4. Near Lafayette, Oregon
“. . . the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
Martin Cedarborne tried to keep the phrase from the apostle before his mind while entering sales figures in a computer spreadsheet. He speculated whether lectio divina would be easier if he worked in the bindery or—even better—in the monastery’s forest. He didn’t positively resent his job; since he had extensive background in the use of computers, it made sense for the abbot to assign him to office work. Besides, in November, hardly any of the brothers worked in the woods, and extra clerks were needed to fill holiday orders for the fruitcakes that brought in a significant portion of Our Lady of Guadeloupe’s annual income. Still, he struggled to meditate while manipulating a spreadsheet.
“ . . . the old things have passed away . . .” Marty knew to a certainty why his spiritual director, Father Stephen, had ordered him to read and consider the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians. Father made no secret of his reasoning.
“Marty, you are no greater sinner than others. Over the years our ranks have welcomed felons. One man, a generation ago in another monastery, not Our Lady, was known to have been an enforcer for a loan shark; a violent man before Christ subdued him. There have been brothers who defrauded the poor, and others who cheated the IRS. Not all of them were convicted in courts of law, but they all—we all—are saved by the kindness and grace of Christ.
“You know all this, Marty. In your head. You need to get it here.” Father Stephen placed his hand on Marty’s chest. “Your heart needs to know what your mind knows.”
Marty’s eyes came unfocused from the computer screen. He blinked several times and looked again at the formula at the top of column J. The letters and symbols swam. He needed a break; glancing at the clock, he decided 9:56 was close enough to ten o’ clock. He clicked “save” before starting for the restroom. Absentmindedly, he picked up the small-print New Testament he kept on his desk and put it in his pocket. “ . . . behold, new things have come.”
Alyssa Stout called herself a good Catholic girl, and she was. At 27, Marty married her. But when he was 31, the good Catholic girl moved out. A baby, she told Marty; she would not bring her child into an alcoholic’s house. Why not? He had responded with cruel sarcasm. It was good enough for you; your Dad is a sot, always has been. And what will the Church say about divorce? Her answer froze him. “I don’t know what the Church will say, but I will go to hell before I let my baby live with a drunk.”
She left him. Soon she had a new job, doing fieldwork for children’s services. Marty liked to think that broke through his shield wall of denial. Three weeks into the separation, he capitulated. He called. She didn’t pick up, so he left a message, and he sent an email. “You’re right,” the message said. “I drink with clients, and I drink at home. I drink in the office and I drink in hotels when I’m on the road. Last night, I went to an AA meeting and I said the words: I am an alcoholic. I’m going to get better. Lyss, babe, you don’t have to believe me yet, but you will soon.”
Alyssa never returned the call, never responded to the email. His stepfather, stone sober for once, called Marty that evening. Alyssa was dead. She was a social worker for children’s services. Walking the corridor of an apartment building to see a client, she happened in front of a door just as a terrified meth addict flung it open. The meth-head and Alyssa were both killed by the explosion.
The old man asked: “Did you know Alyssa was pregnant?”
“Yeah, I know.” After that, both men could only sob.
After the funeral mass, Marty returned to church every week. He made confession, received absolution, and took communion. He quit his job as a high-tech salesman, took the insurance money, and moved to Chicago. He lived for a year in a Catholic Worker house, doing whatever needed to be done. One time he sat up all night with a meth addict to keep her from doing the drug. It didn’t stop the woman from dying a week later.
As one would expect, Marty had friends who told him Alyssa’s death was not his fault. If anyone was guilty, it was the meth-head. But when life tastes like ashes, such rationalizations give no comfort.
In Chicago Marty thought of his life as a penance. He had killed his wife and unborn child through self-indulgence. How many years of service did he owe?
After the Catholic Worker year, Marty gave away the money he had left—hardly any—and moved to Oregon. One does not become a monk overnight. An initial visit, then a thirty-day monastic life retreat, then three months in an observership, then a full year as a postulant, and finally two years as a novice. Now, two months into his novitiate, Marty felt fully at home at Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Sometimes he even felt okay as Marty Cedarborne.
Early on, Father Stephen had forbidden him to think of life as penance. “Maybe you will always feel guilty about Alyssa. I can’t order you to change your feelings. But you are a child of God, forgiven by Christ. If you are to be a brother among us, yours will be a life of work, prayer, and contemplation. The grace of Christ now rules in your life. The old things have passed away. You must put your mind on new things.”
The restroom door pulled away before Marty pushed. Someone had pulled it from the other side, Father Stephen. Like most of the brothers, Father and Marty dressed in simple work clothes during the labor hours of the day. The two men made eye contact, and the priest nodded. Cistercians are not required to keep silence, but they often do.
Marty peed, washed his hands, and dried them with a paper towel. He received his new vocation in that instant, before tossing the paper towel into a trash bin.
Father Stephen suddenly remembered something he needed to ask Marty. He came back to the restroom, but there was no one there. He frowned; novices don’t usually disappear into thin air.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
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