An Excerpt from "The Abbey"

In this excerpt from The Abbey, Anne, a woman grieving the loss of her son Jeremiah, is on her way to a Trappist monastery outside of Philadelphia, where her father had volunteered many years ago.  How did Anne get here?  Her car broke down after work and Mark, who lives in her neighborhood and who works as a handyman at the monastery, is giving her a lift.  During their car ride, he realizes that he has left his cell phone in the monastery and asks Anne if he could drop to pick it up.  Grudgingly, she agrees.  Her "yes" sets in motion the rest of the book. 

By the time they pulled into the driveway, rain was drumming loudly on the roof of the truck. Anne hadn’t set foot on the monastery grounds since she was a girl, but when Mark pulled onto the driveway, she remembered it all: the vast green lawns and endless meadows where she used to hunt for grasshoppers and crickets, the tall pine trees that lined the driveway like sentinels, and the way the church steeple slowly rose over the driveway as you approached it. “Like a ship’s mast coming over the horizon,” she suddenly remembered her dad saying. She was amazed that she recalled that phrase. Where did that come from?

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Both her parents were religious—her father extremely, her mother fairly. An accountant like Anne, her father helped the monks with their books, mainly during tax season. As far as she could recall, he was on a parish retreat when he met Father Edward, the monk with the bad breath, and they had remained friends. But she was vague about that. Once or twice he brought Anne to the monastery, and she remembered it as a not unpleasant place, but not pleasant either. Sometimes she’d sit on a bench in some hallway outside the chapel when the monks were singing, but most of the time she sat in an office, doodling with colored pencils on plain sheets of typing paper while her father worked on the books and monks dropped by to chat. For a silent monastery, they certainly talked a lot. She recalled being inside the chapel once.

Or maybe not. Maybe that was some other church. She had long ago given up on going to church, except for weddings and funerals.

What she remembered most about the abbey was its smell. It was incense of course, but a special kind she hadn’t smelled before or since. It was quite unlike the incense she smelled whenever she passed that Zen bookstore she liked in Philly, where the slender sticks of sandalwood burning outside the entrance produced an acrid smell. The monastery’s scent was different. Sweeter somehow. At least in her memory.

“We’ll go in the back way,” said Mark. He drove up the driveway, turned left onto a blacktopped road, splashed loudly through a shallow puddle, and passed a sign that said, “Enclosure. No Entrance Please.”

Not only do the monks live on a huge piece of property in a wealthy suburb,thought Anne, but they put up signs to make people feel unwelcome. Seems unchristian.

Mark pulled into a parking lot outside a modest wooden building with a red-and-white plaque over the door that read, “Monastery Jams.”

That’s where they make the jam?” she said. “It looks tiny.”

“Things look different from the inside. It’s bigger than it seems. Why don’t you come in for a bit?” he said over the rain, which was letting up. “I can get you a cup of coffee. And they have some amazing coffee in the retreat wing.”

“No, thanks. I’m fine here.”

“Oh come on. They’re not going to bite.”

She exhaled. “Okay.”

They emerged from the car, tried unsuccessfully to dodge the raindrops, sprinted around the side of the jam building, and walked quickly up a flagstone path. She didn’t remember this part of the monastery. It was lovely. Even in the light rain, with her head down, Anne was aware of the lush grass, the carefully pruned pine trees, the well-tended azaleas, the full rhododendron bushes.

“Oh God,” she said sharply. “What’s this?”

“Oh,” he said, suddenly flustered. “The cemetery.”

She could see that the monks were buried here with a minimum of fuss, laid to rest in a small plot that held perhaps fifty of them, with white metal crosses only a foot or so tall marking the spots. She glanced at Mark then and noticed his discomfort at having brought her this way.

“It’s fine,” she said. “Let’s just go out another way when we leave, okay?”

The flagstone path led to an archway with a door. Mark opened it for her.

. . . . . 

Central air for this big building? Anne thought as she stepped inside the cool of the monastery. No wonder they have to sell so much jam.

Then the aroma hit her. She hadn’t experienced it for years, and instantly it called up a vivid memory from childhood: her reaching up to hold her father’s hand as she walked through the monastery. Something like flowers but not flowers, something like perfume but not perfume, something like a fire in a fireplace, but not that either. The overpowering scent made her want to pause and think about her father.

