It is not true that a Trappist monk digs his own grave, a sod at a time, a day at a time … whilst contemplating his own death with a doleful expression. However you could certainly have heard one say, “Ours is a hard bed to lie on, but a sweet bed to die on!”
As a teenager I had been startled and awakened by the story of Francis of Assisi and his lifelong “love affair” with his Lady Poverty. My quest for something beyond the social and spiritual status quo of the 1960s was much more than adolescent rebellion. It was a serious and deeply felt need to connect with God, by disconnecting from everything that was not. My then critical and shallow view of religion was that it simply and conveniently sanctified the way things had always been, rather than inspiring a crusade for Utopia. I just could not accept that my elders were really serious when they contended and defended that the way things were was “as good as it gets”.
At 22 I had no coherent philosophy or theology. But I did have the serious and earnest belief that Jesus of Nazareth and the monastery were the finest Guide and roadmap a man could possibly find, in Heaven and earth. So, I really hit the ground running and took to the monastic life and its traditional asceticism with youthful ferocity. Upon reflection, although they were much too polite to say, I am sure that some of the seniors found my behaviour comedic. I decided that my basic and modest room was much too posh and luxurious a place to launch an all-out, quick-fire assault on Heaven’s gates. Surreptitiously I got rid of my mattress, sheets and pillows and replaced them with one sheet of hard board and a blanket. Early mornings were extremely painful; a rugged concoction of stiffness, pain and being frozen. But laced into this was the crazy notion that I was surely progressing swiftly along the “highway of holiness”. It would have been nigh on impossible to knock me off this course. During the day I haunted the scriptorium, feeding the flames of my zeal by devouring stories of asceticism and mortification that sounded almost fantastical. Saints who never ate or survived on the Bread of the Altar. Hermits who prayed all night, not noticing the snow falling and piling up on their backs. Contemplatives standing in waist-deep rivers to keep awake for marathons of prayer. These were the inhabitants of my day and night dreams; my inspiration and my mentors.
But every runaway cart deserves a brick wall. Mine was a dose of the flu … an incredibly sore throat, bronchitis and asthma. Overnight the man of “faith and power” was a child of “paste and flour”. The Infirmarian took charge. Mattress, pillow, sheets and blankets were returned. No questions permitted. Stay put! Three square meals a day delivered on a tray. Total humiliation. Plans and schemes of overnight sanctity went up in a cloud of antibiotics, cough mixture and painkillers. I hope that the community had a good, long chuckle. I deserved it.
Later that winter I did have a taste of authentic asceticism. I had obtained another self-inflicted injury by insisting on wearing light sandals right through the year’s coldest months. Very Franciscan, I hoped. Large cracks appeared around my heels, and sure enough one erupted into an ugly and painful infection. There he goes again. Short-cut saint shoots himself in the foot … literally. One afternoon I was due to work on the sheep farm and concluded I just couldn’t do it. My Novice Master was (as usual) sympathetic. “I’ll talk to ‘the Boss’,” he said, with a reassuring, “right as rain” tone. I settled down in the small patch of sun left on my bed, ready for another tasty dose of bilocations, incorrupt bodies and stigmatics. Marvellous!
“The Abbot says you’re to go out to work. Period!”
I limped heavily off down to Kopua Road and out towards the back of the farm to link up with Father Basil for work. Most of the way I bristled and growled with a mixture of self-pity and indignation. Not unlike self-made men, self-made saints do not take contradiction kindly. As I walked beside the infant Manawatu River I felt something burst in my boot. The terrific pain vanished and the relief was immense. I sat down for a while, washed my foot and the pus from my sock, and then continued on for a decent couple of hours chopping ragwort out of the paddocks.
I still have no idea why Father Joseph endured tacks sticking up through the soles of his black shoes. Likewise, I do not understand why he sent me out into the fields to work when I could hardly walk. Do I impute ill will or bad intentions to him? Not in the least. What was he thinking? I’ll never know. What I do know is the events of that afternoon did me no harm, but good. Bona fide asceticism is learning to disappear, so that Someone else can appear. John the Baptist understood and lived this foundational truth. Jesus “must become greater; I must become less,” John told the crowds, perhaps eager for a glimpse of this locust and honey eating, desert celebrity? (1) Thomas Merton’s final public words were, “I will disappear.” (2) A few hours later he died, suddenly.
My stagey acts of mortification unhealthily enlarged me. The Abbot’s decision creatively diminished me. The goal of the contemplative life is to “live to pray”. This will happen only when we choose to really “become nothing”. (3)
Story: Peter Robertson
This is an extract from Peter Robertson's book, The Abbot's Shoes. Used with permission. You can purchase the e-book here.
- John 3:30
- John Howard Griffin, The Hermitage Journals (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1981)
- Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross (eds. Dr L Gelber and Romaeus Leuver; trans. Josephine Koeppel. Washington: ICS Publications, 2002)