by Richard M. Dell’Orfano, California, USA
Excerpt from Book 1, Chapter 27: Regarding my arrival in 1968 at St Joseph’s Abbey, meeting Fr Thomas, and my near-death experience.
Route 9 zigzags from Worcester to Spencer [Massachusetts, USA] in a 15-mile trip that seemed much longer, and it proved exhausting as we headed to the Abbey on a seemingly endless rural road, past farms with countless sheep. Cars drove past much less frequently than on major roads. We thumbed but our bearded, unkempt appearance must have made them reluctant to stop. So we tramped there in one day and slept overnight next to that darkened road.
We slept on a bed of pine needles, suffered the bites of hungry mosquitoes, and cowered at the sounds of animals rustling about the forest. We smelled bad from not bathing. At times I grew light-headed from eating nothing but the fruit we bought with our limited cash at roadside stands. I often felt faint and unsteady on the way, while my heart did frightening flip-flops from low blood sugar. I prayed to soothe my weary soul.
That morning, I was relieved when we arrived at the monastery’s iron-studded, wood-paneled door. I rapped the metal knocker with high hopes that we could at least spend the night, and maybe longer. As we waited for the Brother Porter, I surveyed the monastery layout with its long fieldstone buildings clustered in the midst of spacious hay fields, defined by thick woodlands. Being city-raised, the forested areas delighted me. The abbeys in medieval times were self-contained communities with orchards, beehives, cows, and chickens. I saw a few monks communicating by hand signal and loading a tractor-trailer with bales of hay. Maybe that was their only money-making operation.
An older, hooded monk opened the door and ushered us in. For centuries, Trappist monasteries have offered intrigued retreatants and vagabonds an opportunity to glimpse their unusual way of life, dedicated to the eternal quest for life’s purpose and meaning.
I felt in ancient company as we entered deeper into the Abbey through corridors made of granite field stones —rugged and durable rocks from New England soil. Its rough and sturdy walls were pierced by shafts of sunlight through small stained-glass portals. Their spectrums of brilliant color splayed on us as we passed through each beam of light. This immersed the place in an aura of mystery, where the material world met the spiritual … where finite humans could contact the infinite and communicate with the Supreme Being.
I asked to speak with the Abbot, who at that time was Fr. Thomas Keating, a tall, thin, balding man in his mid-forties who obliged me with a brief meeting the first hour we arrived. My companion and I were separated for some reason. When I told the Abbot that I’d sleep anywhere, he tested my resolve by having me sleep that night on a concrete floor without a mattress or a blanket in a small water-heater room. I was warm enough in there but felt nearly suffocated from the stuffy air in close quarters that surely contained carbon monoxide. However, I was so tired that actual hazard did not cross my mind, nor apparently the Abbot’s. Obviously, I survived the risk to eat a hearty breakfast.
Candidates for the monastic life who would look under the hood and behind the walls are allowed to participate in certain events, such as taking meals in the refectory, working at typical chores alongside the Brothers, or chanting the Psalms in the sanctuary.
The next day, after I’d bathed, a Brother gave me a haircut and a shave. Not long after, I was wearing black pants with a white shirt, socks, and shoes. My physical appearance in a mirror shocked me without my beard, shaggy hair, and army jacket.
The Novice Master assigned me various tasks throughout the day, such as helping in the laundry room, cleaning bathrooms, and making up beds in the guest retreat house. I started out washing dishes and ended up setting tableware on napkins in the Guest House. I met lay brothers quietly doing chores and choir monks studying for the priesthood.
Because the monastery is large, I rarely saw my travel companion after our being separated, though I occasionally met him in the refectory dining hall. Twenty or thirty monks sat at long wooden tables on hard bench seats. Breakfast was typically milk, honey, oatmeal, fruit, cheese, and homemade bread. Lunch and dinner were again lacto-vegetarian soup and salad meals, without meat, fish, eggs, or foul. It was an austere diet, most likely deficient in quality protein and B-12. Trappist monks usually live longer than nearby urban populations but contract more non-life-threatening chronic diseases.
