A capacity crowd filled the Boys’ Dining Hall on October 15 for the annual Mothers’ Club Fall Luncheon. The luncheon followed Mass at 11:30 a.m. in the Abbey Church. Many thanks to Kristina Hanley and Denise Bertrand for co-chairing the event, and arranging for the fall-themed table decorations and menu. Ann Staed of the Campus Store displayed a wide selection of new Priory-branded items as a prelude to the coming holidays.
While not to be taken literally, the mothers were invited to “go behind the doors of the monastery and learn about monastic life.” The question and answer format of the program proved to be quite popular and it was the job of the guest speaker, Brother Sixtus Roslevich, O.S.B., to field those questions. While many in the extended Priory Family are familiar with the Rule of Saint Benedict and the spiritual basis of the monastic community, this program offered what turned out to be a sometimes humorous peek into the daily lives of the monks.
Here is an edited and condensed account of a few of those questions and answers:
Q. At what time and what is the process when you all wake up each day?
A. Depending on the day, the first prayers of the morning, called Vigils, begin at 5:35, 6:10 or 6:35. Some monks are early risers but others prefer to be awakened by the caller. Monks are assigned this duty of caller on a week-to-week basis and at 20 minutes before prayers begin they go from room to room, knock three times and say, “Benedicamus Domino!” (Let us bless the Lord!). The response from inside should be, “Deo gratias!” (Thanks be to God!). Ten minutes later, which is ten minutes before prayers begin, the caller follows the same route, this time ringing a large, loud, brass bell. It was brought from England by the founding monks in 1955 and is inscribed “A.R.P.” which stands for Air Raid Patrol. Thus the monks are finally awakened, hopefully, by a World War II bell which once sounded the alarm throughout English streets warning of possible air raids.
Q. Are there any pets in the monastery?
A. Define “pets!” The current abbot will not allow pets in the belief that for the first month, the pet belongs to everyone. After the first month, however, the pet belongs to no one. This would apply specifically to four-legged friends like cats and dogs. Father Michael maintains a wonderful menagerie of exotic birds, but they are not housed in the monastery. They live happily in a small vernacular estate building that was part of the original farm property and they are avid daily listeners of National Public Radio. Other monks have been known to keep non-four-footed “pets” for a time, small creatures like snakes, praying mantises and the occasional ant farm similar to the one on Pee-Wee’s playhouse.
Q. Does each monk do his own laundry?
A. One hopes that monks would do their own laundry on a regular basis and to that end there are a total of four washers and four dryers in the building. Only when an elderly monk might become incapacitated would a fellow monk perform his laundry services as an act of kindness.
Q. How can we tell if a monk is a priest or a brother?
A. There is really no way to make this differentiation if monks are simply walking around the campus or gathering in church for the Daily Office. We all wear the same outfit consisting of a belted habit, an apron-like scapular and the unique English Benedictine hood. Some monks choose to wear a white collar while others do not. At Mass, however, a concelebrating priest can be identified by a long white alb with a stole around his neck.
Q. Do the monks really eat dinner in complete silence?
A. Most of the time yes, except for days of school vacation when we shift to a holiday schedule with informal meals served buffet style and with talking. Generally, though, one monk is assigned as reader-at-meals for the week and sits at a small table with a lamp, a sound system and a book. The subject could be either religious or non-religious and assuming that the average number of pages read is ten at the very most per meal, it can take months to get through a book. Several years ago, for instance, the dinner book was Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which clocked in at 944 pages! The current reading is from The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken, which pales in comparison at a mere 388 pages.
This silence is actually elaborated in Chapter 38 of Benedict’s Rule when he says, “Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking - only the reader’s voice should be heard there.”
Q. I’m really curious about how you manage day-to-day life in the monastery. How does it compare to our family life?
A. In many ways I suspect it parallels aspects of your own households. Depending on how many children you have living at home, you may very well think that you understand the term ‘sibling rivalry.’ Imagine living in a house with 33 brothers and sibling rivalry takes on a whole new meaning. Aside from the full-time jobs in the monastery which attend to the temporal needs of the clerical office work, the kitchen management and the general running of the house, there are weekly assignments posted which rotate among most of the able monks. These are basically household chores such as setting the tables, washing the dishes, and serving meals to the brethren, as well as a job called ‘semi-abbot’ whereby a monk is assigned to serve beer to those who desire and to begin washing pots and pans during the meal. The semi-abbot, the two waiters and the reader eat their dinner after the community is finished, at what is traditionally called Second Table. They are allowed to speak at this point. No one seems to know why that one person is called a semi-abbot.
Much like your families, then, life goes along swimmingly as long as each person fulfills his own job and chores.
Q. Why do you change your names when you enter the monastery and how are names chosen?
A. I think this is a big part of “putting on the new man” when one becomes a monk. It’s not just the donning of a black habit to blend in or the changing of a lifestyle which may be necessary to living in community, but shedding your birth name can help signify to the world that you are moving in a new and radical direction. Not all monks change their names but this is a decision discussed by the abbot and the monk. While several in our community have retained birth names, others have chosen to assume ancient traditional names of monks or saints (Bede, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Hugh). However, one young monk chose the name of a 20th century saint, Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who died at Auschwitz.
Several of you have asked about the origin of my own name. There were five popes named Sixtus and the Sistine Chapel is named after one of them, the one who wrote the check to Michelangelo for his splendid ceiling painting. Only two of those five popes became saints and my patron is Pope Saint Sixtus II who was martyred in Rome in 257. A great-uncle on my mother’s side of the family was a Xaverian teaching brother for over 60 years in private boys’ schools like Priory around the Chesapeake Bay area of the East Coast. So we had a Brother Sixtus in my family from the day he became a novice in 1913 (at age 15) until the day he died in 1977. Because of these connections I was allowed to take the same name that my great-uncle had assumed.
Q. Do the monks have an opportunity for leisure activities and, if so, what are the options for their free time?
A. Many writers on the monastic and spiritual life insist that professed religious must have sufficient time off for themselves since the job or the calling often makes 24/7 demands on one’s time and energy. It’s difficult to tend to the emotional and spiritual needs of others when one’s own needs are not being met. To this end, novices and others are encouraged to take a “month day” on which they can take a late sleep and then sign out a car for the day. Depending on one’s interests this outing might take the form of a visit to a park (say, Lone Elk Park or Forest Park) or visits to the art museum, history museum, science center or botanical garden. Some will take the opportunity to see a movie.
Some monks take advantage of our retreat house called Apple Hill in Clarksville near the Mississippi River, which sits on 150 acres of mixed woods and fields. Some of you may be aware of this facility through the two Monkamps organized every summer for the schoolboys, through various retreats held for Oblates and lectio groups, or through events offered at the Xanadu Auction.
We have been blessed with annual memberships to the various cultural organizations around town and these are often an incentive for monks to get off-campus and experience events instead of just reading about them in the paper.