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Starting Point

Shaking off sin’s dirty waters


Once a week, a prayer is read by the hebdomadery (the monk assigned to read the prayer). It goes, “Let us not fall into sin.” When that prayer is read I think of the cloistered life here and the sins I may fall into, and how for the really good sins I would need a car.

Other things bring sin to mind. One such thing happened yesterday. We are having a severe water shortage. We have our own wells here at the monastery, and they are drying up. A few days ago a pipe burst in front of the barn where we ship our bonsai pots. I do not know the connection, if there is one, between no water and a bursting pipe. Such things confuse me. It did rain yesterday, in the morning, but that was long after the pipe burst.

A large concrete slab, actually an enormous doorstep to the barn, had to be removed to get to the pipe. Damian, Peewee and Willie worked for hours digging a trench, and Damian used an earthmover to lift the slab and place it in the middle of the road. I sat near the edge of the trench watching him lift the slab and then set it down. I was in a deep mood thinking deep thoughts. How quickly the places on which we hope to stand firm shift. But that is another story.

It rained. The trench was filled with muddy water. I sat down next to Damian on a little concrete remnant, and we started to talk about things, the way monks do. His dog, Sabo, came up to me and licked my face, and that felt good. Then Sabo went over to the edge of the trench and started walking back and forth, looking longingly at the brown, filthy water below.

“He’s looking for a place to jump in,” Damian said. I looked at the water. I thought of the water shortage. I looked at Sabo. He looked at me and then had that doggie look on his face, the mournful, thoughtful kind of doggie look. He jumped in. He splashed around, went back and forth the whole length of the trench. He drank from the filthy water. He was having a great time.

Damian looked at him and laughed and said something about how the water, even though it was filthy looking, was good enough to drink and that dogs are smarter than we humans when it comes to getting and taking what they need.

Sabo bounded out of the trench, came over to us, licked our faces and shook himself off. We were sprayed with muddy water. We both laughed. Sabo ran off to the woods.

The water in the trench reminded me of sin. Dirty, swirling sin. The kind that looks good enough for man and beast to dive (or fall) into. What was Sabo thinking about when he had that longing look on his face, right before he plunged in? Is there such a thing as a doggie devil, some fiery horned Fido who hissed, “Go for it!” in his ear?

And did Sabo think about other sinful plunges in his life? Times he did not go to church; the loves he loved and left behind; maybe even kids he left behind; not ever writing or calling his mother; parading around naked and liking it; never sharing his food? Like I said, I was in a deep-thought mood.

Whatever guilt Sabo may have felt, he dove in. He even drank of the filthy stuff. He never even sneezed or choked on it. Then jumped from the water, ran over to Damian and me, slurped us again, shook some of his wet filth onto us and then bounded off into the sunshine.

Damian watched as Sabo ran off. “Yeah,” he said thoughtfully, “I think they know more than we do.”

“I do, too,” I replied.

But I was thinking about different waters, different thirsts. How good it was to sit with Damian. How good it was to look at Sabo jump into dirty water and shake it off and head toward the sun, leaving his devils behind.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999