The Abbot, Prior, and other priests sat at the head table, perpendicular to ours, while the rest of us sat at parallel wooden tables and benches. Lay brothers took turns serving at tables. I half expected wine but none was served. While we ate, an assigned monk read from the letters and essays of intellectually stimulating, controversial authors like the Trappist writer Thomas Merton, or the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. [ii] The Brothers were being fed in body, mind, and spirit.
Early one morning in the Refectory, I could see Fr. Keating, about 45 years old, dressed in the traditional Trappist black and white garments with a wide leather belt, standing some fifty feet away from where I sat eating alone at a long table. That was an unusual encounter, the details of which escape me, but we were alone in that large hall, except for some Brother clattering pots in the kitchen. Fr. Keating was hastily spooning oatmeal porridge from a white ceramic bowl at dawn’s early light, pacing the tile floor as if the daily eating ritual had become a nuisance, and deserved to be quickly dispensed. He made no effort to greet me or even acknowledge my presence, avoiding frivolous ritual.
I had not spoken to my travel companion in a week. For an unknown reason, we were moved outside on Monday night to a pavilion that contained 40 spring-mattress cots from a recent recruiting conference. It stood next to the Abbey cemetery where white wooden crosses glimmered in the spooky moonlight. They each had the name of a deceased monk whom their fellow monks would hopefully remember, but that meant nothing to me.
It was customary from medieval times that an empty grave be ready for its next permanent occupant. But until then, a monk could lie in that sole vacant gravesite for a while, pondering death’s certainty. I shudder on peering into that six-foot hole accessed by a step ladder. The prospect of dying without remembrance beyond this Abbey grave site seemed a fate worse than death itself.
The temporary pavilion had a metal frame constructed on an elevated wooden floor, and was draped with a ghostly translucent plastic. Inside, two beds with pillows, crisp sheets, and army blankets were made up for us. The remaining empty unmade beds lined both sides of this pavilion to resemble an Army barracks.
I could never have appreciated the luxurious feeling of sleeping between two crisp, clean bed sheets on a spring mattress, without the experience of prickly pine needles and biting insects as I slept on the ground day after day. It brought back memories of my bed at home when I was a child. As is customary in monasteries, no matter the season, the monks retire early, and by 9pm I had fallen off to sleep.
But at the witching hour, I awake, surprised to see my fully-clothed travel mate standing in moonlight at the end of my bed, violently shaking my foot and glaring at me; his eyes bulging, his mouth tightlipped, handsome features turned hideous. Still groggy with sleep, I think it’s a nightmare. Then I’m watching a horror movie come true. Terror grips me with that cold reality … my body shivering and trembling.
He comes closer, scraping his hunting knife on his thumbnail, letting its filings fall into my eyes. He holds the sharp edge of its cold blade against my cheek, as if to shave me. Or maybe to slit my throat, so my jugular vein spurts red stripes upon the bed sheet.
Somehow, I can feel the damp walls of that empty gravesite I saw outside. Can he hear the heavy pounding of my telltale heart? He mutters, “You all think you’re too good for me, eh? You’re all going to die tonight.” He threatens mass murder, me first. I’ve no reason to think he won’t.
He looks possessed by a demon. Instinct advises silence … any talking I do could trigger a bloody response. If I shout for help, will it do any good? We are beyond the hearing range of sleeping Brothers who likely couldn’t subdue an armed maniac.
Mesmerized by the immediacy of death, I am biting my tight lips bloody, lying helpless at this madman’s mercy. My teeth chatter and limbs shiver uncontrollably. My sheets dampen from sweat. I can feel my whole body mustering for ‘fight or flight.’ My fright obvious, he holds a fiendish grin, relishing every minute of my agony. What he can’t see is my heart doing flip-flops with thumping palpitations.
Prone in bed, I couldn’t stand up fast enough to overpower him. He’s taller and stronger than me. Even if I had my Swiss Army knife, he grips a six-inch blade. My only sure recourse is to pray for divine protection. All of heaven must wince on hearing my plight.
After an hour of anxious and fervent prayer, I begin to feel invulnerable to harm, like a fortress on a hill. Am I delusional? The dawn comes, and somehow I know heaven has finally heard my prayers. “Your life is spared,” is the assurance I will never forget.
