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Fr. Kurt Messick

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A Monkish Masquerade
By Fr. Kurt Messick
Friday, May 09, 2003

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Sometimes life doesn't turn out the way you plan...


As I woke this morning, I was cold. The main fire in the centre of the building just doesnít heat our cells very well. My brown coarse robe is heavy but thereís only so much one can do to combat the cold at this time of year. Just keep busy. I remember Thomas Becket is supposed to have told the King that the best way to fight the cold is with the coldís own elements Ė splash yourself with cold water. I tried it. I got pneumonia and nearly died. Becket may be a saint now but his advice wasnít designed to do anything more for me than to make me a saint before my time.

Iím cold. It seems Iím always cold now.

I was born the seventh child of a family of farmers on the borderlands between England and Wales. Occasionally thereís some unrest and knights sweep in and out through there but generally the people are left to tend the soil and eek out their living. No one really cares about them. The King doesnít, the barons donít, regardless of whether they are English or Welsh or Norman. The church doesnít. They donít matter. I didnít matter.

Because I was a male I wasnít going to be as much of a burden; I could be put to work in a matter of a few years, and by the time I was 15 Iíd be pulling my full load and then some. I'd have a family, probably have my own plot of land somewhere, and who knows? If I could save a little extra grain here and there maybe we could even get a few nice things.

Yes I was the seventh child, but just the fourth to survive the first year. My mother had two more children before she died in childbirth. My father was killed in an accident when the mule broke loose. I was five. I had at this point four brothers and sisters. My oldest brother was 13. He ran away. I never heard from him again.

The rest of us were rounded up and taken to the church. There we were basically sold. Both my sisters went to live on a nearby farm to be put to work tending the animals. They eventually married the sons of family.

My younger brother was taken to a family in a town far away called Bath. I never knew what became of him either.

I was sent to the monastery. I wasnít being sent to become a monk. I was basically a servant. I would earn my keep cleaning out stalls in the stables and tending the other work so the monks would have more time to pray for all our souls. I didnít like that. I grew to hate the monastery, hate the church, and hate God for putting me here. With every shovel full I cursed everything I could. I could never get the stink off of my hands. I could never get the stink out of my life, and thought I never would.

On Sundays all the people came into the chapel for service. The monks had their special area in front, and the rest of us were behind an iron-barred barrier. We had no pews like the monks. We stood or knelt on the hard stone floor. My knees were worn out quickly from that I believe.

But then one Sunday a travelling monk from Ireland gave a sermon that wasnít in Latin. We could understand what he was saying. He said the gospel was for us. He said that Jesus didnít come for kings and barons and he didnít come for monks either. He came for all of us. He seemed to be looking past the monks and out at us. I felt a thrill I had never felt before. For the first time in a long time, I didnít feel like cursing God for another damn service in a lifetime of work. I felt a call.

I began to watch the monks more closely, and actually tried to talk to the prior and a few others about the sermon. Some monks were not very friendly and didnít want to talk. Monks are human beings after all, and some of them didn't like being where they were any more than I liked being where I was.

But the prior was a very old gentleman who had come from a noble Welsh family who had lost everything when the Normans came. In spite of this, he welcomed talking with me. He would sit in the stables as I would do my work and listen to me as I talked. He would respond occasionally, but mostly he would just listen. It wasnít until much later in my life I realised just how great a gift that was.

The prior died the next year, and after a year of talking to him, I felt he was my friend even if I was just a stable hand. He confirmed this to me by calling for me to attend to him in his cell. With the abbot present giving him the last rites, the prior gave me his cross and a book and said, ĎSomeday you will be able to read this. Guard it and keep it safe, and pass it on to the most special person of the next generation.í

The old man died and I wept for hours. I didnít understand until the abbot explained to me that the gift and the message meant that the prior thought I was the most special person of my generation. I didn't understand a lot back then. And I suppose I still donít.

The abbot told me that the prior had intended to ask me to join the monastic community. He believed I had a special gift for seeing misery for what it is but not letting it defeat me. He believed I had a sense of the goodness that the world could bring if only given a chance. He believed I had a call.

So, the abbot gave me the priorís cell the next day. All the cells look alike, there are no distinctions in that even for the abbot. I am still in that cell today as I think back on my life today. There is a tiny window at the top that lets the sun shine in, and for most of the day the light illuminates the desk where I am writing. It shines on the book the prior gave me.

I was a novice for a year, and still did much of the work I had done before. However, I began to pray in the cycle with the rest of the community. I took my meals with them and was read to as was the custom. I would be taught to read, I was told, so that I could read aloud to the other monks too someday.