Anne remembered her Psych 101 professor at Haverford saying that smell was the most primal of senses, tapping directly into our brains. This, she knew, was what was happening. But it moved her nonetheless. She wanted to tell someone how much she missed her father and how much she wished she could talk with him about Jeremiah. But she didn’t know Mark well at all. So she just inhaled. If I could smell this every day, I might be happier.

Mark led her down a long hallway whose plain brick walls were lined with silky white robes hanging on wooden pegs.

“What are those?” she asked.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “We can’t talk that loudly. They like to keep things quiet here.”

That was something she disliked about church: people were always telling you what not to do.

“Fine,” she said in a loud whisper. “What are those?” She pointed to the robes.

“Cowls. The monks use them during their prayers, which are going to start soon. It’s almost time for Vespers. Wanna go to Vespers while I’m looking for my phone?”

“No thanks.”

“It’s pretty impressive,” he said enthusiastically. “You might enjoy it.”

“No,” she said firmly, “that’s okay.”

“Okeydoke.” He invited her to sit on a long wooden bench in the hall, while he began his search for his cell phone.

“I think I know where to find it,” he said, walking off into the darkness.

It was certainly dark. Maybe they should spend less money on air conditioning and more on lightbulbs, she thought. The hallways were dim, at least the one in which she now sat. An ornate wooden cabinet, made of the darkest pine, stood against an opposite wall. Its drawers, which bore carvings of flowers and leaves and the heads of chubby little angels, were tightly shut, and its gleaming polished top was bare. If that were in my home, Anne thought, it would be piled high with letters and books and magazines.

With her back resting comfortably against cool brown bricks, Anne was suddenly aware of her fatigue.

She sat in one end of a series of four hallways that formed a perfect square and enclosed a large glassed-in garden. In the center of the garden was a white marble fountain, the size of a birdbath, surrounded by four large ornamental cherry trees in full bloom. In the rain their wrinkled trunks were a shiny black and their blossoms glossy pink. Azaleas glowed in pink profusion. Either the monks were talented gardeners, or they had hired some good landscapers, because she had never seen such a well-tended plot, lush with grass and carefully nurtured trees and bushes.

Something about the view seemed familiar, but she couldn’t remember if she had seen the garden when she was little or even if she had been to this part of the abbey. It didn’t register the way the steeple and the incense had. Anne stared at the garden as if she were seeing something she knew in a deep way while not being sure. As if she both remembered it and was seeing it for the first time. The feeling unsettled her.

A tall thin monk appeared, wearing long white-and-black robes. She remembered their outfits well enough: Father Edward dressed like that. Sometimes he had food on his robes too. As the monk silently glided past her, he nodded and smiled, pulled a cowl from one of the pegs on the wall, swiftly tossed it over his habit, expertly arranged the hood so that it fell back neatly over his shoulders, and slipped into a doorway to her right.

A loud bell tolled, startling her. She instinctively looked up and realized that the bell must be in the steeple outside. It rang out single notes, then more insistently, with the tones coming every few seconds.

Within moments, several monks materialized, emerging from doorways she hadn’t noticed. Single file, they walked down opposite sides of the hallway, some looking at the glassed-in garden, some with eyes fixed on the dark red tile floor, nearly all with hands hidden within the folds of their habits. Some were ancient and used wooden canes and metal walkers, moving deliberately. Two were surprisingly young, perhaps in their late twenties, though it was hard to tell with their downturned faces and close-cropped hair. Most were late-middle-aged men who gave the impression of having made this walk many times. Only a few glanced at her as they passed. She figured there were about twenty-five monks in all.

One man, pale, tall, with thinning hair, a receding chin, and Buddy Holly glasses, smiled as he approached, slowed his pace, and bent over to address her. He had watery blue eyes. Anne was surprised to feel a desire to know him.

“Welcome,” he whispered. “Can I help you?”

“I’m with Mark Matthews,” she said. “He’s lost . . . I mean, he lost his cell phone, and I’m waiting for him. Am I in the wrong place?”

Another tall monk, with close-cropped sandy hair, stopped and paused before her bench. “Are you Anne?”

How the hell does he know my name? she wondered.

Seeing her confusion, he whispered, “I'm Brother Robert. Mark told me he was going to pick you up tonight.”

Mark talked about me here? 

