​​At the Monastery


Ben had never been in this place before—a huge room, found at the end of the long hallway, just off the main entrance. Residents were not allowed in that area without a special pass. Ben had one today, for the first time.

The light was low … the room dimly lit by burning sticks of incense … candlelight faintly flickering on the ceilings and walls. Ben could make out shapes huddled in the middle of the large, tall room. Strange, haunting tinkling sounds could be heard softly coming from everywhere, and yet, nowhere in particular.

Cupping his ear, Ben could discern that it was coming from the huddled shapes in the middle. Sounds were important to Ben. He had taken the vow of absolute silence some time before, and hearing this small sound gave him anticipation for what lie before him in that room.

Huge slabs of bare sandstone formed a circular curving path leading to the very center of the huge room. Ben cautiously felt his way along the path with his sandaled feet. He could not see well in the dimly lit room, and the sandstones were rough. His left sandal came off with nearly every step. The sandals had been issued to him when he first joined the order, and they had become worn and loose. His vow of poverty allowed him no room for replacement or even professional repair.

Ben had been instructed in the proper dress and the proper posture for a holy man. His hands were tucked appropriately into the sleeves just above waist level, his body slightly forward, his head lowered at all times. The simple brown robe, made of rustic cloth, had a huge hood that cupped his entire head and shielded his face. It draped to his ankles and a crude rope of sisal cinched the waist. A simple lanyard around his neck carried a large wooden cross. He was indeed to be a holy man.

As he slowly, haltingly moved along the path, Ben thought back on the long road that brought him to this particular place and this particular time; the turning away from the life he’d led, the taking of the vows, the purging of the sins and vices … the years spent in solitude in his small, cramped room …. praying and fasting … sacrifice after sacrifice.… The years had tested him. Tonight, his faith would be acknowledged formally. He could then move on to a much higher level of demonstration of commitment … flagellation and self-mutilation … faithfully continuing his course of training and his devotion to becoming a truly holy monk.

The shapes Ben had seen turned out to be the other candidates, already standing in a semicircle around a small wooden table. Each of the shapes wore the same holy garb as Ben. He had never gotten to know, or for that matter, even gotten a good look at any of the others. What with the vow of silence and the hoods and the dim lighting, combined with the years of isolation required, people just didn’t interact. It was all designed so it would just be … you and your Lord. No interference, no distractions. If you sacrificed enough, were worthy enough, and were deemed truly, truly holy, the Lord might one day speak to you directly and lift you with Him to the beautiful place in eternity. It could happen.

As he took a place in the semicircle, Ben discovered the tinkling he had been hearing was coming from the robed person in the middle of the group. Ben knew instantly he must be the master of the studies, the only one in the order who could utter even one word, or make any unnatural noise on purpose.

The master of the studies slowly brought the small chime from under his robe, silenced it, and carefully placed it on the table. There was utter silence. He then ceremoniously poured wine from a clay vessel into a crude wooden cup and pulled a piece of crust from a loaf of rustic bread that was also on the table. Silently, he made the motions of blessing, put the crust of bread in his mouth, and partook of the wine.

There was a period of more silence, and the master of the studies cleared his throat. The room then went silent again, an eerie silence that filled the room from rafter to rafter. The smoke from the candles and incense thickened, and the shapes of the others were mere shadows in the growing darkness. The eerie silence hung in the air for what seemed to be an eternity, and the master of the studies cleared his throat again, this time louder. Still, silence, and Ben waited. Who was to respond? The master of the studies was the only one entitled to know the secrets of the ceremonies and how to conduct this type of induction into the higher order. He waited for the master of the studies to continue.

Time went by like a slow diesel pulling a long line of empty boxcars. There was then another clearing of the throat, this time even louder and more commanding … followed by another, and then another, and an even louder one and, with that, the master of the studies slumped to the sandstone floor. Silence fell again and nobody moved. The training had taught them not to move without command and instruction from the master of the studies, and he was now lying in a crumpled pile on the floor. Was this a test?

Ben waited and watched. Nobody said anything and nobody moved. The place was frozen. The sense of time slowly slipped away, and Ben began to wonder just how long he had been standing there, listening to nothing, and seeing nothing move. It was all nothingness and darkness. One by one the candles burned down to a flicker and then went out, and Ben watched and waited and the nothingness became darker and darker … the darkest dark. Ben thought it would eventually pull all the light and life right out of him, and he would disappear, too. Fear struck at his heart, and Ben was almost afraid to breathe. And still, he stood and waited.

Suddenly, a light! It was misty and cloudy at first, and then almost hurting with brightness. As Ben’s eyes adjusted, he could make out the shape of a window. Light streamed in from that window, painting a big, rectangular white box on the sandstone floor. Ben knew in his heart that his time had come, that he had passed the test, and that the Lord holy Himself was going to appear in that box and embrace him and take him away to that beautiful place in eternity. And who could be more deserving, and humble, and willing to serve Him forever? thought Ben.

As Ben’s eyes focused even more, he saw a leg stepping into the white rectangle on the floor. Then he could make out a pair of black work shoes and trouser-covered legs. Looking up, he saw a janitor had slipped in and opened a window to better see to clean the room. The ceremony had lasted much longer than anyone suspected, and he had thought the room was empty.

Ben looked down to the floor, as did the other candidates, at the crumpled shape … and at the now lit and exposed face of the master of the studies. There were bits of chewed bread and little puddles of wine on his beard, as if expelled from his open mouth. Ben had never actually seen the face of the master of the studies before, dead or alive, but he recognized what he saw. The master of the studies, through still-open eyes, carried that look of serenity and blankness of someone who had passed on. He had choked on the Holy sacraments.

The master of the studies was gone. All of Ben’s work, all that dedication, all the loneliness, and sacrifice; all the poverty, all the denial, all for nothing! The master of the studies was the only one who knew of his effort and his record. The only one who had witnessed his devotion and conviction to the principles of the order, the only one who could testify to his worthiness. There was no one alive who could confirm Ben as a holy man.

Ben spoke, “This dude’s dead!” There was still silence. A long silence. Ben slowly turned and walked out of the room, leaving his worn sandals behind with his second and third steps. He kept walking, down the long hallway to the main entrance, out of the building, and across the gardens.

He kept walking, in his bare feet, all the way into the Northern California forest, hoping to find the highway where he could hitch a ride back home to Oklahoma.

From the book "Twisted by the Wind - A Journal of Inspirations, Conversations and Imaginations" by Tom Hays

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Tom Hays