By summer’s early light, his devil shrinks from the sun, and his good side seems to recover, behaving as if nothing demonical happened. Fully clothed, he leaves me at the sound of tolling bells. Still shaking, I arise to clumsily dress for Lauds at 5am that warm Tuesday morning, the second of seven divine offices chanted daily by Christian monks.
While dressing, pondering his accusation that I thought myself better than him, if true, I was not conscious of it. I wrack my brain over what I might have said or done to provoke him. The only feasible explanation for his anger is hurt and jealousy from his perceiving the Brothers favored me. They’d nod to me at choir or at mealtimes but visibly shun him.
To calm myself down, I think it best to get in step with the rhythm of the place. Though yet shivering from my ordeal, I am tranquilized keeping apace with the hooded monks. On entering the church proper, sweet altar incense ministers aromatherapy. The Novice Master points to a cedar choir stall and I eagerly embrace that ancient ritual again.
While we sat there waiting for the organist to play, I focused my agitated mind by carefully fingering the details of the sculpted wood on the cubicle handles. By counting empty choir stalls in the church, I figured the monastery had many vacancies. I later learned that in former years, it accommodated 200 monks, but currently had only 60.
In that hazy dawn, dressed like ghosts in white habits and belted black scapulars, they shuffled past me in leather sandals to their assigned cubicles. I looked for but didn’t see my deranged travel companion in the choir. His disappearance began to worry me. Would I have to spend another night threatened by that lunatic?
Accompanied by an organist, the monks chanted mostly from memory the Psalms in liturgical season. Their chanting worked as a wonderful balm soothing my frazzled soul.
If I had to choose the most poignant, inspirational moment of my life, one ironically juxtaposed with the most frightening, it would be my heartfelt communion with their hymn to the Virgin Mary that Tuesday evening at Compline at 7pm. All faces lifted to a large, stained-glass rose window featuring the Virgin Mary, illuminated at the apex of the roofline over the altar. The monks sang the Salve Regina and that hymn brought me to uncontrollable tears. Partly because I suddenly realized that I had just participated in a precious moment that the Benedictine monks had been performing for over 1800 years.
When we finished choir that evening, the Abbot stood to receive the kneeling bow of each monk, queued in a long line. Each one knelt to kiss his ecclesial ring as a sign of reverent obedience. After doing so, they’d shuffle into the shadows and disappear.
While I awaited my turn in line, the Novice Master tapped me on the shoulder to inform me, “You will be sleeping in the guesthouse … tonight.” Thank you, God.
[to be continued …]
Excerpt from Book 1, Chapter 28: Regarding discussions with Fr Thomas Keating, and his invitation to join the Trappists
Fr Keating sat at his desk in a modest office, carefully pouring us each a cup of tea. He had already quizzed me about my Italian-American parents and college background.
“The mint is from our garden, and the honey from our beehives,” he said, passing me my cup of spearmint tea. “So why did you come to Saint Joseph’s Abbey?” he asked, stirring his sweetened brew with deliberation.
“I read Thomas Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain, and was much impressed, intending to someday meet him at Gethsemane.”
“His story has drawn many young people to the monastic life and meditation.”
“I took initiation in Kriya Yoga from Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in California, and that introduced me to it.”
“Ah, yes! I know of Parmahansa Yogananda, its founder,” he said, sipping his tea.
“The SRF manuals,” I explained, “taught me how to enter deep contemplation, so that I gradually attained a sustained mystical experience of Christ’s presence.”
He showed no surprise at my testimony of personal intimacy with Christ, even though it came by way of practicing Eastern Raja Yoga techniques.[iii]
“So, you are considering the Trappists after reading Merton’s interest in Eastern contemplative practices. We’ve had many young men visit here with that in mind.”
“Yes, I think so. When I read about Thomas Merton’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Trappists seem more open to this than other Orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans, that I have visited and studied.”
“And what did you learn about those other two religious orders?” he asked.
“The Jesuit priest thought I wasn’t young enough to join, and the Franciscans seem to have lost the charisma of St. Franciscan poverty.”
“So,” he nodded, “…you thought you’d check to see if this is where you belong?”
“Yes,” I said. “Since I left my family, I feel like an orphan with no place to go.”
