Ji-young Gong Tall Blue Ladder E ng l i s h
Tall Blue Ladder (높고 푸른 사다리) hanibook Publishing corp. / 2013 / 39 p. / ISBN 9788984317475 For further information, please visit: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/772
This sample translation was produced with support from LTI Korea. Please contact the LTI Korea Library for further information. firstname.lastname@example.org
Tall Blue Ladder Written by Ji-young Gong
My Soul, Like Wax
And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love. --William Blake
1. Everyone has memories they canâ€™t erase. Because they are painful, because they are beautiful, because they leave behind vivid scars that continue to ache. Like cold, white mushrooms that sprout behind your racing heart whenever you think back on those days.
2. That year, three people left my side. I faced other difficulties after that, and other deaths, and even at times other separations that seemed unbearable, but none left as deep of a mark on my being as those losses. Of course, my youth was probably mostly to blame for that. Back then, I was a young Benedictine monk preparing to be ordained as a priest.
The monastic life is difficult to explain to other people, even to other Catholics, regardless of whether you’re a Benedictine or Franciscan monk or a member of a Carmelite monastery. In secular terms, I guess you could simplify it by saying it’s like a commune where everyone abandons worldly possessions, takes a vow of chastity, and never marries. Someone once referred to monks as “people who leave the world in order to listen to a deeper voice hidden within themselves.” A young Spanish monk in the early twentieth century said we were “people who give up everything in order to gain the most precious thing in the world.” But can any of these one-line definitions come anywhere near to explaining the life of a human being? I prefer to use a quote from Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who referred without any hesitation to the visionary poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud as “Christians turned inside out.” He also alluded to Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre as ascetics, because they “have looked into the face of death, have plumbed the abyss of man’s nothingness, have probed man’s inauthenticity, and have cried out for his liberation.” I like his analogies best. In order to explain one life, it seems most appropriate to compare it to another life. Or to put it another way, how could you compare anything to a flowing river unless it’s also something that flows? Like years, hours, life, or wind and clouds.
4. The first thing you have to address when you talk about the monastic life is, of course, silence. What I have learned from living here is that silence is not simply quiet, not simply the absence of sound. Nor is it gaps in between sound but rather a state of very active listening. Silence is necessary for perceiving the sounds beyond sound, the senses beyond our senses. During my early days at the abbey, whenever I was out walking, I would pause to
take in the sounds I couldn’t hear over my footfalls. Despite the fact that the bottoms of the sandals I wore back then were rubber and barely made a sound, there were still countless tiny whispers that were concealed by even that small noise: snowflakes slipping from the arms of a pine tree, leafless branches trembling in the wind, squirming insects twisting and turning deep underground, tree roots very, very slowly stretching their thin toes deeper into the earth. Was that slight breeze brushing past my ears the friction generated by the earth as it rotated on its axis? Those moments I experienced back then felt like sly glimpses of the universe, or God, or human life, revealing themselves ever so slightly. Whenever that happened, the sky opened up and something like an indescribable peace cascaded over me.
5. Up until that year, the monastic life more or less suited me. I grew quite fond of the five daily calls to prayer, and theology, which I’d continued studying after transferring to the seminary, was difficult but refreshing. I’d also earned the trust of the priors and the monks senior to me. I wanted to plumb the depths of the universe and wrap my mind around the world. I loved the tall bookcases that reached all the way to the high ceiling of the abbey library. There, books containing over two thousand years of the compressed wisdom of Christ’s followers awaited my hands and eyes. I sat in that library everyday, determined to read every book in there. In the afternoons, when I tired of reading, I walked the grounds of the abbey. Large trees over fifty years old stood quietly in rows as if to cheer me on. Some days brought letters from friends who were still living on college campuses, getting drunk, attending cram schools, and studying for standardized exams. I felt like a mountaineer who’d left them all behind in the playground of a national park and set off alone for the highest summit. It was the luxury of one who has been chosen and I, of course, had all the arrogance of one who has chosen himself. Every season, nature showered its sumptuous
gifts on me as someone who’d already learned in his early twenties the art of silence. Well, up until that year, that is.
6. Of course, having grown up in the noisy world outside, the silence of the monastery did not come easily at first. Silence is probably why I remember my first day there so clearly. The abbey was located right behind the train station in Waegwan, less than a five-minute walk away. When I showed up at the entrance to the main building and told them why I was there, the gatekeeper said the abbot had been waiting for me and led me inside. I assumed my grandmother had called them. I’d been visiting the monetary often with my grandmother ever since I was young. But it felt very different to actually live there. Settlers always notice things that tourists overlook. The inside of the abbey was much simpler than the outside. It was very dark and quiet with many long corridors. Posted above the entrance was a placard that read Ora et Labora, a famous Benedictine motto that meant pray and work. Another read, If you love truth, be a lover of silence. “Please turn off your cellphone,” the gatekeeper added, his voice sounding rehearsed. I took my phone out of my pocket and powered it off—the effect was like standing in the middle of downtown right as someone flips off the switch to my auditory nerve. The atmospheric pressure inside my heart changed in an instant, and unexplainable tears rose up to my weightless vocal cords. Once the curtain of noise had been drawn aside, silence entered.
7. Silence was a dark mirror that saw all the way through to the root of my bones and flesh no matter how many layers of clothing I wore. I was frightened at first glimpse. I’d
yearned for that silence while preparing for the monastic life, but I did not foresee its enormous power. I don’t remember if I actually did hesitate and turn to look back, but it felt like I did. The whistle of the train leaving, the same train that had brought me here, sounded like an auditory hallucination. I’d left my brief youth behind on that train when I got off at the station. Noise and hope, joy and nausea, nerves and tears, envy and jealousy… I took another step down the long hallway where a gentle darkness had settled. In that gap between the curtains of sound, I caught my first glimpse of my naked soul.