The monk with the big glasses asked, “Would you like to join us for Vespers? I can take you to the visitors’ section, if you’d like.”

“No, thank you,” she said politely. “I’m fine here.”

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll pray for you.”

Anne never knew how to respond to that. Well-meaning friends often said it after Jeremiah’s death. She wasn’t sure if she still believed in God, so she thought it was hypocritical to say thanks, as if she wanted them to pray to God. And what would she tell them if nothing happened? If she didn’t feel any better? They’d probably be disappointed that their prayers hadn’t worked, and the last thing she needed was more disappointment in the air. So usually she just said, “Okay.” Which was what she said now to the monk with the Buddy Holly glasses.

He smiled at her again and walked into the chapel behind the other monk.

Why was Mark talking about me to the monks? So rude.

She leaned against the cold brick wall and closed her eyes. She could rest while the monks did their prayers. How tired she always felt.

Then she heard the first note of the organ, a low tone that seemed to make her heart vibrate. A strong baritone voice echoed from the church, singing, “Let my evening prayer ascend before you, O Lord . . .”Then the rest of the monks answered, chanting, “And may your loving-kindness descend upon us.”

Instinctively, she looked around to see if anyone else was in the hallways listening. But she was alone. The monks chanted their prayers with growing confidence. Were they singing psalms? She wasn’t sure. And were the psalms in the Old Testament or the New Testament? She wasn’t sure about that either. Though she wasn’t a believer, she decided that as long as she was here, she might as well enjoy the beautiful music. She had wondered what “Vespers” meant and imagined it as a boring prayer service with lots of Bible readings and dull sermons. But this was lovely.

After a few psalms and a reading that she couldn’t quite hear, the monks began to sing something that sounded like a real song, a hymn. The first few notes tugged at her memory.

Yes! How could she have forgotten? Anne’s father hummed that tune when he was working around the house. That’s right. Her mom used to tease him about it. “Oh, honeybunch, please. Not that hymn again. Pretty soon you’ll be making jam!”

Her father’s hymn. She closed her eyes and allowed the song to carry her to her past. Sleepy now, she started to nod off. Then she had an image of her father holding Jeremiah after his birth, in the hospital, and she felt the hollow in her stomach open up. The memory of how much her father loved his grandson was like a knife in her heart. Jeremiah, I miss you so much!

Her normal defenses weakened by drowsiness, Anne began to cry. She couldn’t help it. She was so tired—and it felt as if the incense and music were touching her innermost parts. On some days she thought that sadness would overwhelm her, drown her, destroy her.

Reaching into her backpack for a Kleenex, she heard the bell toll. The monks began to file out of the chapel. She wiped her eyes. Just what she didn’t need: to be caught crying in the hallway.

The monk with the Buddy Holly glasses was standing over her. “Are you okay?”

Anne was determined not to look foolish. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said, and shook her head up and down quickly. “I’m just fine.” But she started crying again, though she was trying hard to stop. The tears that she didn’t want came anyway.

When the monk sat next to her, she worried that he would put his arm around her, but he didn’t. He just sat there, as the other monks silently passed and disappeared into the doorways from which they had materialized. Anne wiped her eyes. She shifted slightly, and the wooden bench creaked loudly. After a while she spoke.

“My son died.”

“I’m so sorry,” said the monk. “May he rest in peace.”

She nodded and paused. “Thank you.”

“When did he die, if I may ask?”

“Three years ago.” She thought it sounded absurd. The monk would think that she should be over her grief by now. He wouldn’t say it, but he would think it.

“Very recently then,” he said. Anne looked at him with a mixture of gratitude and surprise.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s right.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. What was his name?”

Anne noticed that he wasn’t whispering. She began to sob. Saying her son’s name sometimes made her cry, as if she were summoning his memory in a more concrete way, making him present to herself and others. But she couldn’t believe she was crying in front of someone she didn’t know.

“I’m so embarrassed,” she said. “This is so embarrassing.”

The monk looked down at his black-and-white habit and waited.

“Jeremiah,” she said, finally.

They both noticed Mark approaching.

“I found it!” said Mark, in a loud whisper, holding his cell phone over his head as he loped across the red tiles. Anne withdrew from the monk, dried her tears, and shoved the Kleenex pack into her backpack.

--From The Abbey: A Story of Discovery (HarperOne, 2015).

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