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Starting Point

Finding things good and human


On the morning I left the monastery after having lived a cloistered life for seven years, so many things went through my heart. Some day I may write about why I felt a need to move on, but for now it is, I think, enough to say that it was very painful for me to uproot my life again. My heart had really found a home there with the community of monks and laypeople I had grown to love deeply over those years.

I had no regrets. The years were good. I learned to give of myself in ways that would not have been possible save for living in community. I was given more love and support than I deserved. In short, whatever I knew to be of God flowed with ease and, yes, grace. Conyers is a good place. It is a God place. It is a human place.

I drove out the gate and started to cry, but was there was an excitement in my heart, along with the sadness. I drove down Highway 212 and felt in every cell of my body the newness of the situation I was heading toward. All new things, new people, new possibilities, and a freedom to play with the events of any given day in a very different way than I had known as a Trappist monk. I was on my way to Covington, La.

I was hungry.

I pulled into a Pancake House not far from the monastery and noticed a dried, dead Christmas tree in a truck that was parked next to mine. Little bits of dirty tinsel dangled from its branches. I thought of Christmas and how long ago it seemed and how it was not a very happy or merry one for me. But, I thought, next Christmas would be better. Nothing like a dead Christmas tree to make me think of better and warmer times to come.

I found a place at the counter. The waitress took my order. She poured a cup of coffee. I looked out the window at the cars and trucks on the highway and wondered if I would find God along these new roads of life. Would I be able to write again as I had in the monastery? Where are the psalms along these new roads? What sort of routine would I hope to find so that God could somehow find me?

Then it hit me. With a bit of an inward groan I realized that I had no idea as to how to get to Louisiana. It had never occurred to me to ask directions or look at a map. It had been two years since I had driven home, and I could not remember the right highways. Interstate numbers rolled through my head. Was it 20 or 85? And even though I knew the direction, I was not sure when to switch highways.

I asked the waitress. She said that Highway 59 was the best way. It did not sound familiar to me. A man was sitting right near me and he was listening to us. He was heavy and wore work pants with suspenders, and the pocket of his plaid shirt was stuffed with pens. “I gotta map,” he said. “Gotta map right out there in my truck and I’ll fix you right up and get you going in the right direction.” And with that he got up and went outside, and I saw him go to the truck with the dead Christmas tree. He opened the door, got the map and came back inside.

He sat right next to me and opened the map and spread it on the counter. He ran his finger all along the places I remembered and then took a pen from his pocket and outlined the roads that I knew to be right, the roads I had taken the last time I had driven home.

“You take this map with you, OK? And you just follow my lines,” he said. I offered to pay him something for the map and he laughed and said, “No, those kinds of things are for free.”

As was his kindness. I thanked him and paid my bill and headed off. I felt secure on the road. And I thought of God and kindness and things good and human and how those things are everywhere. We may not know the things of God all that clearly, even in monasteries. But beyond those walls I learned right away that we so long to show each other the way home, and in the gift of a map from one stranger to another, I felt something of how God works, how God gets us home.

Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002