Mount St Benedict, Tunapuna, Trinidad, West Indies: an address tells you little or nothing, nothing of the spirit of a place. But if your impression was that Trinidad was all Carnival swirl, you have at least learnt from the address that there are monasteries there too. In fact, at that address you find two of them, an old disused one and a new.
The old monastery was made of wattle and daub (clay and wattles, to you). It was a very little monastery, with many small windows, doorways, corners, passages, steps up and down. It scarcely looked like a planned building at all, it was more like a thing of nature that happened to sprout on that spot. The most whimsical thing about it was a passage that ran right through the middle, lengthways, and out both ends without a door. They told me the reason. When monks first came there, long ago, the terrain was extremely rough and there was only one place to build the monastery: right on the path that led up the mountain. This they did, but they allowed the path to be. They loaded a donkey with two bales of hay and measured from side to side: that became the width of the corridor.
The world was able to pass through the monastery. Today there is a new monastery nearby, and the world still passes through it, though not in the literal way of the old monastery. Not only Christians of every kind come there looking for peace and wisdom – Baptists and Pentecostals as much as Catholics – but even Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.
The world must be able to pass through your monastery – through your contemplative centre, your heart, your heart of prayer; otherwise that centre is only an escape to nowhere. A monastery with a thoroughfare, a heart pierced by the world: contemplation in some way resembles death. You are not insulated in the hard shell of your ego; you are accessible, you are vulnerable, you are pierced. At the heart of contemplation you meet the infinite God who lays you open, not a tiny localised god who protects you. And you are not settling, in contemplation, for a tiny patch of world; your heart is expanding to embrace it in its entirety, more than if you were superficially bound into its affairs.
The life of a monk seems quite exceptional, different in every way from the life of an ordinary lay Christian. Yet it is right to remember that monks, typically, are laymen; and nuns are laywomen. Anthony of the Desert, the founder of monasticism, was and always remained a layman. When more and more monks became priests, their abbots began to resemble bishops, with mitre and crozier. But monasticism, at heart, is a lay movement. What monks do, then, has something to say to every Christian. They make visible the contemplative side of all Christian life. They live in this world, not in the skies. Therefore we cannot put them in a separate category or make them our substitutes; they are there to recall us to the contemplative side of our Faith. If some of us need to pass sometimes through their monasteries, it is in order to pass through our own heart, our contemplative centre.
The Abbot of Mount St Benedict was a magnificent specimen of humanity: six foot four, with a straight back, a tremendous calm and a beard that swept down from the heights like the grace of God. In his white habit he fitted one’s idea of an Old Testament prophet. Since I was a guest in the monastery I was placed beside him in choir. As we all bowed low at the Glory I glanced to the side and saw that he was wearing... a pair of runners!
From I Remember Your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death, by Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications and Twenty-Third Publications 1997, 2nd ed. 2017)