The desert ammas were midwives of wisdom. Their desire to connect more deeply with God manifested in a life characterized by intimate listening to each other such that “the conversation itself was enclosed in prayer, so that the God of their mutual vocation would be the center of their visit”… from page 8 in Praying with the Desert Mothers.
Do you know someone who listens deeply… where your conversation is enclosed in prayer? I did.
AfterFaith: The First Early Chapter
He had been coming to Wyoming for summer work since the 1960’s, maybe even earlier than that. A Benedictine monk with romantic notions about life in the Wild West, he would come for a month to give parish pastors a vacation respite. In between sacramental duties, his days were consumed by hiking into secret fishing holes, rounding up cattle on horseback or dropping in on local ranchers for a beer or a good hearty lamb stew. “Been out explorin’ the territory,” he would say.
Every summer it would be a different parish and after forty years, he had friends in every corner of the state. I have to believe that he lived his dream of being a real cowboy.
It was our second summer in this new parish when I met Fr. Camillus. He had already spent three of his four weeks there and we’d only briefly passed each other a couple times because our busy schedules just had not coincided at all. My husband came into my office one afternoon and said, “You really need to sit down and get to know this guy. You two will hit it off.” The strong tone in my husband’s voice prompted me to make an appointment to chat with this cowboy monk that day.
I am not sure that I have ever had a more intimidating, awe-inspiring first encounter. He sat in the chair next to my desk and started off by saying, “I’m a sociologist… and I’ve been watching you. Want to know what I see?” Now, just how are you supposed to respond to something like that? I mean really… he’s a 70-year-old monk with intense dark eyes, crooked nose (he would push his nostrils to the side and show you his deviated septum every time) and big round face sporting a mischievous grin. I don’t think anyone ever said no to him.
“Fire away,“ I said.
In less than ten minutes, he had summed up my whole life. He was that good—like eerie, psychic-kind of good. I felt like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42). She meets Jesus at high-noon and he begins to tell her everything she’s ever done. I can relate!
Me: How did you know all that?
Him: I told you… I’m a sociologist… and it doesn’t hurt that I’ve been a priest for 47 years.
Me: Hmmm…ph. I guess not.
That’s kind of how our relationship was. Very direct and to the point. Very honest, always, even when it was a hard truth to tell. We became very close, very fast, because he “got” me. He understood me. That had never happened before. All of a sudden, I was sad that I’d let his first three weeks slip away.
He came back to our parish the next summer and the summer after that. In between times, we wrote letters—the old-fashioned kind that were several pages long giving details of the big and small stories, worldly ponderings and prayerful thoughts. He had been writing about his Wyoming adventures for years and sent me two collections of his essays. I hope that his monastery will publish those someday.
I visited him at the monastery a couple of times, to see his home-territory and to meet the people. He was deeply loved by all those he knew in ministry.
After three summer stints at our parish, he was given permission to come back for year-round work as an associate pastor. I was thrilled. It was so fun to see him every day. He had a great spirit of discovery and was in no way scared of those new-fangled personal computers, although there were issues. In the mornings, he would hear me coming into the building and from his office down the hall shouted, “Elaine, I’m having computer problems!” Once, after five such consecutive greetings, I finally said, “You know… you could at least say Good morning first!”
Next day: “Good morning Elaine.” (pause) “I’m having computer problems!”
He had a tremor in his left ring finger that consistently shook his hand in just the right way to create a keyboard shortcut that would highlight and then delete whatever paragraph he had just typed. Every so often there would be a loud, cranky grunt coming from his office and I knew it had happened again. Most people set their word processor AutoSave option to back up every five or ten minutes. I tried to set his for every 30 seconds, but I could only get it down as far as three minutes.
He loved to explore the territory and we would set a day each month to go check out some new place. Because he was getting on in years, it was a prudent choice to make sure he had a traveling buddy. We shared a lot of picnic lunches and “shop talk”. He told me stories of marching in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of sitting in meetings with Thomas Merton. Funny stories of being reprimanded by the abbot for wearing white socks under his black habit at evening prayer and tragic stories of death and heartache he had witnessed over the years. Much of what I know about ministry I learned from him.
He stayed at my parish for a couple of years and then moved onto a parish in another city for one more year. About every couple months or so, I went to visit him and we would set out on a new adventure. One time, we ended up at Hell’s Half Acre for lunch. It’s a small but impressive canyon of ghostly rock formations that filmmakers like to use as backdrops for the badlands in old cowboy movies. I think Fr. Camillus was always a little terror—street kid is how he phrased it. That day, he bought a freeze-dried rattlesnake, coiled up in striking position with fangs exposed. He put it in a cardboard box, covered it with newspaper and made me take it back home to his previous pastor. I knew I shouldn’t have done his dirty work for him. Poor Fr. John about keeled over on the spot when I gave him his gift.
Because of declining health, Fr. Camillus went back to the monastery. We talked on the phone now and then, but he wasn’t able to write letters anymore and his energy was limited. I knew the end was coming.
He died a few years ago. I was out of town at ministry meetings when I got the call, so I left early and flew to the monastery. There is nothing quite like a monk’s funeral. It is a holy and sacred time. I will never forget the hollow sound of a handful of frozen dirt hitting his coffin as I dropped it into his grave.
I miss his physical presence terribly. I hear his wise voice in my life all the time.
©2011 by Elaine Menardi
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Question of the day: Do you listen deeply?