“Not a pleasant feeling, I‘m sure. You certainly can stay here a while, to see if you like our community. What do you know about us?”
“Not much, really, except what I’ve read. I know that you all take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability; and that you are two reforms away from the original Benedictines.”
“Let’s consider these one at a time. What does our poverty vow mean to you?”
“That I’d own nothing but my personal effects.”
“Do you think you could live chastely unmarried and stay here the rest of your life?”
After a long pause, I said, “Frankly, I don’t know.”
“Let’s talk about marriage— about having a wife and raising a family,” he said, leaning back in his executive chair. “Are your parents happily married, and what feelings do you have about getting married and raising children?”
“They seem happily married. A lot of my class got married at graduation, but I didn’t have a steady girlfriend in my college years.”
“Do you know what celibacy[iv] means?” he smiled, his lips in a slight upturn.
“It means being unmarried and having no sex, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“Being single, yes, but not necessarily chaste. [v] You can be a confirmed celibate bachelor, but still be a womanizer. Celibacy doesn’t ensure chastity. To be a Trappist priest requires your practicing constant chastity in a state of celibacy. In a mystical sense, the whole community is our spouse.
“So a priest takes a vow of celibacy but isn’t necessarily chaste?” I asked.
“Nor is a diocesan priest required to practice poverty. He could become a millionaire. Now, do you still think you’d like to become a Trappist? Or let me put this another way: could you vow to own nothing, chaste the rest of your life, here at St Joseph’s Abbey?”
“I’ve given it some serious thought but can’t answer that just yet.”
“Fair enough,” he said. He reached behind his desk to a bookshelf, and pulled out a not-yet-published book—a bound proof he had just finished reviewing.
“Well, you might find this book interesting. It’s written by a happily married couple, who are both Catholic philosophy professors. What I think you’ll find most intriguing is their description of marital celibacy as a sublime union between husband and wife.
“Here’s a brief passage: ‘The human person is meant to develop this deeper more basic sexuality, no matter which way of life he chooses…. Marriage and celibacy are not then mutually exclusive, but deeply interpenetrating values.’” On finishing, he handed me the bound proof, New Dynamics in Sexual Love. [vi]
“Here’s evidence that you can make yourself a eunuch even in marriage, as long as both partners agree to it. Following Jesus into the single life is a very difficult calling, but it might be possible for you to find a committed ‘spiritual partner’ for a celibate marriage. Take your time reading this while you’re here. You have much to think about. After a month, we hope you will have decided what you wish to do with your life,” he said, standing. “It’s way past 9pm. We have to get up early, so let’s say good night.”
I returned to my room, curious about how couples could live together, yet be celibate. Though I felt committed to remaining single, the ‘celibate marriage’ idea opened debate.
We began a series of private evening discussions. Father Keating spoke of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s Abbey by accident, many of them cradle Catholics like myself, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplation. He found most had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within our Christianity, and he wanted me and other young seekers to know that. He was aware contemplative practices had not reached the diocesan laity and hinted that he and a couple of other priests were planning a global outreach to remedy this sad situation. He suggested they were working on a series of lectures and books to introduce those ancient practices. [vii]
We talked about the early history of monastics, starting with the Desert Fathers[viii] who abandoned cities in the Roman Empire, and dwelled in the Egyptian desert, far from the debauchery of secularized Christendom in the early fourth century… and how my own quest for Truth was similar to theirs. Somehow he knew that I had ceased pursuing substitutes for real happiness of soul, a blessed state which the multitudes do not know how to find.
One afternoon, near the end of my month-long stay, the Abbot asked me to climb a nearby hill with him. At the summit we sat down for a chat, overlooking his sprawling abbey complex, set in the midst of a luscious green valley. He swept his hand over the pastoral scene before us and declared, “Behold the kingdom of heaven on Earth! Our blessed community is the closest thing you’ll find on Earth to the City of God.[ix]“
His poignant tone of voice startled me, inviting me to stay on as a Brother. He said, “Whatever you decide to do, wherever you go, let the Advocate be your comforter and guide.” His last words, as he pointed to the monastery, were, “Let me know if you wish to stay.” He stood and walked away, leaving me standing there. I watched him shrink to a miniature figure slowly descending into that picturesque scene and felt a tug to catch up with him. With a heavy heart, I sat there weeping over the enormous decision before me.
