Me and Rom in the Baymont Inn again, our roadhouse.
“…he keeps Isaac only with pain.”
—Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
With the conviction in mind that the difference between faith and belief is mostly opinion, and that opinion, at heart, is what motivates the faithful wayfarer, I visited a small monastery nestled in the farmlands outside of Peoria, Illinois, knowing that while I didn’t have the courage for a good fight, I was there to have one if the opportunity should only arise.
I sat on a metal folding chair in the semi-dark of the chapel and noticed the bare flagstone floors, the twenty or so low wooden benches where I guessed the monks sat during mass, the plain altar dressed in white cloth, and the incense still hazing the windows. No stained glass, and aside from the impressive carved wood crucifix on the wall behind the altar, no art. I waited for the prior’s return with a nervous sense of having been put off and a compulsion to get up, cross the threshold of the chapel, get into the car, and drive away. When I’d arrived on the grounds, I’d seen a few of the monks walking in the driveway, some in full gray habits, some in long-sleeved unadorned hoods that reached mid-thigh. All wore sandals, all wore their heads shaved within a quarter-inch of their scalps, all seemed quite young. Which was a revelation: I didn’t know until then that I didn’t know much about monastic life, and there seemed a lot to know.
I didn’t know, for instance, that at the time I was looking at the prior, the novice master, and their novices. I didn’t know what I ought to do next--should I not approach them? should I have stayed on the walk?--until the prior waved and gestured me towards a nearby picnic table where he greeted me briefly, shook my hand, and asked me to wait in the chapel. I was nursing an awkwardness--of being surely about to speak to this man in ways he would find ignorant, possibly offensive, but also, somehow, forgivable. I was trying to discard the thought and the anger that came with it. I felt inappropriate and hateful, self-conscious, absurdly so, and irritated with my feelings, and irritated with having put myself into the position of being someone a stranger would perceive as in need of forgiveness. The chapel grew dark as the sun lit the fields from the horizon outside, a red sanctuary candle burned near the floor below the tabernacle, and I wrestled with the senselessness of prayer and of feeling moved to move my thoughts towards God in whom I could find no reason to believe.
On the phone I’d told the prior only that I have some questions and that I hope someone might sit with me and respond. I didn't tell him there was also the burden of knowing which questions to ask. “Very good,” he said, without pressing. He gave me directions to the priory after arranging an appointment date, and I listened to his voice and tried to place his accent. By this time, I’d been on the phone with a local parish office making the same clumsy request, had been given the option of talking with one of the parish priests or—when I asked the woman on the other end of the line where she would go if she were me—of seeking direction with someone from The Community of St John, this place at which I’d arrived, after navigating through the voicemail prompts directing me on how to leave messages for various Fathers and Brothers, the prior, the vicar, the novice and guest master, the kitchen, the library, and after having left two messages, randomly, with two different Brothers, each of whom called back within a day and cheerfully pointed me towards the prior of the community, with whom at last I left a third message.