitors, love that flows out and fills the chapel and the entire valley.

I think we could all do this if we chose what was important to us and mustered up enough dedication to build a way of life around whatever we chose. It helps to have a few people around who will hold you to it.