[to be continued …]
These are excerpts from my first book, Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous (500 pages), describing my ten-year penniless pilgrimage. Book 2 is a work-in-progress capping the story of my struggle from rags to riches, after my discovering the immense treasure hidden deep within us (Matt 6:33). I share a few methods of advanced contemplation in action, being immersed ‘in the world but not of it.’ For more information, please email me: RMDellOrfano@gmail.com
[ii] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. SJ. (May 1.1881—April 10.1955) was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and took part in the discovery of both Piltdown man and Peking man. Some of his ideas came into conflict with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. And several of his books were censured. He abandoned traditional interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict interpretation.
This displeased certain officials in the Roman Curia and in his own order, who thought that it undermined the doctrine of original sin developed by Saint Augustine. Teilhard’s position was opposed by his Church superiors. and some of his work was denied publication during his lifetime by the Holy See.
The Trappists ignored these Vatican prohibitions. However, in recent decades, largely due to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Henri de Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas have become incorporated as part of mainstream Catholic theology. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said in July 2009. “By now. no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied.” Wikipedia
[iii] Thoreau on his Practice of Yoga: :Free in this world as the birds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who practice yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruits of their works. Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. The yogi, absorbed in contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume, he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him, and united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating original matter. To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.” Letter to his friend H. Blake in 1849.
[iv] Celibate: a confirmed bachelor or spinster. not necessarily chaste. but having taken formal or informal vows to remain unmarried.
[v] “Chastity is (1) The virtue excluding all voluntary pleasure or indulgence in acts arising from the sexual impulse in unmarried persons and moderating within the bounds of right reason any deliberate pleasure arising from acts pertaining to sexual relations in the married. (2) The evangelical counsel which prompts one to vow permanently not to indulge in the natural sexual appetite. A solemn obligation of observing perpetual chastity is accepted by clergy of the Latin rite from the time they receive the order of subdiaconate.” Catholic edition of Holy Bible, Omega Publishing, 1953. Confraternity of the Christian Doctrine Version, glossary of terms.
[vi] New Dynamics in Sexual Love. by Mary R. and Robert E. Joyce. a revolutionary approach to marriage and celibacy. ©1970 Order of St Benedict: “Marriage and celibacy are not, then, mutually exclusive, but deeply interpenetrating values. Just as poetry and music are both fine arts. the celibate and spousal ways of life are fine arts of human existence. … A husband and wife who deeply experience the aloneness and uniqueness both of the self and of the other may find deep sexual joy in the presence of each other, as well as in the less dramatic acts of making love —a word, a smile, a simple embrace, an act of kindness.” (p.p.54- 55). … marital union does not need direct intercourse to be a complete and consummating union.”(p.66). Fr Keating later mailed me the book when published.
[vii] The result of his research was the technique now called Centering Prayer. In the early 1970s, he and two other Trappist priests launched a well-conceived prayer ministry that became an international organization called Contemplative Outreach.[vii]It was to extend to all Christian laity, not just Roman Catholics, even if Protestant evangelicals did not adhere to the letter of Roman doctrine. His philosophy was to bypass or avoid confrontation over doctrine in pursuit of the inner Teacher who would bring them round eventually to the fullness of truth. If I’d stayed on as a monk at St Joseph’s Abbey, I’d have been serving in that worldwide ministry today.
[viii] “The Desert Fathers were male Orthodox Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD, in aversion to the debauchery of the pagan Roman Empire. Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a collection of their writings. The most well known was St. Anthony the Great. who removed to the desert in 270—271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. By the time Anthony died in 356. thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony’s example. The desert monastic communities that grew out of the informal gathering of hermit monks became the model for Christian monasticism. The eastern monastic tradition at Mt. Athos and the western Rule of St. Benedict both were strongly influenced by the traditions that began in the desert.” Wikipedia
[ix] City of God: Monasteries for many centuries have been the Church’s expressed hope on Earth of communal perfection and fraternal love. St. Thomas More describes it in his novel Utopia. Also, described in City of God (De Civitate Dei). a 5th-century book by St. Augustine of Hippo.