Personal Essays



Many people hope to be authors, even some in the publishing business. Going back to a monastery to see both sides of the story.

When I was 25 and tired of my work at a publishing company, an editor asked me to accompany him on an unusual errand—a trip to a Cistercian monastery near Berryville, Va. He wanted to consult a monk, he said, about publishing a trade edition of a book the monastery had produced to raise funds. He said he wanted me to come along to comment on the marketability of such a thing.

We went in the spring, the warm hour’s drive from Washington lulling me into a sense that I was on the right career track after all, that to see such scenery in the course of a work day was something I might demand more of. When we arrived, Brother Benedict came out onto the porch of the abbey’s main building, a farmhouse built in the late 18th century, and greeted us with a stillness that was contagious. All around were the hazy hills of the Blue Ridge valley. I found myself stepping delicately over the threshold, trying to slow down.

Just inside, though, when Brother Benedict offered to take my coat, instead of letting him slip it off my shoulders from behind, I did a little twirl from shoulder to shoulder so that we ended face-to-face, too close. A good-looking man probably in his early fifties, he was startled and I felt like a can-can girl at a funeral. He gestured to a closed door, which I opened quickly, and we stepped into a small, bright room. I put myself at the far end of the only sofa. The editor took the other end, and Brother Benedict pulled up a chair close to the editor, politely angling it toward both of us, after a moment.

The editor talked for a time about his work in publishing. Then Brother Benedict talked about his time in the world. He revealed, but later it was hard to remember exactly how, that before taking vows he had lived as both a straight and gay man. He had had a wife, but also mentioned two particular friends, one named L. who’d run a fine printing business in New York City. He described the location precisely, mentioning the names of streets and buildings like a person grateful to be using again a beloved foreign language. He kept his hands clasped before him. Often he touched the tips of his fingers together, and because he was a monk I thought of the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals.

I was excluded from their talk of publishing in New York before I was born, but I admired the manner of both men. They were speaking slowly, choosing their words carefully, mentioning a lot of names but not name-dropping. They seemed to respect each other. I crossed my ankles, inclined my head with curiosity. In the background, two flies buzzed in the deep window sills. I glanced occasionally at the shadows moving on the gauzy white curtains and thought I ought to know the name of that material.

Ambition resurrected, I thought, fascinated and a little bit horrified.Lunch was waiting for us in another room, everything set on a table with a linen cloth embroidered in pale pink and green. Brother Benedict had made the food and served us himself, salad, rolls, mushroom and turkey quiche, though when I referred to it as chicken later, he didn’t correct me. When halfway through the meal he began calling me Jennifer, I didn’t correct him. The wine was delicious. I accepted a second glass. I was not asked a single question, but I used my cutlery daintily and looked, I hope, interested and wise.

When you enter the Cistercian order, you give up forever what you did in the world. Music, medicine, publishing, whatever it is you love. Yet Brother Benedict—who had worked in the special collections office of the New York Public Library and apprenticed with a printer in Verona; who’d mentioned softly that he’d once had a group of friends that was “the closest thing to Bloomsbury he’d ever experienced”—had been asked by the abbot to go back, to return to publishing to make a book for the good of the monastery. No matter how reverently he served the quiche, you could see in his eyes his wish that the book be published more widely.

Ambition resurrected, I thought, fascinated and a little bit horrified.

After lunch, I assumed we’d go back into the sitting room for coffee and more conversation, but the editor picked up his coat. In the front hall, he remembered something. A mutual friend had told him to say, “Henry, how are you, and tell me the truth.” The bit of Brother Benedict’s cheek above his short salt-and-pepper beard and beneath his blue eyes flushed pink. “I’m fine,” he said. We stepped outside. Then he told us in a rush that he was recovering from surgery. He had not been able to resume the full schedule of the monastery and was going soon to Arizona to convalesce. Friends had invited him and the abbot was allowing the trip because while he was there he could visit a sister nunnery. He looked at the editor.

“Good luck,” the editor said.

“Yes, good luck,” I repeated. I was sure his book would be published and that this joy would ameliorate any other pain or uncertainty he might have.

Brother Benedict responded quietly. “God willing” or “Godspeed,” I couldn’t quite hear.

The editor and I stopped in the gift shop, and I waited while he used the bathroom. The shop was quiet and the bathroom was close so the sound of the toilet and then the sink seemed loud and incongrous after the careful lunch we’d just had. The editor browsed a few minutes in the shop, bought a book, and then we began the drive back to Washington. I wanted to make up for my long silence at lunch, to speak impressively about our meeting. It was an opportunity, I thought. But in the car, I fell asleep planning my sentences. I may have snored.

In the weeks that followed, the editor and I, busy with other projects, did not discuss Brother Benedict’s book. Some time later, when I asked about it, I learned that he’d written to Brother Benedict and turned the book down, citing in part our worries about the marketplace. This surprised me, considering we’d never talked, and I thought about how disappointed Brother Benedict must have been. Where had he read the letter? In that pretty room where we’d talked before lunch? While he was away in Arizona?

I was sure the editor had been inclined toward the book before the interview; it suited his interests and complemented an already impressive list of works in the field of religion and religious history he’d published. So what detail had I missed sitting in those quiet rooms? What did he see or hear that broke his confidence?

I would have published the book, but what did I know? I was 25 and couldn’t imagine spending a day like that and then not following through on the implied promise. It bothered me that in his letter to Brother Benedict the editor had written about “our” views on the marketplace. But I understood he didn’t want to turn down the book alone. I never wrote or otherwise communicated my enthusiasm to the editor, so after the letter was sent, I had no proof that I was not part of the decision.


* * *

Brother Benedict died a few years later from the recurrent cancer he hinted at when we visited. The editor lost, then regained the publishing house he was running when I worked for him. (“Don’t talk to me about ambition resurrected,” he might rightly say if I reminded him of the day). And I no longer work for a publishing company, but I am trying to sell my first novel. I have thought many times over the years about the pace of that visit to the monastery, how every part of the day seemed sacred (the gingerly served quiche) and every one of us seemed self-sufficient and strong (what did it matter if the monk got my name wrong?).

We both wanted something that afternoon over the quiche, but I was waiting and he was hoping and he illustrated the world of difference between the two.The day has had a strange hold over me and it has taken me a long time to see that the reason has something to do with my silence during the meeting. Timidity masquerading as patience, it must be said. At the time, I wanted to excel in the publishing world. I wanted my work in publicity and marketing to segue into a job on the editorial side of the business, but after five years that plan was largely unrealized and I was growing impatient.

And there it is, I think, the truth: the day was a lesson in patience, Brother Benedict’s versus mine. We both wanted something that afternoon over the quiche, but I was waiting and he was hoping and he illustrated the world of difference between the two. Waiting is restless (me), hoping is patient (Brother Benedict). Like his stillness, there was a depth to his patience I could only mimic at the time, just as I tried to slow down when he met us at the door. The reason the idea of ambition resurrected was shocking to me then was because I couldn’t imagine ever relinquishing it. I couldn’t picture how he’d done it, or what pain must have accompanied the process. I still can’t, not really, but the endeavor makes more sense now than it did that warm day in Virginia 12 years ago, which is sad, to me, and a little unnerving. Maybe it’s just an inevitable part of getting older, of having lived longer in the world.