“There is a new loneliness in the modern world . . . the solitude of speed.”

—Stephen Vizinczey

Br. Anthony Weber is a Trappist monk at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York, near Geneseo, where I serve as the Catholic Campus Minister at a SUNY liberal-arts college.  He was the monk dispatched to our Newman Community one evening about three years ago, after I put in a written request to the abbot to have somebody come and talk with some students about the monastic discipline of sacred reading, Lectio Divina.

Before that evening, I was told by some townspeople that Brother Anthony’s visit to the school was something of a rarity, as the monks seldom leave the abbey.  (Trappists, being a reform of a reform of Benedictine monasticism, are what you might call “the strict ones.”)  And Brother Anthony confirmed this upon his arrival, telling the students that, yes, seldom if ever do the monks get in a car and scoot out somewhere—the two annual exceptions being trips for blood donation and, of course, to the ballot box on Election Day.  (It has occurred to me that the second of these two excursions, and the freedom associated with it, might explain his disagreement with Dorothy Day, who visited the abbey in 1967, on the duty and utility, or lack thereof, of voting.)  They are, of course, allowed to leave the premises for necessary medical and business reasons, with permission.  Nonetheless, Brother Anthony, 69 years old, a monk for 50 years, took his first trip out of the country this past July (with a Canadian mulligan factored in some years back), traveling to Brazil to work with formation at a daughter monastery.  On telling me of this trip, which does not exactly qualify this monk as a jet-setter à la the Dali Lama, he muttered, “I wonder what happened to the vow of stability and the law of enclosure!”

The exception in this case, however, is one of those that prove the rule, as the “solitude of speed” is notable at the Abbey of the Genesee precisely from its absence.  Instead, a spirit of continuity, tradition, and community reigns, which the vow of stability and the law of enclosure are meant to support.  Indeed, as I discovered after my initial foray into convenience three years ago when Brother Anthony drove to the college, the students much prefer going to the peace of the abbey over my attempts to bring a piece of the abbey to them.  And I am increasingly certain that this is the correct direction in describing the relationship between the monastery and the world.

Over the years, I have talked with many students who are quite comfortable admitting that it is probably true that their frenetic hurriedness, fear of silence, and habits of consumption represent a “running from” something.  “When I sit still, it’s not the fear of falling behind that obsesses me; it’s the fear of getting engulfed.”  (That is an actual quote from a student.)  The acuteness of the disease, perhaps, has allowed a new level of candidness, and I think it’s possible that this near plague-level anxiety has brought forth an almost apocalyptic unveiling in terms of the images of the monastery and the world, which is the reverse of what is normally seen.  In line with the thoughts of the Swiss traditionalist philosopher Frijoph Schuon, the students seem corporately to posit that no longer should it be seen or supposed that it is the monk who has fled the world.  (Though, considering the circumstances, at both the time of Saint Benedict and our own, this would be understandable.)  The world has fled the monastery.

What are most amusements, after all—amusements being, by and large, the center of our culture—but a form of flight?  Think of young adults today and their connection with TV.  The monks at the Abbey of the Genesee gave the idiot box a try some years ago, thinking that, perhaps, it had some potential.  It lasted, according to Brother Anthony, “oh, less than a week.”  There is still a TV on the premises, which is used for some videos in their library and for a movie once each year at Christmas, but the “aerial” has been used in recent memory only for news on the day of September 11 and the latest on the election of Benedict XVI.  Cable?  No.  Any new technology, such as the internet, which is used for some purposes (with Brother Anthony serving as webmaster, in addition to his role as monastery plumber), is considered and “monastisized” with a strict view to what might be called the Trappist’s mission statement: “Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the work of God” (Rule of Saint Benedict 42).

The austerity, sacredness, and centrality of the monastery’s cemetery reveals another form of flight in society.  The cemetery, in fact the whole monastery, is a mirror image of a world in flight from death.  But I must get explicit here, because talk of the fear of death is almost trendy.  More important than death—which is, in some ways, an abstraction (and being dealt with, at least in some sense, in the wider culture via the movement for hospice care)—it is the dead who are present to the monks and are important to their lives in a way that those of us in the world can hardly imagine.  A deceased brother is recalled in the monks’ conversation as something of a real presence, not only as an anecdote or a personage from the past.  There is a continuity in the routine and tradition of the place that makes for quite good commerce among the generations, and between the living and the dead.

Though the monks, according to the Rule, live completely under the Rule and an abbot, the atmosphere of the abbey feels less autocratic than life in the outside world in these United States.  Outside the abbey, you begin to perceive a world that makes a totem of “the vote” but which is actually in flight from a meaningful political role or, in other words, a real participation in a crafting an abiding way of life.  This is a critique and an insight that I suppose Chesterton encapsulated in his usual summary fashion when he described tradition as being, in fact, truly democratic: “the democracy of the dead.”

I will give my students a lot of credit.  Though most of them have been worn down, like myself, by more than a decade of compulsory schooling in large, institutional settings nearly devoid of poetry and beauty, the notion of paradox is still not completely lost on them.  After an evening spent in conversation with Brother Anthony—this year, we are studying the Psalms—and prayer with the larger community of monks, on the drive back to the university and away from a place where talk is more or less absent and locomotion, very much curtailed, the question must present itself quite starkly: “Are we driving toward, or away from, increased community and freedom?”