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Starting Point

The choice to love is the cloister without walls


I have met some interesting people over the years. Actually, I believe that everyone is interesting, given the time, place, heart and gift that goes into knowing someone.

I remember some I met at social gatherings. Barbecues, parties, wedding receptions and the like. Funny, all these people we meet and chat with and then the big train of life moves on, on to the next destination, where there are more people. There are some who stand out. Even if it was just a passing chat, something happened that makes me remember them.

A few years ago, I met John at an engagement party for a couple I knew. It was a very festive night in the New Orleans home of the bride-to-be.

John was into his third marriage. He had some problems. I had some problems. He was looking for something in life and so was I. He had not yet found it, and I had not either. Given time, I am sure that everyone in that house that night could have shared plenty about their searches for the Big It. Perhaps I was fortunate to get into the It with John.

At the party, he approached me with drink in hand and a warm, satisfied look. He was on the plump side, 50 or so and balding. He introduced himself and said that he had read some of my pieces and liked them. I thanked him. He offered to get me a drink, and I passed. He then asked me what I did, and I told him that I was a parish priest but was soon to enter a Trappist monastery. He looked at me for a moment, gathering his thoughts, took a sip from his drink and asked me if he could ask me something. Sure, I said.

“How can you know about life behind those walls? I mean, real life. Don’t you think that a monastery is out of touch with reality?” Satisfied with the way he phrased the question, his eyes narrowed, and he focused on me and took another sip.

I thought for a moment. Pretty heavy duty.

“What’s reality?” I asked him. “Is it something you somehow work with, or is it a place? Is it something you are always in touch with, clearheaded about, surefooted? Something you can make better? Or enter or leave?”

He stared at me. “Pretty good. Yeah, pretty good. I think I see what you are getting at. Yeah, reality is complicated when you talk about it.”

The conversation changed direction. I think we then talked about auto insurance. Or perhaps it was Cuban cigars.

“Sure you don’t want that drink?” he asked.

“OK,” I told him. And he walked off and fixed something for me. When he returned, we chatted again, and then parted ways. I never saw him again after that night.

I think about John here. I liked him and hope he is doing OK in dealing with whatever it is that is “real” to him. I hope he finds it and it is something that is good for him and those he loves. He took a few steps across a room and asked me about the real, and I responded. I hope he takes those steps with those he loves -- those who live within the confines of his life. I, too, take steps to raise questions as to what is worth living for and know that an engagement with life involves walking outside of myself -- talking, praying, being open to what I cannot find in my own heart.

We are not our own creations. We need each other. We need steps. Reality lays claim on every heart and every conscience. There is simply no getting around dealing with it. And reality is no less or more here in the monastery than it was that night in New Orleans.

Cruelty and grace exist within and without these walls. To deal with reality in an honest, self-giving way is, to my way of thinking, the Christian “response” that creates a new self. It is a way of life that knows no walls. It is a way of life that reveals a true and shared reality among all men and women. It is a way of life that keeps the conversation going, rarely lapsing into the mist of Cuban cigars or the wreckage of auto insurance claims.

There are times I still wonder who it is who really lives behind walls, and who is “in” and who is “out.” It is something with which we all struggle and it is a struggle that has little to do with cloister walls. Here, the walls do come down. And it can be a painful collapse. But there is a clearing, a place from which to hope for what is real and seek it.

Perhaps the walls of a Trappist cloister simply define a space for a certain kind of life -- not unlike the walls or the parameters of marriage, fidelity or commitment. They are meant to define, not enclose. They border and safeguard a freedom of choice, a choice to love and be in a certain place and time and to better come to terms with those destructive walls that we build so easily with the bricks of fear, prejudice and hardness of heart.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001