8. “Why did you become a monk? “Why this monastery?” Those questions were harder than being asked, “What have you done with your life so far, and what will you do in the future?” Other than the fact that my grandmother was connected to the abbey, it was hard for me to explain why I’d felt that this particular place was where I would live. Maybe that’s why people call it a vocation. From the Latin vocare, to be called or summoned. Someone asks, “Why are you here?” And all you can say is, “Because I was called.” Yes, Lord, I am here.
9. A man was making his way towards us from the other end of the long hallway that led to the abbot’s quarters. (I didn’t find out until later, but it was Brother Thomas. He was in his seventies at the time. He’d left his hometown in Germany and settled in Korea many years ago, way back when our abbey was located in Deokweon, South Hamgyeong Province—in what is now North Korea. Since he was elderly and retired from his duties, no one would have said a word if he’d chosen to rest and do nothing, but instead he passed the time reading and keeping those long hallways mopped clean. Pray and work—if that was the duty of the Benedictine Order, then he was a faithful member up until his dying day.) The
image of him pushing a long mop down the hallway that day left a lasting impression on me. The light of the setting sun filtered in through the windows just then, tempering the darkness that pooled in the corridor, and he was like a sacred fish slowly swimming his way through it. I met his eyes as I walked quickly past. Short for a German, he raised his wrinkled face on top of his stooped body and flashed me a smile. Though I still do not know why, a tremor ran through me, from the top of my head down to the tips of my toes. For a long time after I thought that what drew me was the lucidness, or transparency, or perhaps even indifference contained in his gaze, and the simple blessing, or perhaps even a yearning, directed towards a young person that radiated from his smile. During my interview shortly after, when the abbot asked why I wanted to become a monk, I said, “Because I want to live and die like that elderly monk who’s mopping the hallway outside.” The abbot sipped his tea and regarded me for a moment. The crucifix dangling over his round stomach shook. He looked like he was trying to figure out what I meant by that, and then he smiled and said, “Is that so? Well, let’s not be in too much of a hurry to die, shall we?”
10. I write this from my office at the abbey. The thing about life is that you never really see more than an inch ahead of where you are. I’ve always felt, but even right up until last night I would never have guessed that I would find myself thinking back on things that happened ten years ago. After the evening prayer, I was paged by our abbot, Father Samuel. The abbot who first admitted me into the monastery had retired and went on to serve as the head of a convent near the coast in Masan, and Father Samuel had been elected to take his place. The Benedictines have a unique way of selecting a new abbot for a monastery. Instead of candidates running for office, names are submitted randomly and whoever among
them gets two-thirds of the vote becomes abbot and is responsible for the entire monastery. Some say that the papal conclave originated from this Benedictine tradition. Conclave comes from the Latin cum clāve, which means “with key.” When the cardinals tasked with selecting the next pope are all assembled inside the voting room, the door is locked from the outside. There are no candidates and no campaigning, and even debates are forbidden during the election period. It’s the same with the Benedictines. If no one gets two-thirds of the vote by the fourth round, then it continues on to a fifth and sixth round. Whoever holds the majority vote by then is elected. But if the majority vote is only won during the seventh round, then the successor is called a steward rather than an abbot, and the matter is voted on again after three years. This method for selecting a leader for life may be unusual, but it has its logical side. Anyway, my point is that Father Samuel was the successor to our previous abbot. I’d known him really well since he was a young priest, and he had confided in me over the years. So there was nothing unusual about being paged by him last night.
11. When I opened the door to the abbot’s quarters, I sensed there was a special significance to his summoning me this time. He stood with his back to me even though he had to know I was there. Outside the window, the evening fog was settling in. Judging from the set of his shoulders, it seemed he’d come to some grave and serious decision. You could say he had the body language of someone who isn’t sure of whether he’s about to do the right thing. His natural tendency to proceed carefully in all matters often came across as dawdling or indecision, and he sometimes used that as a kind of trial by fire to test the patience of the more impetuous monks who resided at the monastery. But something about the way he held himself that day made me pause before jumping to any such
conclusions. “You called for me?” I asked. He slowly turned around. His eyes—how can I describe them? They were the eyes of a man who’d returned from wandering in a far distant place. “Ah, yes, Father. Please come in and sit down.” He looked a little surprised, even caught off guard, as if he’d forgotten having summoned me. He offered me a seat and sat down across from me. He lowered his eyes, his hands clasped as if in prayer. I had no clue what it could be about. He and I had lived together like father and son for the last twenty years. Known for being warm and gentle, albeit impassive, he’d never once displayed this kind of emotional agitation before another person. For all that I knew about him, it wasn’t much. “Let’s start with the easy task. Well, I don’t know that I can call it easy. There are two tasks: one business and one personal. That’s why I called you here. First…” He paused. Maybe the second, personal item was hindered by the businesslike simplicity of the first. “I received a call from the an abbey in Newton, New Jersey. The United States government is putting together a history of the Korean War, and they want to include testimonials from the Hungnam Evacuation. Brother Marinus’ story will be included, of course, and since our abbey took over those records, they’re asking us to send them any documentation we have. Since you were my assistant at the time, I figure you must have more material and more memories of it than anyone else so I’d like to pass the request onto you.” “Of course. That won’t be any trouble. The files are still on my computer. And in my head.” I kept my tone light to try to offset the heavy mood in the room. Newton, New Jersey,
and a certain autumn day, flashed through my mind. Like they were the backdrop to that period of my life. “Good,” the abbot said with a smile. He cast his eyes down again. His lips parted slowly. There was only one item left now. My shoulders stiffened for no reason. “I’ve thought and prayed on this over and over. But it seems the best thing to do is to just tell you… It’s about So-hee. She…”