I trained some new boys how to work at the monastery, but remembered full well that I had been there not long ago. I treated them with kindness. For some, it was the first time they had ever been shown even simple kindness. A few never stopped being angry and frustrated with their lives. Most however became as happy as they could be. I learned each of their names, and pray for every single one every day. I have a list of more than 300 today. I remember them all.

After my novice year, I took a year-long vow to join the community. Then a three-year vow. Then a five-year vow. Then I began life professed. I was a member of this community forever in my mid twenties.

I learned to read, and learned to write. I studied some of the books in our small library, which consisted of four shelves of books in the common room. They included the Bible and some commentaries by Augustine, various pieces by the Desert Fathers and some collections of sermons. There was one philosophy book by Plato. There were some histories from the Roman Imperial times. In the course of my life at the monastery, I read every book twice.

But the most special book was the book handed to me by the prior. It contained the four gospels and the psalms, but it also contained a collection of prayers and hymns from nearly 1000 years of Christian history. I knew what people in Antioch sang and prayed. I knew what people in Rome sang and prayed. I knew what people in Alexandria sang and prayed. This was such a gift, to have the whole spirit of Christianity given to me in one small book. This was what made the prior such a great man. He understood this gift from God. He lived it. He wanted me to live it too.

And so, here I am, nearing my fiftieth year on this earth. My hearing is almost gone, and my eyesight is failing too. I can still hear the birds chirping in my window. They are such a blessing; they return each year and build a nest on the ledge. They have been my constant companions. It is truly a holy experience, that not one bird has fallen from the nest. I can see enough to finish this. Perhaps the mouse in the corner will not eat the edges of this paper, as I have brought some cheese for him today.

As my last act as your abbot and your friend, I want you to remember all those who have gone before you. I am writing this letter to you as the most special one of your generation. You may not be able to read it yet, but someday you will. Remember the names of those around you, carry them in your hearts and prayers. Pray for those who make life hard for you! They need it the most.

May the God I dared to curse for my sad fate, the same God I heard you yelling at not long ago, give you the same blessings that he has given me, a life with riches beyond compare.

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor 12/7/2006
What a wonderful story!

Reviewed by A PAX 9/17/2004
Oh Wonderful!!!!!!!!!!
I do think that the wisest, most compassionate teachers are the ones who have come the farest. I don't think training is all thats needed to bring you to a certain station in life, I think experience outweighs it by tons. Because experinece builds heart, and heart is the center for everthing. I believe you cannot touch another without it, nor can you be touched......its feelings. This story gave me such a smile, I had no idea where you were going with it, until I neared the end, which made me feel boyant! I am glad you stopped by my site tonight, because it made me curious.......and I had to hunt around yours.......and lo and behold.......found this treasure!!! Thanks Kurt!!! Is that what they call you? Or Father???
Reviewed by Victoria Murray 6/27/2004
Enjoyed the story! Thanks for posting it.

Happy Writing!

Reviewed by Carol Chapman 6/13/2004
"a life with riches beyond compare" I hear His gentle wisdom in this, and feel His hand as He pointed me to this - the gentle humor and pathos of this reminds me of my own beloved Saint, Francis. Thank you for sharing this with me, I very much needed to find this one today.
With humble gratitude
Reviewed by Gwen Dickerson 2/29/2004
What a meaningful, well written story! One which filled me with deep feelings of humble thanksgiving and appreciation of the spirit's ability to endure and/or rise above life's circumstances and often, our own bad choices!
Reviewed by Vesna Vanessa 2/6/2004
Remember the names of those around you, carry them in your hearts and prayers. Pray for those who make life hard for you! They need it the most.

..indeed pray for them and THANK them..for they mirror that which is an issue in some aspect of the soul...that which lies dormant ..awaitng an awakening thus a chance to be healed..this could be a coplex review ..this will suffice *smile*

Reviewed by Mark Rockeymoore 11/22/2003
what a beautiful and prescient piece...a blessing to all who read it. i wrote a piece called 'akedah-the binding', that speaks to the relationship of abraham and the beginning was the word...wonderful work, thank you for sharing!
Reviewed by Kate Clifford 7/28/2003
A very deep write with wisdom building throughout it! I could feel the cell. Great description!
Reviewed by Precious Lindsay 5/10/2003
I loved this. I thought it was beautiful. The last sentence really touched me!
keep it up :-D
Reviewed by m j hollingshead 5/10/2003
enjoyed the read

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