Jeremy Driscoll OSB
A Monk’s Alphabet
Moments of Stillness in a Turning World
DARTON - LONGMAN + TODD, 2006
For Paul Murray, OP who helped so much with this alphabet and who helps so much in general
I had gone to the new house of the Contreras family to bless it. We read the story of Zacchaeus from chapter 19 of Luke's gospel. I explained that this gospel exactly revealed the meaning of blessing their house. Jesus says about their house, "I want to stay in your house today." No matter that others might think or say, "Re has gone to the house of a sinner." Jesus hears this and says, "Today salvation has come to this house." When I had finished this explanation, Alejandro (age 12) shuddered and exclaimed, "Oh, thank you for telling us this!"
Zerr is the surname of the seventh abbot of Mount Angel, my monastery. Re said it was a name of Russian-German origin. His people had emigrated to South Dakota and then to Oregon. Re was proud of this, and was always reading about his ancestors in Russia. His first name was Bonaventure, but during almost all of his monastic life he was called Bonny. A name like Bonny was inevitable for the kind of man he was: very large with an imposing intelligence, but totally affable and compassionate, confidant to so many of his brethren in the monastery. Even after he was elected abbot, a position which is appropriately surrounded with many signs of formal respect to express what we believe about the abbot's role (St. Benedict says that the abbot holds the place of Christ in the monastery), he was always referred to in our talk as Bonny, though in addressing him we would use the customary title, "Father Abbot."
I had already been in the monastery eight years when he was elected abbot. I had recently made my final vows and was the youngest elector in the group of monks who chose him as abbot. We are a large community, some 80 monks at that time; and to be abbot is a huge responsibility. For someone like Bonny it was a considerable burden. For he was a scholar at heart. Re read widely, remembered virtually everything he had read, and was always making marvelous connections.
In my first years in the monastery he had been my teacher, and there developed between us the kind of friendship sometimes possible between teacher and student. In a monastery such friendships have a special force, for they are destined to last a lifetime since both teacher and student are vowed to the same community for life.
I not only learned a lot from Bonny; we had great fun together. We had the same funny bone, and I was relieved to discover that in the monastery I would not have to rid myself of it. We used to entertain our confreres together by doing for them what we called "Bad Movies." We both had a deep appreciation for comy movies filled with failed dialogue. We would act out little portions of such films, about as much as might be watched on late night television before switching the channel. For example, an old war movie might only show this much: "The enemy, where are they now?" The answer, pointing at a map: "Rier, mer, und hier." The one who asked the question, expressing great frustration in the silent features of his face, would break a pencil in two and sigh. The channel would be changed. Our acting company had a motto: "he who acts poorly acts twice." Not only did we have to require of ourselves acting the various roles, but we had to act them like poor actors. Not easy.
Three or four days after he was elected abbot, he called me into his office and told me that he intended to send me immediately to Rome to begin graduate studies in ancient Christian theology. I was astonished. This had not been on the cards. Of course, I was thrilled by the possibility, but I was not especially willing to depart immediately, because I knew that his being abbot was going to be a spirited and fruitful period in our community and I wanted to be present for it. I tried to persuade him to delay my assignment for a year. Request denied.
This abbatial decision changed the course of my life. In the end, it placed me in Europe much longer than he originally intended and gave me opportunities and contacts that have definitively shaped the major part of my actual work as a monk ever since. It set me studying, researching, writing, and teaching. I am still doing this 25 years after Bonny first sent me to Rome.
The first time I left Mount Angel to come to Europe, he said to me, "I'm going to give you one of the easier commands you will receive as a monk. You can expect more difficult ones later." After I had expressed my willingness to obey, at least to obey the command he was about to give, he said, "See Europe. I leave it to you to work out how, but while you are in Rome, I expect you to see as much of Europe as possible." I had a sense of why he was ordering this, but I asked for a clarification of this attractive commando He said that our monastic tradition and Christian culture are rooted in Europe. The more we understand of it, the stronger our own community will be for it. In fact, Mount Angel had long sent some of its monks to Europe to be educated. I was the next in that line, and he sent another brother with me at the same time.
Eight years later Bonny would already be dead. He was 45 years old when we elected him, and we had hoped to have him as abbot for 20 years. A cancer swept quickly through his body and took him from us at the age of 53. When he was dying, I was in Rome, scheduled to come home in about a month's time. My confreres called me and told me that he would not last that long, and so I hurried home. I arrived three days before he died. I was shocked to see how much he had aged in the six months since I had last seen him. He looked very old and sick, very near death. But he was every bit still Bonny.
I sat with him for a few hours each day. Although he was weak, he wanted to talk. He was lying propped up in bed. I sat beside him. We were looking out of his window onto the scene of a beautiful June day. I asked him what it felt like to be leaving all this. He smiled and quoted a psalm: "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord." On another day he suggested we do some of our old movies again. He noted that it would be the last time. Of course my heart was breaking. But the movies were very good for us. "Philip, you never wear gloves," I said to him in a high-pitched voice. "Well, I'm wearing them for a special reason tonight, Martha," he answered. "You see, I know all about you and Duke Morgan." "Hnugh!" I gasped. Then we burst out laughing, and I knew that in this laughing we had reached the top side of death, the Christian side. He was going to die today or tomorrow, but our hope in Christ would let us play like this till the end.
We switched to a cowboy movie. He was the sheriff lying wounded in the street. "Sheriff" I shouted. "What happened?" His response was very weak: "The Kid shot me," he said. Flashback: The Kid enters the bar with a swagger and asks for a whisky. The sheriff says to the bartender, "Hey, Wiley, since when do you serve liquor to punks." The Kid freezes with his drink in midair and then sets it down slowly. Turning to the sheriff and ready to draw, he says slowly and deliberately and with anger, "Who are you calling a punk?" "I think you know," the sheriff responds. Then the Kid draws and lets him have it. We return now to the scene of the sheriff who had stumbled out into the street and lay there dying. Again, very weakly, he said to me, "Tell Nelly I love her." I thought to myself that he had never done this scene so well. But, time for my line: "Sheriff, don't die," I pleaded, shaking him by the shoulders. I also had never done the scene so well. Our little theater had let me exactly do and say what I was feeling in that moment. I took my confrere, my teacher, my friend, my abbot in my arms and shook him and said, "Sheriff, don't die; don't die, Sheriff; don't die."
Before he did die, Father Abbot Bonaventure Zerr was placed in a wheelchair and rolled out where he could see the whole community and address his brothers one last time. He was a great mimic and in his wheelchair made himself look much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about to address the nation and hold its hopes high. To come to his very last words to us as a group, he repeated almost exact1y what he had first said to us in the moments after he had been elected abbot: "In biblical times when God's people were in trouble, he would send an angel to help. He has not sent an angel this time, but I have an angel's message." Then he banged his fist on the table in front of him and commanded with a loud voice, "Stop being afraid!"