12. What words could I possibly use to describe how I felt at that moment? It was like that gently talking face of his had spat out a metal club that bashed me across the cheek. Or like the earth itself had opened up and swallowed the building whole. I knew the abbot was studying my reaction carefully, but I’d lost the strength to try to force my face into a more composed expression. It was an ambush. I was melting in my seat like beeswax, but what had me even more agitated was the fact that simply hearing her name even after all these years could elicit such a reaction from me. “She’ll be here next week,” he said. “She’s asked permission to see you. As you know, her entire family emigrated to the United States over twenty years ago. I’m the last connection she has in Korea. But she’s not coming all this way to see me—she wants to see you.” He picked up his tea, which had grown cold, but he didn’t look like he intended to drink it. “I could tell how hard it was for her to ask me that,” he continued. “After all, she’s a respectable wife and mother now. …But you’re both adults so you can decide for yourself. If you don’t want to see her, then I can arrange for you to be somewhere else next week.” “All right,” I said and stood up from my chair. I wasn’t actually sure if the words all
right made it out of my mouth, nor was I sure what was right about it, but I left it at that and turned to go. Shame washed over me and turned my ears red. How long had the abbot known about us? For the past ten years I hadn’t breathed a word of what happened between her and me to anyone. I’d thought that was the only way I could bear it. That I could endure as long as I bound my crazed soul and buried my young flesh beneath this black monk’s habit. But now—now, when those feelings were supposed to be long gone and even my memories had grown fuzzy—as I realized the abbot—her uncle and my prior—might have known about it from the start, I was transported back to ten years in the past, to my twenty-nine-year-old self who’d squirmed with mortification at the feeling of being mocked by God and man alike. In truth, it didn't matter whether I saw her or not. I forced myself to imagine her telling me she had cancer. Not even so much as a weak laugh came out of me. Who was it who’d said that if you want to find your weakness, all you have to do is find the one thing you can’t laugh at? “Father Jung.” I was about to open the door when he stopped me. “I think she’s dying,” he said. A wave of guilt and mortification at myself for having just pictured her telling me she had cancer washed over me along with the shock of hearing that. I wanted to take it back, but it was too late. “That’s why I was so hesitant, but now I’ve told you… All I wish is for you to be free.” I glanced back at him for a moment. It sounded like he was holding back tears. His tone seemed to be implying, You don’t hold a monopoly on feeling sad. I swallowed the words before I could ask, So? What’s the difference between seeing her and going to New Jersey?
13. Unable to bear the idea of returning to my quarters, I stepped outside and walked slowly around the grounds. The fog softened the edges of the buildings and filled the entire abbey with a sacred energy. I passed the red brick building that housed the novice monks and headed toward an inconspicuous corner where a ginkgo tree that was over sixty years old stood. Back when I was a novice myself, whenever I missed home or simply felt sad for no reason, I would lean against that tree, or wrap my arms around it, or fall asleep underneath it. Sometimes I even climbed up into its branches. Off in the distance was Nakdong River, and closer to us were the train tracks. I thought about books I’d read as a child, like The Giving Tree or Hope For The Flowers. Back then I would devour anything printed on a page. On the backs of those books was an address: #369, Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province. The name of the city was completely unfamiliar to me, having been born and raised in Seoul. Did the young me have any premonition that it would one day become my address? Back in those days as a novice, the first thing to rouse me from sleep was not the 5:00 a.m. monastery bell but the sound of the 4:40 a.m. train pulling into the station. That fuzzy twenty-minute gap between the two, when I would sometimes drift back to sleep and sometimes sit up in bed, were hard both physically and mentally. It was probably also when I most seriously debated whether I could truly spend the rest of my life there—that is, when that 5:00 a.m. bell would wake me again from my restless half-sleep. Everything at the abbey began and ended with the ringing of the bell. Provided we hadn’t been excused for some special reason, we gathered five times a day to pray. As a matter of fact, some prospects ended up leaving the abbey because it was too challenging to rise at dawn every day and busy oneself with prayer. As for me, I didn’t hate the sound of that
bell because the schedule was too rigorous. In fact, you might even say I loved it. The pealing of the bell echoed out of the tower that stood tall against the blue-gray sky at dawn. Whenever I pulled my black hood over my head to ward off the morning cold and looked up at the tower, I felt like the ladder that Jacob had witnessed, the one and only passage to eternity, was sliding down to earth in time with that bell. A ladder that could not be felt or held onto and that could not stay but was nevertheless definitely there.
14. There were times when I grew sick of that bill and wanted to leave. Once, I ran to the station but the train had already left. Just then—while I was leaving the empty platform and returning to the abbey, while the walk that normally took less than five minutes was feeling like an eternity—the bell rang. The sound then was like a heavy iron bar scraping across my heart, which felt as parched as the bottom of a dried-out well. Instead of tears, a groan escaped from between my teeth. That day, I cursed the sound of that bell. I really did. And for a long time after… I still did. There was also a time when I thought I wanted to see her again to ask questions. I prayed to God to allow me to see her. But even those questions have long since vanished. The young monk who’d grown dizzy at the sight of the train door opening and the hem of her soft skirt fluttering and brushing the tops of her shoes was now a middle-aged priest with gray hair. When I’d said my goodbyes to her, became ordained as planned, packed my bags, and left for the airport to study abroad in Rome, I boarded that train. When I got my degree in Rome and returned, I alighted from that train. And then, as well, the bell rang.
15. Nothing felt real. Return, death, reunion. Finally I realized that the damp foggy air
was bothering my weakened bronchial tubes, which were susceptible to colds. I pulled my hood up and walked back. A group of novices carrying bottles of wine and sausages spotted me and gave me a nod. I didn’t ask what they were doing, but one of them said, “Novice Master told us to bring these for fellowship time.” I wonder if our ways are comparable to being a Buddhist monk. Application, petition, training—three years of hard work and intense training before you could take your first temporary vows, followed by four years of probation. During that time, the novice reexamines whether the abbey is the right place for him, and the abbey in turn considers whether he is right for them. There was no avoiding the fastidiousness of selecting the family members one will spend the rest of his life with. “Don’t stay up too late drinking,” I said. “Or dawn prayer will be even harder.” The young monks all smiled and said, “Yes, Father!” in unison. Maybe it was their youth rubbing off on me, but my clenched heart seemed to relax for a moment. Perhaps that was the power of time. Another train was pulling into Waegwan Station.
