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Inside NCR

Behrens: holding conversation with the world

If you don’t know who Fr. James Stephen Behrens is, you can scarcely claim to be a regular reader of this paper. His Starting Point contributions are usually lodged at the bottom of this very page. He is so persistent, not to mention popular, that he seems to have a permanent lease on the bottom of page 2 -- so it might be salutary to remind America that there is room for others as well.

Odd how one can be sitting at one’s desk not suspecting good fortune arriving with the morning mail. That’s how it was the day Behrens’ first piece, “Andy’s Diner,” arrived unannounced. We published it July 28, 1989. (Another such instance that leaps to mind was the arrival of non-writer Tim Unsworth’s unsolicited welcome to the new Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, published Aug. 13, 1982.)

Behrens quickly became an NCR regular. He looked at life’s complications simply, squeezed magic out of ordinary days. Unassuming, nonjudgmental, personable, he struck up a conversation with the world, especially around New Jersey where he was, among other things, an assistant pastor.

Then one year he came to visit my wife and me in Kansas City (notice me slipping into the Behrens anecdotal mode). He wanted to rub shoulders with the notables at NCR, and I don’t mean me. As luck would have it, my bad back went south three days into his visit, making him a prisoner in my house. I’m not saying he caused my problem back, but he suffered the consequences as I lay on the living room floor.

Still, it was a memorable week, during which, as the poet said, we tired the sun with talking and made new plans for the world.

Again I would claim no causality, but soon after that visit Behrens began to consider the Trappist way of life. Not long ago, he finished his two-year novitiate at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

Now he has a book out, Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk (ACTA Publications, 4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640-4711; 147 pages, $9.95). Dolores Leckey wrote a foreword and Joan Chittister an afterword.

This is not a review of the book -- obviously we approve of the author’s writing! These short essays do not pretend to be profound theology or grave analysis of the world. But they are in touch with life where life meets the monastery and the monastery meets the world.

“His name is BC,” one begins, “short for Barn Cat. We found him as a kitten, and he has made the large bonsai barn his home.” When he’s not praying or writing, Behrens works on the monks’ bonsai farm. The BC article is only a few lines. “I thought how such a mundane little ritual as a cat greeting a man can lift one’s spirits. I realized that much of creation greets us daily.” You can’t come away from a Behrens interlude without feeling better.

America magazine, in announcing Behrens and his book, mentions Thomas Merton, Thoreau and Annie Dillard -- heady company.

But the last word goes to Behrens himself, from the last chapter of his book: “Might I say that a Trappist monastery is a place where heart and memory become more expansive? They become free to roam terrains that are more natural to them. I have found in the nearly four years that I have been a monk that I have had to learn to pray in ways that I never did before. I have simply been given more of myself to deal with.”

No good deed goes unpunished, they say. Blessed Sacrament Sr. Franceline Malone took the fine photos that graced our cover for the March 5 issue, but we returned the favor by misspelling her name. Sorry, Sr. Franceline.

NCR’s new poetry page continues to be very popular, and we have heard few if any complaints. But several entrants have asked if we are still accepting more poetry. We certainly are. To repeat: There is a sifting process aimed at giving readers the best poems; we don’t want books of poems, have a strong preference for the unpublished; they don’t have to be blatantly religious poems; only poems with a stamped, self-addressed envelope will be returned.

Our great gratitude to all who submitted poems to date.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999