J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.
I am a Benedictine monk. For seventeen years, I have lived with thirty other monks in a small monastery in Saint Louis, Missouri. One of those monks, Brother Edward Dalheimer, was crazy. And by crazy I mean that he had little glass animals in his room that talked to him. He was a meticulous man. His utensils had to be perfectly parallel on the table before he would begin breakfast. After he died, we found that every item in his cell—every lamp, every framed photograph, every table and chair—was glued in place.
I am not meticulous. Nothing in my life is in its place. If the calefactory (that’s monkish for living room) is a mess, the abbot asks me to clean it up because it was almost certainly my doing. And my brethren have taken to calling me “The Late Brother Augustine” because, as my novicemaster once remarked, “that monk never leaves a room once.”
Brother Edward was forced to sit next to me in choir for eleven years. Side-by-side, seven times a day for eleven years, we chanted the psalms together. I remember walking past his cell one afternoon when I spotted a very old copy of Earnest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises on his shelf. I asked him if I could have a look at it. He answered: “Brother Augustine, that is an autographed first edition. It will be a cold day in Hell before I lend you that book.” He stopped for a moment and closed his eyes as if in prayer. “In fact, it will be a cold day in Hell before I lend you anything at all of any value whatsoever.”
So that was that.
A few years later, the abbot decided to send me to Oxford to study Theology. I may be distractible, but I’m smart. I applied and was accepted. To celebrate, and to thank the community for their patience, I prepared a festive meal, the crowning achievement of which was a chocolate walnut torte. I did this partly with Brother Edward in mind because I knew he liked his desserts. But I also did it with myself in mind, because I like walnuts.
But I did something slightly un-monkish. I made an extra torte for myself, which I cut into small pieces and froze. One larger slice I wrapped in aluminum foil and hid in the refrigerator behind the mayonnaise. The next morning, after we’d finished our morning prayers, I made myself a big cup of coffee, found a good book and a comfortable chair next to a sunny window in our library. Then I went to the refrigerator to collect my slice of torte. But when I unwrapped it, I discovered that someone had got to it first—indeed, had taken a bite out of my chocolate torte, wrapped it back up exactly as he had found it, and returned it to the refrigerator in exactly the same place.
I cannot describe for you the depths of rage that I felt at that moment, contemplating my violated, half-eaten, slobbered-on slice of chocolate walnut torte. And there was no doubt in my mind who had done it. This work of scrupulous insensitivity had “Brother Edward” written all over it.
So I went back to the kitchen, cut another slice of torte, wrapped it in foil just like the first one, and placed it in exactly the same place in the refrigerator—but not before soaking it in Lea and Pepper’s Super-Hot Cajun Pepper Sauce. The next morning, after prayers, I returned to the kitchen. There was half-chewed chocolate torte sprayed on the floor, on the refrigerator, on the wall... It was a moment of singular triumph. A few weeks later, I left for Oxford. Brother Edward didn’t even say goodbye.
When I returned to the monastery three years later, Brother Edward was on his deathbed. Cancer had rendered him comatose. But on my desk in my cell, meticulously wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine was his autographed copy of The Sun Also Rises.
Six years ago, at the age of forty-two, I was diagnosed with “early onset” Parkinson’s. It is getting harder and harder to type. I haven’t written a letter by hand in years. I used to be a professional juggler, but that’s a memory now at best. I am learning to use the dictation software on my computer. But I don’t honestly consider my disease an affliction. What is Parkinson’s compared to, say, cancer? The far greater burden has been my proclivity for nursing grudges. My breakthrough came in the form of my brother’s forgiveness—and an autographed copy of “The Sun Also Rises.”
God our Father, in your mercy, give us the fortitude to live joyfully with our brothers and sisters, the prudence to keep from grumbling about them, and the grace to love them, especially when they distress us. We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.