Ferial: 10 July 2012
Yesterday, I had to drive to Ssanje with Br. D. and Sr. B. to go to the school run by the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, to visit the children, briefly, and to beg a rain-check (as I had previously committed to spend this particular Monday with them again all day), but since, the superior had asked me to try to make something fitting for the Feast of Saint Benedict, in two days time, and that this of all feast days was central to the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions. And he had also asked me to begin teaching the novices at the monastery. And: so we had to spend yesterday, instead, driving to Masaka to try to find apples and butter and a tart tin and other odds and ends to honor his request.
Sister M. was most obliging, and we rescheduled for the Monday following.
And Br. D. handed me the keys and told me to drive… He would ride in the back…
In Kyotera, we got petrol. And at the petrol station, we naturally ran into the security chief, a wonderful man named Fred, who asked if we were going to Masaka, and climbed on in, and joined our crew.
In Masaka, after the bank, at the Internet café (owned by an old muzungu from England), whilst pulling recipes for galettes, apple and pineapple, I came across an email from a good friend back home: a young man, a musician, a scholar, a man who spent last year in India, and this year doing amazing work around Nashville. A man: with a keen interest on monastic practices and traditions. And he wrote me this:
Knowing that you are in the midst of the monastery— I’ve got a question, that you may or may not be able to answer, especially now:
What is it that makes a monk?
What is it that differentiates him from others?
Does he live closer to heaven than others— even when they think of god at an equal consistency?
What about the man who would seek ordination if he could but only find the proper preceptor?
A quiet man of few words; but words deep and cutting straight through to the heart of things.
But as I parsed the wording of the questions, Br. D. was standing up in front of me: how many minutes more do you think? We need to get shopping…
And I replied quickly to the email that I would ask the superior to help me answer such important questions correctly.
And I left and went shopping, improvising in a Ugandan town, around cooking utensils that were simply nonexistent, and around apples that were terribly small and were priced at some 1200 Shillings per piece. (Apple Galette became instantly Pineapple – simple economics.)
Thereafter, we met back up with the Security Chief, and off we went retracing our steps to Kyotera, where Sr. B. bought a suitcase, and I bought garlic and onions for Italian pasta sauce, and I went to the barber’s, and we all ended up at a late lunch and the Highway Motel.
Back at the monastery, after the evening meal, I mentioned the four questions to the superior who said he would find some time during the week to oblige me.
But – then – off the cuff – he said simply: if your friend wants to know what makes a monk, he should come here, and see.
And in essence: he was simply right.
It was recently that simple to answer at least the first of the four questions.
Time will be put aside and the questions will be privately answered in full, with much thought and reflection, but in essence words are only ever going to get in the way. To paraphrase Dom Bernardo Olivera: If one wants to be like Christ, it is better to follow him, than to read about him.
The Desert Fathers and all of their bits and pieces are all about praktika and not about theoria.
In recent years, I come to Africa simply to be present: and things have a way of simply happening , and I am deeply effected, and in ways I could never have rightfully anticipated or predicted, and my helpfulness is always bent and shaped by the moment – and each time my appreciation of Africa and of monasticism grows, morphs, becomes more complicated, more complex, and at certain moments, more clear. And it defies the simple synopsis one might find on the back cover of the latest paperback guide to the Rule of Benedict or some sort of compendium of daily quotations from men and women long since dead.
Beyond Khumbaya – beyond over-referenced maxims – it is a deep intimate exploration of community found through the Providential that pops through the sometimes-seemingly-plodding-day-to-day-praktika:
“… and come, follow me.” (Mark 11: 21)
And I do hope my friend will be able sometime soon to come to Victoria or to Mokoto or some other such place, out along the fringes of Christendom, where he will be welcomed as he simply and truly is – without agenda, without judgment, in the fullest sense of agape.