By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published April 10, 2008
Thousands of people come to the monastery every year. It is peaceful here and I suppose that most come to rest for a while in the quiet that we try to offer. I am sure that it is the hope of many who come that they will better grasp a sense of God, or meaning or a renewed sense of direction in their lives.
Every now and then people come who have no such expectations.
A busload of kids arrived recently. I knew that they were coming.
They were kids of special needs—some were autistic, others were physically challenged. They came from a school far from here and had been on the road in a yellow bus since four in the morning. Their teachers and some aides were with them. I met them in the retreat house after Mass and chatted with them for a bit. They had brought large bags of bread and were excited about going down to the lake to feed the geese.
I went down with them and watched as they lined up at the shoreline and tossed bread to the geese. The geese by now know that people mean food, so they honked and squawked with what I guess was delight as the kids threw pieces of bread to them.
There was one goose out in the middle of the lake that made his way as fast as he could toward the banquet of flying bread. He moved fast across the water, making a racket and leaving a widening wake behind him.
Standing behind the kids, I enjoyed watching them as they fed the geese. One kid was so taken with it that instead of tearing off little pieces of bread, he tossed the entire loaf into the lake and laughed as the geese fought each other for a piece of that soggy and floating treasure.
One boy turned around and looked at me. He dropped his bread on the ground and came over to me, told me that his name was Charles and took my hand and held it as he talked to me. He asked if I was a monk, and I told him yes. He said that he was happy. Happy to be there and feed the geese, but he saw that I was by myself. It was then that I noticed that all the kids seemed to be paired—they had a buddy system.
Those kids remained in my heart all day. I had to go to work at our bonsai pottery barn, and I thought about them as I wrapped pots. Later, as lunch time approached, I went back to the area near the retreat house and told their teachers that it would be fine if they all had lunch in the retreat house. I knew that they had planned to eat their lunch outside, but it was a chilly, windy day. I would have had lunch with them, but I had to get back with the other monks at mid-day prayer.
Most people, I think, assume that we embody and offer here some sense of clarity about God and his ways in this world. I suppose that is OK.
Much of the language that is heard here—human conversations, the chanting of the psalms, talks given by monks in the retreat house, the homilies and almost the sum total of words here—all bespeak of God and the human. And we speak and listen, in the hope that when the words are tossed, we are somehow fed.
Does it all work? I suppose it does, to some extent. We often hear good “reviews” as to what is said and heard here.
What is that phrase? Something about tossed bread on the waters, tossed, perhaps, in the hope that something good will happen.
I think of those kids, who when they were born had their toes counted with love to make sure that they arrived in this world in perfect shape.
How long did it take till it was known that something was wrong? With an inability to speak right, or see right, or think right, hopes were painfully lowered and lives were altered. Hearts were set on a path of lifetime care in intense, concentrated ways. The kids would be different.
High above the shore of our lake stands our magnificent church. It is clearly beautiful. Striking in its form, it offers a place where people seek God and pray to him.
How hungry we are for God to come and answer our prayers. Yet, how far away God must be, for much of what we pray for is forever late in the coming.
We pray for peace, which eludes our grasp. We pray for health, which is bound to fail. We pray for each other as we stumble through life, hurt each other, somehow miss each other, not knowing how to communicate the love we feel, the love we need, the love whose absence makes such a wound of this world. Yet we persist in our prayer and toss to the silence of God our words. How and when will he speak?
On the shore I watched those kids as they tossed their bread. Bits of bread, and the occasional loaf, sailed through the air and onto the waters. They tossed in such a happy and carefree way. I watched their glee as the geese came.
The tall, majestic house of God rose behind them, a place where at that moment other words were being tossed to the infinite mystery of God—thrown to another far shore.
Some day, I believe that all that is of God will rise. Every word that has ever been spoken to him, no matter from how far, and how desperate and how angry, has been heard. No matter how foolish sounding to the supposedly learned, or how futile to the pragmatic among those of us who have walked this earth, God has heard and will answer every cry. God will rise.
I watched the kids yesterday and daydreamed later, as to how the lake before them would surge and rise, and from it would rise fantastic things—a great wooden ship with sails of spun gold, and a magical circus with dancing bears and angels who swallowed fire and tossed diamonds to the shore, and a castle with jeweled windows and vast streets on which people laughed and danced as they beckoned to the children on the shore. And the kids ran across the waters, seeing as clear as day the wonders that rose before them, and they felt their bodies as being whole and good and their minds as fresh and as bright as can be.
And Charles would look back at me and run to me and take my hand and ask me to come, come and see, come and go with him.
I of course know that only bread was tossed and the shore brought to them only geese.
But their bread is the only prayer they now know, and they tossed it with all their hearts, pieces and entire loaves, over and over again, and I know that God will come. The geese came and, some day, God will rise, too, and come to them all.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com. His new book is “Portraits of Grace: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.”