16. The closeness shared by novice monks can’t be compared to any other relationship in the world. The year I entered the abbey, there were eight applicants. The novice master—in school terms, he would be like a homeroom teacher—was a German man of considerable age. He would round us up and chide us in his German-accented Korean: “You are the worst, must unruliest group I’ve ever had to deal with. What is it about this year? Monks are supposed to be modest, you’re supposed to martyr yourself. Don’t forget that human and humble share the same Latin root: humus, meaning as low as the soil.” We knew as well as he did that we were terrible at following rules, so all we could do was hang our heads and say nothing.
Later I learned that the novice master gave that same speech every year, and that every year, the novices hung their heads and thought, “It’s true, we’re terrible,” and quietly reflected on their bad behavior. There was even a joke that this was a Benedictine tradition. The three years before you could take your first vows, in which you were basically saying, “Yes, I will live here,” were difficult. You were given no time or space to yourself. There was nothing easy about physically laboring alongside people you’d just met for the first time in your life. Except for the time set aside for the five daily prayers, contemplation, and mass, the schedule really wore you down. But the silence during those prayer sessions in between our manual labor helped sooth the arduousness of our packed schedules and the distance between people stuck with each other through irritation and anger, while allowing us some room to breathe. There was one other fortunate thing about living there. Though we each had a different task that we particularly hated, whether that was doing the laundry or preparing for mass, or scrubbing the floors, the eight of us were unanimously agreed on one thing: food and drink. The year we all entered, a new Benedictine abbey was built in China. All Benedictine monasteries must have a way to support themselves through their own labor, so the Chinese abbey built a winery. Since there was not yet a large demand for wine in China, we decided to help the new abbey out by purchasing two containers. The plan was to use it for communion and as gifts for our supporters. Two containers turned out to be a lot of wine. The storage room was packed to the ceiling with crate after crate. Naturally, the eight of us found all kinds of excuses to drop by that room. Sometimes we said we needed it for communion, other times we said the novice master had sent us to fetch a bottle. There was no shortage of excuses. I don’t know whether the elderly German monk in charge of all that wine actually believed us or if he was simply worried that he would be stuck with that mountain of wine until the end of days, but he would
always hand over a bottle, no questions asked. After the final prayer of the day at 8:00 p.m., there was a period of silence that lasted until the next day’s morning prayer. The light in the novices’ common room had to be turned off by 9:30 p.m. at the latest. The novice master would come by our bedrooms with a flashlight at 9:30 p.m. and then retire to his own room. Then the eight of us would each sneak out of bed, cover the window in the common room with a blanket to keep any light from escaping, and pour the wine into a large metal bowl that someone had filched from the kitchen. The bowl was large enough to hold an entire bottle. We would pass the bowl around in the dark and take gulps. Since we were all healthy young men, it only took one round to empty the bowl. Sometimes the wine was accompanied by sausages made at our monastery, other times we went without. Looking back on it now, that unconsecrated wine probably gave us more comfort than the wine that had been consecrated. There were days of being scolded by elderly senior monks, and days of arguing sharply over faith. Days when everyone’s eyes would grow wet while listening to a fellow novice talk about troubles back home, and days when we tossed and turned in our beds because someone casually mentioned his mother. Little by little, we brushed off the traces left on us by the world we’d left behind, learned the privations of labor, and set our eyes on that place we could only ascend to by lowering ourselves as far as we possibly could. And every morning at 4:40 a.m., the train would pass by, shaking the earth, and at 5:00 a.m., the sound of that bell would pour down from the sky. On Saturdays, we were given some brief leisure time after mass. That might have been why every table at lunchtime was set with a bottle of wine—one bottle for every four people. That meant the eight of us received two bottles. But being already accomplished at drinking wine, two bottles weren’t enough to satisfy us: We would gulp down our allotted wine before anyone else, like it was water, and then sit there licking our lips. The older
monks would notice and give us a wink as they set their own bottles on our table as they left. We ended up with five more bottles that way. On top of which, we were each hiding a bottle under the table that we’d been hoarding in our rooms—just for the chance to drink it properly at the table and from a nice glass. But no matter how young or accustomed to drinking every night we were, that midday drink would still leave its mark in the red flush on each of our faces and the crooked smiles on our lips. One day, we looked up to see the novice master standing over us. “One bottle per table, boys! One!” When we looked at our tables, we realized we’d left five empty bottles sitting in plain view. That day, we were called to his office and given a lecture that contained every single negative word in Korean that the German priest was capable of commanding, followed by disciplinary action: After the evening prayer, we were not allowed to chat with each other in the break room but were to go directly to the library and read theology texts until 10:00 p.m. What if the novice master had seen all of the other empty bottles that we’d hidden under the table? He probably would have told us to pack our bags and go home. After that day, we had to gather in the brightly lit library to read, instead of covering the windows and drinking wine in our rooms. Needless to say, we just drank in the library instead. We covered the metal bowl with a heavy book to keep the smell of wine from escaping. One day towards the end of that year, on one of my visits to the wine room, the monk in charge of the wine supply said, “Well, that’s strange. We went through an entire container of wine this year… And here I was, worried I might be stuck with it until the end of days! An entire container… Phew! That’s really something!”
17. Time passed. The pealing of the bell continued to pour down from the blue sky. In
the middle of hanging laundry out to dry, I would look up to see the river flowing by and the train rushing past. In the middle of playing soccer with my fellow novices on a Saturday afternoon or running an errand for the monk, I would come to an absent-minded stop. Always when the train was passing by. When asked what I was doing, I would casually say, “Oh, just counting the number of cars on that train.” What was there to say? Maybe I was just longing for the city at the other end of those tracks, the city named Seoul, where my home, my brother, my sister, my grandmother, and my father could all be found. Once, while running errands in Daegu, I ran into a girl who’d graduated from college the same year as me. In the East Daegu train station, she said, “A monastery?” and smiled vaguely, the look on her face saying, “Why would you pick something so impractical?” But then she invited me for coffee. She told me had come to visit her parents in Daegu and was headed back to Seoul, after which she was leaving to study abroad in Paris. She said she would probably be gone for three years. I don’t know why, but I walked her all the way back to the train platform and stood there waving goodbye for a long time. Even after her train had vanished from sight, I stood there a little longer. I think I wanted to give up and follow her to Seoul. For several days after, I pictured her face every time a train went by. What name can I give to that association? The thought clearly had nothing to do with the person herself. But it was some kind of longing. For a place left behind, for a place that cannot be reached, for a place you can never return to. To this day, some scrap of my heart still hangs on the world I left behind, and each time the train goes by, it flutters in the wind like the flowers that grow along the tracks.
