A Monk’s Tale – short nonfiction by James Hannon

A Monk’s Tale
It’s a midwinter night of a waning moon. I am on pilgrimage over the mountain to a monastery– for much needed illumination. Thick snow walls line the way like a bobsled run and the road is packed squeaky hard. I don’t know its length but it leads straight to my goal, a blessing as I’ve lost my sense of direction. And I have all the time in the world since I don’t know what to do next.

I am prepared — a warm coat, felt lined boots and a sheepskin hat–though frost is forming on my beard and long hair. I try on Rasputin or Tolstoy and listen for distant wolves. Maybe a pirate with a bad conscience. A partisan, courting death and every woman in town. How can I be lost when the road is so straight except for ups and downs?

Down I drop again and see lights of habitation far on the port side. I close in on a barn incandescent at 3 a.m. A nativity scene? The baby Jesus? Am I a magus?

It is far too bright for a dairyman monk, as tied to the land as any cenobite. But he is not alone. A midnight birth has gone badly. There is a healthy looking calf but her mother hangs by her back legs from a hoist in the barn roof. The blood is abundant. I am committed to silence and this is no time for inquiry of the exhausted farmer. I walk past.

What sign is this? On how many nights would I view this nativity scene? Not too many. Coincidence, of course, but how can we be shown the remarkable except by coincidence? Where do we see signs? Does it matter if we can’t read them?

I arrive an hour before dawn. I enter the open chapel and lie down in a back pew. Awakened as the monks arrive for Lauds, I try to look pilgrimy. One monk asks me to come with him to a waiting room. After Lauds the Guest Master comes to greet me. This is Brother Placid, who asks me, “F-f-f-f-f-r-o-o-m wh-wh-where h-h-h-h-a-v-v-e u-u–u-c-c-c-come?” I am tired and young. I laugh. It seems like a joke. Placid is as good as his name.

He brings me to robust Brother Anselm who asks if I have ever stained a floor. Having pulled myself together a bit, I say “No, but I think I can manage.” We work a large room in silence for a few hours. Then breakfast with a reading. I expect now to be asked my purpose or vocation. I get a ride in a station wagon back over the mountain to town where Anselm will stop in at the hardware store. We talk on the way about his lifestyle and he drops me off at a good location for hitch-hiking. My monastic career is over.


James Hannon is a psychotherapist in Massachusetts where he accompanies adults and adolescents recovering from disappointments and illusions.  His poems have appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Soundings East, Zetetic and other journals, and in Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets.  His collection, The Year I Learned the Backstroke, was published by Aldrich Press in 2014.

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