Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Question And The Answer

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published June 8, 2010

Some months back we had a big, fancy dinner here at the monastery. We hosted a gala-like banquet for the religious of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. It is an annual event and has always been a wonderful evening.

The guests mingle with the monks at a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception and that is followed by the dinner.

The religious comprise many varied spots on the continuum of spirituality. There are teachers and chaplains, parish ministers and religious coordinators, consecrated virgins, contemplatives and more active devotees of following the call to find and serve God. In the large and beautifully decorated room where we had the meal, it is a safe bet to say that a good percentage of the myriad and sometimes conflicting roads to the holy were sitting and chatting at the tables, all in a very friendly way. Of course that is not always the case since religious persuasions tend to divide religious professionals on some rather touchy issues.

I heard a funny story about something that transpired at one table.

There were eight or so people at the table. A young guest sat next to one of our novices and asked him if our monastery was liberal or conservative. Not the most comfortable of questions, I suppose, since the response could have chilled the atmosphere at that particular table.

Wisely, the young novice looked across the table and there sat one of our senior monks. He put the question to him and the senior monk looked at him, thought for a moment, then turned to the young guest who asked the question and replied, “About 280,000 bags. That’s right. 280,000.”  The older monk is hard of hearing and his hearing aid did not work well for him that night. The young man who asked the question looked at him and said, “Wow,” and thanked him. I suppose he thought it best not to unravel the response. And so the meal continued with everyone making peaceful chitchat and, well, never finding out whether our home is conservative or liberal. Later, it was discovered that the older monk thought the question had something to do with how many bags of concrete it took to build our abbey church. He must have been asked the question before because his accounting was right, according to local legend.

And so it was that we went our separate ways that night, our hearts filled with good cheer. The young man who asked the question received a truthful answer to his entirely unrelated question and the older monk in all innocence gave a reply that was truthful to the bags but wayward to the original question.

The meal continued with unresolved questions and answers.

And so it went.

A year will pass before we host the group again. Maybe, by that time the old monk will have gotten the question right and the young guest will have discovered the meaning behind all those concrete bags. And they may even once again share the same table. And the young man will look at the older man and ask “It sure took a lot of bags to make up this church.” And the older man, having mulled over the conservative-liberal question for a year, will look at his young guest and then, his eyes scanning the other tables, will smile and say, “Bags? Church? Well, yes, most of us are geezers. But we are a progressive bunch.”

And so it goes.

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 online store at