18. One spring, we went on a picnic. All of that intense physical activity after being
cooped up for so long, followed by the cold cans of beer that the novice master bought for us, had us all feeling tired in a good way. Since it was a weekend evening, the train was packed. When we boarded the train back to Waegwan, I discovered that my assigned seat was in a different car than the rest of my companions, but I went to my seat without thinking twice about it. I sank into the rattling seat and fell into a sweet slumber. When I awoke, the train had already passed my station and arrived in Gumi. I realized where I was with barely enough time to get off the train before the doors closed again, and come to think of it, it was clear that my companions had forgotten all about me. Back then, novices weren’t allowed to use cellphones, so I had no way of contacting anyone, nor did I have any money in my pocket, of course. The one fortunate thing was that I still had the train ticket that showed my destination was Waegwan. Figuring that if the conductor came by, I would show him or her the ticket and explain what happened or ask them to contact the abbey, I boarded the next southbound train I could find. As luck would have it, the conductor never came by, and my fatigue had long since been shoved aside by nerves. As the train neared Waegwan, I got up to make my way to the door. But the train didn’t slow. It was not stopping in Waegwan. I felt a sudden surge of anger at myself for assuming the train would stop there, and a hot sensation ran up and down my spine—the abbey was passing by right before my eyes. The abbey on a hill quietly overlooking the train tracks. A few scattered windows were lit and shining from a distance. As if gazing up at a paradise eternally out of my reach, I felt a glimmer of longing deep inside my heart flare up and start to glow more brightly, and for a brief moment, as if by magic, the hill where I always stopped to watch trains as they passed below was clearly visible. The hill was empty without me. A corner of my heart began to ache. I now knew the grief of he who finds himself driven from his abbey. I’d always felt
an inexplicable longing whenever I’d looked down at the train from outside of it, but how that I was inside the train and looking up at the abbey, the object of my longing reversed in an instant. I got off at Daegu and boarded another northbound train. It was after midnight by the time I walked through the front gate of the abbey. But what hit me first was not disgust at my companions for leaving me behind, but rather relief to find that they’d arrived safely.
19. All of the lights were out in the abbey. The night hung behind the abbey like a dark blue curtain. On that dark curtain, the stars, some big, some small, were quietly shimmering. They shimmered as softly as river water and circled the walls and roof of the abbey. The universe, stillness, silence, and the presence of Him who is said to reside within that silence were embracing the abbey. For the first time I thought, This is my home! This is where I will spend the rest of my life. To my surprise, my brief, unexpected flirtation with itinerancy had confirmed where I was to live out my days. I brought my hands together. O, glory be to God in all things! We were weary but fulfilled, lacking but overflowing, beginners but learning that life itself must always be lived with a beginner’s heart. We felt that we’d glimpsed something noble that could not be found amid the city lights, and we bravely and recklessly thought that even our own lives were no obstacle when it came to knowing the truth. We wanted to be holy. And we were so very young.
20. There was one young monk who rose above the rest. That was Brother Michael. And, of course, beautiful Angelo. The three of us—Brother Michael, Brother Angelo, and me,
Brother John—were as close as actual brothers and were always together, so other people started referring to us as Mi-An-Jo. Brother Michael stood out everywhere he went. He had graduated from a university that was so prestigious, the moment he mentioned the name, everyone asked, “Why would you throw away an education like that to become a monk?” He was two years old than me. He was very tall with long arms and legs, but he was absurdly lightweight for his height, which sometimes made him look frail, as if he were teetering in place. But his strong nose and jawline and his swarthy complexion were enough to inspire the expectation that he would overcome all obstacles and stand at the front of the pack in the end. In theology classes, as well, he was head and shoulders above the rest of us. Even during Latin, our toughest class and one where the professor would launch into blistering, albeit classic, lectures about how we should be ashamed of ourselves and feel guilty toward the grannies who scrimp and save every last coin they make selling things at market in order to add it to the collection plate just so we can study for free and how they give away their money because they actually believe that fools like us will one day become great priests, Brother Michael could make the priest’s eyes spin with his brilliance. The priors were even considering sending him to Rome or Germany ahead of the usual schedule. He was always the first to rise for the 5:00 a.m. call, and he was the most neatly dressed in his robes. During the breakfast that followed mass, instead of eating the bread, sausage, or jam that was set on the table, he would limit himself to only a little milk. Then after breakfast, he would pick up his rosary and walk through the back garden of the abbey to pray. When we were each given our own rooms, following the end of our training period as novices and the temporary vows, his lamp was always on until late into the night. And whenever I went to the abbey library to check out a book, the name Brother Michael was always on the list of previous borrowers.
He had attended virtually every single prayer, and whenever he had time, he would stay behind in the empty cathedral to sit and contemplate. At some point, he even started restricting himself to just a sip or two of wine. During Lent and Advent, he fasted every Wednesday and Friday and walked slowly everywhere with his head bowed slightly. Anyone looking at him could tell that he enjoyed deep meditation. Whenever I saw him like that, I felt like I was looking at a painting of Michael the Archangel hanging on the wall of a museum in Europe. He would sometimes drop by my room to ask what I was reading or to tell me about a book that he was reading. Once, he came by with a book by Charles de Foucauld, the son of an aristocrat who’d scorned religion and lived a life of debauchery when he was young. Later he had gone into the desert and spent the rest of his days in deep silence, repentance, and finally prayer. “Would you like to hear a passage, Brother John?” He opened the book and began to read out loud. My Lord, I have done nothing but sin. I did not consent to sin, and I could not love it. You sensed my aching void and gave me at last a taste of sorrow. That sorrow turned me mute and tormented me whenever a feast or banquet was held. Even in the midst of a party, I would lapse into an even deeper silence and find myself in the end disgusted by all of it.
