The monks

Lockdown’s ending, and already I miss it. The protest crowds, both televised and experienced in person, have left me with a need for silent contemplation.

For over a decade, after finishing a week’s pieces on deadline I would head over to a Maronite monastery near the Quabbin Reservoir west of Boston. I’d arrive just as the monks chanted the final prayers for the evening, around nine o’clock, and would check myself into whatever room I’d been assigned. In exchange for a room and porch, plus meals, I was asked to follow the monks’ schedule of chants and a daily mass, which would start at 5:30 a.m. And to keep silent.

I’m not a religious person, but I love ritual and respect all things spiritual. The chants and masses were largely in Syriac. I was often the only guest except at weekend masses, when a few nuns would show up, and sometimes a handful of people from the surrounding area. The meals were simple, and increasingly sparse as we inched towards Sunday’s feast, which would usually include a gift of ice cream from the nearby Friendly’s creamery.

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I was there the weekend after 9/11. I left early the day John Paul II died. I’d spend my long weekends writing on various projects, or sometimes just reading. I explored the library of ecclesiastical works. I took long walks along the area’s long stone walls, and witnessed the monks’ building of a new church, a guesthouse, and the clearing of lands around their home-for-life. I came know the monks without speech, and mourned when a disappearance from the chants signaled an illness or a passing.

One time I came across a moose in the woods. We both stared at each other and then darted away. I saw a monk and started to tell him. He raised a finger to his lips. I nodded, put splayed fingers by my head, thumbs to my ears. He smiled and nodded.

Leaving a few days later, the monastery’s abbot waved me over to speak to him, as he’d do once each visit. “I heard you saw our moose,” he said. “Are you ready for baptism?”

That was our joke. I once told him I was slipping from atheism to agnosticism. We would laugh together. I liked him.

Lockdown’s ending. I miss lockdown. Maybe it’s time for a return to my monastery. I hope most of my friends are still there, praying for us all.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.