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Starting Point

What we give wears well across miles, through years


I spent most of my years in the Northeast, and a large part was spent in parishes in the Newark, N.J., area. I met a lot of people during those years. There were so many words, faces, joys and sorrows, good days and not so good. It all seems like a very long, wide and winding river. I look at photographs taken during those years, and they help me remember and to be grateful for all that has been.

I have kept letters I received along the way. I have among them some that were written to me when I left New Jersey and moved here to Conyers, Ga. I suppose it seemed to many to have been an abrupt and radical move. Radical it was but not really abrupt.

The time came when I felt a tug to move on. I had written to a Trappist monk here long ago. I wanted to know what it was like and mentioned that I felt an attraction to the community.

I kept his reply. He wrote just a few lines. “You will know,” he said, “when the time comes for you to make a move.”

The time did come. It took almost 20 years, but it came. There were no trumpets, angels or voices from the sky. It was simply time. Something had ripened, and I wanted to taste it.

I relocated to this Trappist monastery here in Georgia. Such a small word -- relocated. I felt right about the decision, yet leaving everything and everyone familiar and sorting through years of accumulated possessions was a painful process. I was sifting through a lot of memories with that stuff and had a hard time deciding what to keep and what to pass on. Everything was somehow connected to people and places I cared about. I gave most of my belongings away. By the time I finished, I felt drained, but lighter, freer. I felt ready to move on and enter a new life.

Getting rid of things was a job in itself, but it was clear-cut. The rest was far more difficult. My heart ached because of the friends I would leave behind. In no way were they in the getting-rid-of category. I had long thought that I would spend the rest of my life in that area, and here I was going to a far-off place where I could not take my best possessions -- my friends -- with me.

One morning, several days before I was to leave for the monastery, I was sitting at the kitchen table mulling things over and getting quite melancholy. Whereas I did feel like a “new man,” truly free of a lot of excess baggage, I pondered what, if anything, I had left behind in the lives of those I had served in parishes for so many years. What about my friends? I felt such a need for them, and it seemed almost crazy that I could follow through with going away.

Then a letter arrived from Marissa, a young woman with whom I had spoken on occasion after Sunday Mass. It was a handwritten letter, on blue stationery. I opened it and read the letter once, and then again, and my heart swelled with joy and gratitude. She wished me well. She wrote to thank me for my homilies, for leaving her so many things to ponder. She wrote that a part of me would stay with her.

The letter was brief but said just what I so needed to hear that otherwise bluesy morning.

I folded the letter and put it with the few things I planned to bring to Georgia. Just days before, I had mentioned to a friend that I was afraid of moving to the South and never again finding what I was soon to leave behind. She hugged me and told me that all that I loved would grow even more deeply in my heart, but in a different way. The best of me, she said, was always hers to keep.

I felt good that I had left something with her and Marissa. They gave me something to keep and cherish. Since that day, I have tried to let people know how grateful I am for their words, be they written, spoken or in the eloquence of a good life. We do give something of ourselves to each other. And that something can take root and, with care, it can grow. We do not need to pack it and we can never leave it behind. It is a gift that always comes back tenfold. It wears well through the years and across the miles.

And how strange but wondrous that it seems to shine all the more the farther it gets from where it was first given.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000