He held the book to his chest for a moment and gave me a searching look, as if to ask how wonderful it would be if I understood it too. “Look at this part, Brother John: ‘That sorrow turned me mute and…in the end disgusted by all of it.’ This perfectly describes how I felt one morning. That’s how I ended up here.”
I was barely twenty-one when I’d joined the monastery, and before that I had always been obedient, not given to wandering or living the wild life. So I didn’t understand at the time how debauchery could turn to sorrow and render you mute. Even harder to understand was what it meant to become disgusted by it. I believed that his words weren’t the type of thing you could confess to just anyone, and I kept it to myself because I believed that he and shared a deep bond of fellowship—a koinonia.
21. Brother Angelo was always by Brother Michael’s side. Brother Angelo was short and slight, but with an exceptionally well-proportioned body and chiseled features. His nose was large for his face, and whenever I looked at his big, deep-set eyes, his red, well-defined lips, and his wavy brown hair fluttering around his pale face, a strange emotion stirred in me. At one point, he had let his soft wavy hair grow long, but after too many visitors to the abbey asked, “Women are allowed to be monks, too?” the novice master advised him to cut his hair. Looking back on it now, I can’t help but think that the way my heart skipped one day when I’d caught a random glimpse of his silhouette told me there was something different about me. At any rate, if I were him, I don’t know that the novice master’s advice and other people’s mistaking me for a woman would have been reason enough for me to so obediently cut my hair, but Brother Angelo showed no regret as he shaved his head that very day, smiling beneath his bluish scalp. Brother Angela referred to himself as a “motherless orphan.” When the novice master advised him to enter theology school, he declined. “I became a monk so that I wouldn’t have to be somebody. My mother was the only family I had in the world, and before she died, she told me to enter the monastery after I finished high school. I think she already knew that about me—that there’s nothing I'm good
at. I’m not smart like Brother Michael or good like Brother John. I never got good grades in school. I’m not even that strong or healthy. Small tasks and three meals a day are enough for me. But theology school? I don’t have what it takes to become a priest. And I can’t imagine anything worse than having to stand up in front of other people and teach.” And yet, despite how he saw himself, Brother Angelo was the one who drew people’s affection—not me or Brother Michael. He was often late, often showed up without the things he needed, often forgot what he’d been told to do, which meant that he could be counted on to set off the short-tempered, who’d otherwise been managing to keep their tempers under control, and be a hindrance to the smooth functioning of pretty much anything and everything. When he was put to work in the kitchen, he would burn whatever was on the stove, and when he was sent to the glassmaking studio to make stained glass, he would get kicked right back out for having broken too many pieces of imported glass. When he worked in the garden, he would hurt his back after just a few shovels. He moved from workshop to workshop, the monks in charge of each all refusing to have him work for them, but I loved him despite all of that. If you were to ask why, I wouldn’t be able to say exactly. Brother Angelo . . . This is the type of person he was: On Good Friday (the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus), when everyone fasted, Brother Angelo would collect all of the chocolate that we liked to snack on and would take it to the infirmary. The elder monks housed in the infirmary, most of whom were in their 80s and 80s, were still served meals on Good Friday out of consideration for their health, but the general mood in the abbey was unavoidably dark and sedate. Brother Angelo would sit at the heads of those ailing monks’ beds and grace them with that particular laugh of his. How can I describe it in words? In onomatopoeia, it would be Too-weet! Too-weet! On the musical scale, it would be two octaves higher. And in terms of rhythm, it would have a 4/8 beat. “That’s right, eat up! This is the day Our Lord was crucified, so you must eat this
chocolate as penance. You’re much too thin, Brother, so this chocolate is your penance. When everyone is sad and contemplating suffering, those of you here in the infirmary, who suffer like Jesus, must be comforted. So eat up. Then I too will feel comforted in my hunger.” Brother Angelo would place squares of chocolate in the elderly monks’ mouths and then help himself to the rice on their food trays. “Do you really think that when Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him, he meant we had to suffer exactly the same way he did? Do you really believe that, Brother Thomas? When my mother was on her deathbed and couldn’t even swallow water, she said it made her happy to watch me drink the juice and eat the bread that our relatives had brought.” This should have been a dangerous thing to say to elderly monks who’d spent their whole lives obeying strict religious precepts, but I think the reason they never frowned or took it as a threat was probably because of the way he laughed immediately after saying it. That lovely face of his would open up and that laugh would come flying out from between his straight, white teeth like tiny birds. Too-weet! Too-weet!
22. Another thing about Brother Angelo. Once, back in our novice days, he didn’t show up for the daytime prayer. When he was called before the novice master, he explained: “I went to the sausage factory to help out. The monk in charge told me to clean the barbecue grill—you know, that long metal boxy thing we use sometimes to grill meat? It was covered with a thick piece of wood, since we hadn’t used it all winter. Well, when I lifted the wood to clean the grill, to my surprise, there was a bird’s nest inside, and a cluster of tiny white eggs, no bigger than my thumbnail! Father, can you imagine? The mama bird had climbed into the grill through one of those small holes drilled in the side for airflow and had laid her eggs in there.
“How… how can I explain it? They were just so beautiful! Forgive me for saying this, Father, but they were more beautiful than the Host, than the body of Our Lord that we receive at Mass. Without even thinking about it, I reached my hand in… They were warm! Just then, I looked up and thought, Oh no! The mama bird was fluttering in the air and watching me. That’s right, she was fluttering around overhead . . . That’s when I realized what a terrible sin 25
I was committing against the bird. She flew away. “I immediately covered the grill back up with the plank of wood. After a long time, the mother bird reappeared in the distance. The bell was ringing for the daytime prayer, but I didn’t dare move. If I moved, the mama bird would get scared again and fly away. I know it’s spring, but the air is still cold, and those warm eggs would lose their heat . . .
