I am in a 1982 Volvo, headed north on I-5 toward Oceanside, at a pace I could easily beat on a bicycle. A universe of cars spreads to the north and the south. Twenty-five miles, on a five-lane freeway, will take an hour or more. How can people live like this? The ordeal of rush hour in Southern California can be only imperfectly apprehended by anyone who has not experienced it.
Through the car speakers, Alanis Morissette is howling. It is 1995. Through the driver’s-side window come the blare of horns and the smell of exhaust. The stagnation is palpable, with each of a thousand drivers tucked into these big and barely moving boxes. Technology designed for speed has been defeated by our inability to master space and population.
Why am I bothering? I won’t make it on time. My inability, perhaps arising from diagnosable OCD, to begin anything in midstream because of an overwhelming sense that lateness intolerably corrupts the aesthetics of the affair, makes it impossible for me to participate in the affair at all if I don’t arrive on time. I contemplate turning around. But if I do that, I’ll be stuck in the same traffic on an overheated highway, with the added burden of having failed to do what I set out to do. I keep on.
There is a break in the traffic, and I am thrilled to move at a proper clip again, hoping this chance will take me all the way to my exit. It does, and I am off the freeway. Perhaps a mile beyond the exit is the road that will take me where I am going.
Now I ascend a hill, with a breeze in my face. The road winds and twists, and there are precipitous drops. I drive cautiously, anticipating disaster around each bend, though I have seen no other cars since I began my ascent. I round one more curve and arrive.
There is an abbey at the summit.
The Prince of Peace Abbey still sits atop its hill in Oceanside, California, a half-hour’s distance without rush-hour traffic from the campus of the school where, a quarter-century ago, I pursued graduate study. Some two dozen monks live and work and sing and pray there. On that day in 1995, I was coming to hear them pray the office of Vespers.
It was a tumultuous period. I was nearing the end of my time in school and thinking with trepidation of what I would do next, with an advanced degree but limited job prospects. And I was in a spiritual crisis. My easy atheism, artifact of a youth bereft of religious instruction and a general impatience of authority, had lately been troubled by catastrophes. Worst of these were the deaths of both my sisters in foreseeable yet horrific tragedies. Something that had been asleep during my distracted youth began to stir and gnaw at me.
In high school, I had read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and immediately adopted a firm opposition to all religious practice. Russell, after all, was a towering figure, the author of a history of philosophy from which I had read dribs and drabs. He described Christianity as not only ignorant but directly harmful to humankind. It was clear. The decision was made. This would be the view of the world that I would one day, far in the future, take to my grave.
Then I was brought to the edge by the disappearance of those two whom I had loved more than any others. My sisters were torn away, each still in her twenties, in circumstances so dreadful that I cannot tell the stories without returning viscerally to the losses, and so to save myself from reliving the agony, I will not tell them.
As I struggled, a friend told me that there was a place north of campus where one could find quiet and hear what one needed to hear in times like this. He drove me there the first time. We did not speak in the car on the way, nor at the abbey, nor on the ride home. But I knew that something important had happened.
We have no metric for quantifying how far the scale of cosmic morality is moved in the direction of good by the work done by monks. The monks at Prince of Peace Abbey, under the Order of Saint Benedict, take a vow of stability. This means that they will stay in the same place for the remainder of their lives. The monks’ daily life includes all the work necessary to keep the facility running. Food must be prepared and served, cleaning and repairs must be done, the grounds must be tended. Every day, the monks rise before the sun and meet in the chapel for silent prayer. At seven o’clock, the silence is broken by a sung prayer. The monks perform the full day’s schedule of the Divine Office, including Holy Mass in the late morning. “The main purpose of our lives,” reads an informational page on the abbey’s website, “is to pray.” One can imagine even their practical work as an element in their prayer (ora et labora), a repeated and loving contribution of their spiritual and physical energy to a good that transcends them.
Construction on the abbey began in the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s, the monks had built it up impressively. One of the founding generation, Brother Benno Garrity, baked bread and drove about the community collecting alms to distribute to the poor. He so inspired a local couple, Harold and Kay Kutler, that they established a soup kitchen, which eventually became a source of services material and immaterial to the poor, and named it after him.
Brother Benno died in 1992, before my first trip to the abbey, so I never knew him. I am certain though—as certain as I can be of anything in this precarious world—that the prayers he prayed during his time there, and all the other prayers of all the other men who passed their lives there and whose bodies were lain to rest in the abbey’s cemetery, contributed in some way to my stumbling upon the abbey. It has become evident to me that I am indebted to these men. During a time of turmoil and uncertainty, they were a link holding me fast to the sacred.
The monk’s freedom from worldly involvement enables a concentration of prayer that is otherwise unattainable. Through his constant concentration and application, the monk comes to understand that his prayer is always efficacious, always answered. But the answers are not the monk’s, but God’s. And surely God’s answers to the prayers of such men, dedicated to a life of care for all souls, include spiritual balm for those outside the monastery walls who struggle with loss and are desperate for aid.
I am at the summit of the hill. I park the car and jog to the cemetery. Here, adjacent to the chapel, on the side of the property overlooking the ocean, lie the monks who have concluded their earthly travels. The Stations of the Cross are next to the holy ground in which their mortal remains have been interred. I walk and pray. But thanks to the dreadful congestion of the I-5, I have arrived just before the beginning of Vespers, and my concentration is poor. Anger at my failure to focus lights up my nervous system. I try to calm myself—a work that is accomplished not by me but by the very air inside the abbey. As I walk through the doors, organ tones waft through the chapel. The monks are already lined up, a heavenly order.
A handful of visitors sit in the pews, heads bowed. The voices of the brothers break the silence, rising up from someplace beneath the ground and beyond the sky. They sing the plainchant, this gift bequeathed by our forefathers to a people who cannot fathom just how far above us it hovers. The human voice: That we can sing seems basis for conjecture that, despite our stupidities and our sinfulness, we might be the reason the universe exists.
At the conclusion of the office, I sit weeping in the pews, moved by something in a hymn that struck me at just the right angle with just the right force. A monk sees me and comes to put his arm over my shoulder as I shudder and sob. I pray silently. “Lord, listen to my prayer. I stretch out my hand; my soul is a land without water. Help me. Please.” Sunlight bursts through the stained-glass window behind the altar.
John Henry Newman described the Benedictine monk as “having neither hope nor fear of anything below; in daily prayer, daily bread, and daily work, one day being just like another, except that it was one step nearer than the day just gone to that great Day, which would swallow up all days, the day of everlasting rest.”
The monks’ chants are still in my ears. The tears are still on my cheeks. The prayers of these men, whose sole purpose is to pray for their souls and ours, are working tirelessly, efficaciously, beyond the bounds of my awareness. They have been giving me comfort and preparing the ground for my conversion since before I first set foot in the abbey, before I arrived in San Diego, perhaps for my entire life.
Before I finished my thesis and left Southern California, I was received into full communion with the Church. If I should be saved from the fate I deserve and find everlasting rest, perhaps the aid of the monks of the Prince of Peace Abbey will have been decisive.
Alexander Riley is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars.
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