A Naked Monk Solves Christmas

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A Monk’s Alphabet by Jeremy Driscoll is one of the best reads I’ve had in quite a while. The book isn’t long on plot or blood and thunder. Its 210 pages contain ideas, essays and anecdotes, all short and each listed in alphabetical order. Sounds mundane. But what soaring ideas! What whimsical stories! What common sense observations! They can be read at random, but please, don’t try to finish the whole book at once. The pieces are much better enjoyed in moderation, like caviar and vodka before dinner or rich chocolates after.
With Christmas looming, copies of A Monk’s Alphabet make for easy gift giving, and recipients probably will remember the giver long after they’ve forgotten where the Argyle socks or cashmere sweater came from. My wife says we’re getting five.

A Monk’s Alphabet is subtitled Moments of Stillness in a Turning World. The moments do wind down your inner clock and dampen some of the brain chatter that comes with modern living. But there could have been another subtitle--A Man of the Cloth Gets Naked.

The author has lived a quarter of a century as a Benedictine monk and an ordained priest. He spends part of the year living at
Mount Angel Abby in rural Oregon and the other part in bustling Rome, teaching seminarians theology. I’ve met Father Jeremy at Mount Angel on two, possibly three difference occasions, for maybe six hours total. I met his mother who is rightfully proud of her son. But until I read his book, I had no idea that he used to be a cowboy. Or that he’s known as Je in a coffee house and bar where noisy Italian patrons expect straight-forward answers to rudely formed metaphysical questions, questions that we all ask in our own ways. That he can be disarmingly honest about his own doubts and fears regarding God, Christianity and his calling. He wears a habit but doesn’t hide behind it. He honors all things and manner of men with dignity and innate modesty. His “nakedness,” then, is not of the Sixties variety, “Let it all hang out.” It is absolutely who he is. His kind of transparency is a rare, rare thing. It is how most of us would like live, rather than behind masks and under expectations. Thus as Father Jeremy shares himself, his writing radiates a kind of universal blessedness, making all readers a bit holier no matter what they believe.

The following excerpt is but one taste of the many flavors of A Monk’s Alphabet.

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FIRST LOVE. When I was five years old, my brother and I burned our garage down. It was a big accident.

In the small town where I grew up in north Idaho, the fire department was volunteer. This meant that a loud siren had to sound in the town to call the volunteers from their scattered posts so that they could go rushing to the firehouse and then to the fire. The local radio would announce without delay where the fire was. This was so that, hearing the news, some volunteers could go directly to it. But the announcement was also made to satisfy the immediate curiosity of all in the town; for, of course, we all cared about and were interested in a fire.

My brother and my sister and I were having lunch with the babysitter when the siren began to blow. My brother jumped up and ran into the kitchen to turn on the radio and learn where the fire was. From the kitchen he could see the garage, which was a separate building from the house. He cried out, “It’s our house!” Panic immediately entered into me. Running to the window with my sister and the babysitter, we saw huge flames leaping out of the roof of the two-story building. Yes, it was on fire! It was our house. Someone had seen the smoke and leaping flames and had reported the fire.

A crowd gathered on the lawn to watch the drama unfold. It was a stunning scene for a five-year-old boy under any circumstances, but the effect was ten times the stronger for it being “our house.” This effect would be further intensified later when in my young mind I finally put two and two together and realized that what my brother and I had been up to in the garage earlier in the morning was the likely cause of this blaze. But in the first phase, that awareness had not yet dawned.

During this same period of my life, there was a girl in my kindergarten group whom I liked, and she liked me. I noticed I felt about her something different from what I felt about the other girls whom I also liked. I suppose it was a sort of first love, though I didn’t know to call it such at the time. But the fire provided evidence of my unique feelings for her. I saw her in the crowed gathering to watch the spectacle, and I remember thinking, “Oh no! Oh no!” Just then she saw me and came running over excitedly. She grabbed my hand and held it as we both gazed toward the blaze. She was thrilled and asked in solemn wonder, “Whose house is it?” I realized in the midst of my panic that she didn’t realize it was mine. So, trying to match in the tone of my voice her own pleasure at the flames, I said, “I don’t know.” But I could bear the pressure of this lie only momentarily. I snatched my hand from hers and went running off in a panic down the street to the house of my aunt and uncle. It was never the same between us after that. Our love could not survive a lie. That was a good lesson. I learned also another classic lesson at this moment of my life: not to play with matches.

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A Monk’s Alphabet: Moments of Stillness in a Turning World was first published last year by Darton, Longman & Todd of London, was printed this year for the North American market by New Seeds of Boston and is distributed by Random House. The list price is just short of 20 bucks American, which, for Sergeant Preston of the Mounties, translates into 26.95 Canadian.