I couldn’t let
that happen! So I sat beneath the magnolia tree and didn’t move, just like that angel statue that’s been there forever. The mother bird flew around me a few times. I really didn’t dare budge. I’m sorry—I’m sorry if I alarmed you earlier. “ The German priest in charge of our training was the type of person who could recall a million facts about Germany at the mere mention of the name. He was logical, unerring in his adherence to the rules, and firm once he had made a decision. He had a morbid dislike of laziness, lies, rule breaking, and long-winded excuses. He had personally expelled several novices. There was one who had satisfactorily observed the rules but was prone to lying: When he said, “I like it here. I’m happy living in the monastery,” the novice master responded gravely, “Clearly, the devil has a hold of your tongue,” and then kicked him out. That story was famous. He had also kicked out a monk who obeyed the rules, was goodnatured, and never lied. The model novice had entered the monastery at the urging of his devout mother, but was surprisingly unable to answer when asked why he felt compelled to become a monk. The novice master told him, “What are you going to do? You’re not the one who heard God’s call. Your mother is. Your mother should be here, not you!”
If anyone else had offered up such a long-winded excuse for missing a prayer session in the middle of the day, he would have gotten the scolding of his life. But after hearing Brother Angelo’s story, the novice master didn’t say a word about it and simply said, “The punishment for your culpa is one week of shining your fellow novices’ shoes.” What we found even harder to believe when Brother Angelo relayed the story to us later was what happened next. After Brother Angelo said, “Yes, Father, I will repent,” and stepped out the door, the novice master called him back. “So,” the novice master asked, “Did the mother bird return to her nest?” When Brother Angelo said that she did, the novice master scribbled the words Bird nest inside: Do Not Disturb on a Post-it note and told Brother Angelo, “Stick this on the grill so no one else accidentally opens it and disturbs the birds or lets any stray cats in.” Thanks to him, all spring and summer of that year, we had no grilled sausages on the dinner table to look forward to.
23. We were close despite having a two-year age difference between each of us—Brother Michael had joined after finishing college, while Brother Angelo joined right after high school. That said, we didn’t always get along. I knew that Brother Angelo was sometimes hurt by Brother Michael’s overly logical approach to things. Once, one of the monks who was known for being lazy had gone out for the day, sticking Brother Angelo with all of the work that he was supposed to have done himself. When Brother Michael found out, he got angry. “Why on earth do people like that join a monastery in the first place? All he does is goof off and skip prayers . . . Though I guess if your goal in life is to be as lazy as possible, then a monastery is as good a place as any.” “Don’t say that!” Brother Angelo said. “I offered to help. If you want to talk about
laziness, then you have to count me too. I don’t do much either . . . In fact, that might be true of all of us in the eyes of God.” Brother Michael’s brow furrowed and a vein stood out on his temple. “Stop talking about the abbey like it’s a place for lazy people with nowhere else to go! That may be true about you, but it’s not true about the rest of us. That’s such an overgeneralization!” Brother Angelo’s face turned pale and stayed that way the whole day. Even when it was his turn to sing Gregorian chants during prayer, his face didn’t look joyful. Brother Angel had a beautiful singing voice. That was probably another reason everyone loved him. He sang Gregorian chants more beautifully than anyone else there. But that night, after the evening prayer, he came by my room and handed me some nurungji, the crispy toasted rice left over after cooking. “Have some, Brother John,” he said. “I wasn’t on cleaning duty today, but I decided to help wash dishes after dinner. The cook gave me this to snack on.” I took the nurungji. “It’s good, right? The cook is so nice. I really like this monastery and everyone here.” He trilled with laughter, as if he hadn’t just been feeling down. The cook and I had never gotten along, but to my surprise, to hear Brother Angelo say nice things about him made me feel like some small goodness inside the chef was making its way over to me and breaking through my own preconceptions. That was the mystery of Brother Angelo. “I think I made Brother Michael angry again,” he said. “During prayer earlier, I caught his eye while singing the Gregorian chants. But he looked away before I could smile at him. I think that means he felt bad for getting mad at me. You know how he is, right? He gets angry really quickly, but he’s just as quick to feel bad about it. But he has too much pride to show it. I prayed for him to let go of his anger. It can’t be easy for him right now. Anger is
always the hardest on the person experiencing it . . . But Brother John, there’s one thing I don’t understand. What’s an ‘overgeneralization’?”
24. After Brother Angelo left, Brother Michael showed up at my room later that night with a bottle of wine. “So I opened up my book and it fell right to this passage: And God became man. O humanity, that you might know that you are human! Perfect humility is to know yourself. Phew! This is always the toughest for me. St. Benedict said, ‘Better to err with humility than to do good with arrogance.’ I can’t stop thinking about how I got angry at Brother Angelo today. You know I have no patience for stupid people, people who just don’t think, and people who force you to repeat the same thing over and over. I thought about it—I’m smart, I understand things right away. But I don’t have to work for that. I received that for free from God. It’s not Brother Angelo’s fault that he’s not very bright. But Brother John, it’s really hard for me to see someone not study, or be lazy, or to let things go by saying ‘fair is fair’ . . . But what’s the point of getting angry at them? I just end up feeling mad at myself!”
25. Relationships are a strange thing. Once you assume a certain role, that becomes your role for good. If I begin a friendship by offering someone a shoulder to cry on, then I become that shoulder every time I see him, and if I begin a friendship by confiding my worries in someone, then I seek him out every time I need to get something off of my chest. With others, I could be the one who offends or the one who is wounded. That was the case with Brother Michael and Brother Angelo, and I was right in between them. It wasn’t always the case, but sometimes Michael would get angry, and Angelo would get hurt. I could tell that Michael was
troubled by the pain he caused Angelo each time he got angry. Who was it that wrote, “The weak will never endure the strong”? Was it Saint John Cassian? But Angel wasn’t the weak one—Michael was. And so the river continued to flow, and the train to depart, and the bell to peal. Seasons turned, rain fell, and the cottony white buds of the magnolia in the corner of the abbey bloomed and withered eight times.
26. Whenever we look back on the moments or incidents that changed our lives, we see the things we didn’t see before—the signs and omens spread all over the streets of our lives— like the trailer to a movie. Like the tiny wildflowers poking their shoots out of the earth before we feel the coming spring in the wind that brushes our skin, like seeing the shy violets blooming unexpectedly in the sun. Like the heralds of spring arriving before we have felt it in our flesh. The tragedy of life rests in the fact that by the time we decode the message carried by those omens, the moment is already over and there is no going back. When everything is done and we finally look back, life is never shining its spotlight where we believed it would but rather where we least expect it. So how far back do I need to go in order to describe what happened to me that year? Who’s story should I tell first? Mt. Bulam, St. Joseph’s Monastery, the white pear blossoms . . . Yes, I should start by sounding out her name. Kim So-hee. Saint’s name, Theresa. The first time I saw her, she was wearing a baggy light green sweater, a white knee-length skirt that fluttered, and expensive, light green deck shoes. The first time I saw her lovely, airy silhouette in the distance, she was walking beneath the pear blossoms with another monk. She had just swept
her shoulder-length hair up and threw her head back and laughed at something the monk said. That was my first glimpse of her. I was standing far away, but I thought I could see her white fingers as she pulled her hair back. Those slender fingers. I shoved the memory of my first actual meeting with her all the way to the bottom of my unconscious, like tucking away a Polaroid. It must have affected me greatly. If a first meeting isn’t threatening in some way, then there would be no need to shove the memory away. It wasn’t until later, when I was answering her bold questions in Waegwan, that the crumpled memory stored in my subconscious was reprinted in my conscious mind. Up until then and for a while after, she remained meaningless to me. “That’s the abbot’s niece,” Brother Joseph explained, though I had not asked. “She’s in a Master’s program in the US. Says she’s writing her thesis on stress among religious practitioners. She’s headed for Waegwan. She had breakfast with us this morning. The monks couldn’t stop smiling at how pretty she is.” He chuckled as if he were joking. But I didn’t laugh along. I had stopped by St. Joseph’s Monastery on my way back from Seoul—my grandmother had had an operation. The courtyard of St. Joseph’s at the foot of Mt. Bulam was filled with white pear blossoms, but my heart was heavy with thoughts of my family, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time.
27. Though I cannot say they were the only reason, the truth is that my family was what had driven me to drop out of college after just two years and enter the monastery; they were what made me keep my mouth shut and my head down at all times, only to crank up the volume on my radio the moment I was alone in my room. My grandmother was born in what is now North Korea. She told me that during the Korean War she sailed from the docks at Hungnam all the way down to Geoje Island. An
intelligent young woman who had worked in the Benedictine monastery in Wonsan. A rare talent fluent in both German and English. But she was cast out like a hobo to the southern coast where camellias bloomed even in midwinter and fences were made from the wood of an orange tree that she’d never seen before in her life. It was a warm, green, and entirely incomprehensible place for a girl whose whole life was the frigid north where it snowed six months out of the year. My grandmother arrived with my father, then a newborn, on her back and began working on the United States military base. She saved up her earnings and used it to open a naengmyun restaurant. From Geoje to Busan, then from Busan to Seoul, and now her cold noodle restaurant has franchises all over the country. In this land of exile, the only person my grandmother had faith in was God. That is, she believed that God would not allow the child that He had given to her to starve or be reduced to rags. But I also can’t help but wonder if what she believed in was also her fluency in German and English, which almost no one else had at the time, and a certain beauty symbolized by the image of a young, widowed mother. But even more than the son who inspired that young woman to grit her teeth and find a way to survive, the person she loved was the first son of that son—me, Brother John.
28. I was my grandmother’s favorite grandchild. In her own words, I was well-mannered, thoughtful, and devout. I grew up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, enjoying all the privileges that had been denied to my father, who had tried his whole life to make his mother like him but never once earned her appreciation, and my mother, who had waited on her mother-in-law hand and foot. Sometimes, when I thought about my parents, I pictured extras standing backstage, ready to offer me up on the altar of my grandmother’s love. Grandmother loved me, and my father loved me, and my mother loved me. But that
does not mean that I was happy. There was discord between each of them, and more than the love that for me spilled forth from each of them, it was the unhappiness that issued from their discord, that flowed from their relationships that affected me the most deeply. Maybe that’s why, ever since I was young, I was so skeptical about the idea of falling in love with a woman. I’m reminded of a book of photography by Choi Min-shik. Every now and then when I tire of print, I take out a book of photos tucked in a corner of the library. His photographs were realistic in that he captured candid shots of people, but fantastical in that they were all black and white, an imaginary color palette that does not exist in reality. One day, when the library was particularly bright with sunlight, I came across a photograph of a couple kissing and embracing each other tightly on a park bench in Rome. Later, I would witness the same thing while studying abroad in Italy, but at the time, the image of a foreign couple locked in each other’s arms on a public street was a shocking one to me, clad in my monk’s vestments. It was probably because it was spring, but the heat on my back from where the sunlight was slanting in through the library windows and the heat of passion rising off of the couple in the photograph blended together visually and overwhelmed me. It was strange. The photograph had to be over twenty years old, in which case, the couple would already be middle-aged. How had they changed since the photo was taken? Did they still kiss like that? Did they still embrace each other tightly? And what about in another twenty years? And another . . . Finite and infinite, a moment and infinity, love and time, the pink blossoms outside the window and black monk’s robes . . . It was a Saturday afternoon with a very blue sky visible between the leaves of the poplar sprouting in the spring sunshine outside the window. Back then I made a vague decision. It wasn’t that I longed for this life, but rather that I wanted to dedicate myself to something eternal, something lasting. I cannot describe to you
how overwhelming that feeling was. I felt the pride of a man who abandons the common folk and chooses the thornier path of solitude. I was filled with the reckless vigor of one who longs for the blue sea and palm trees of the south but has never experiences sandflies, mosquitos, or other pests. I was like a half-cocked mountaineer who leaves for the Himalayas with no fear of the cold that burns or the knifelike wind that gouges at your cheeks like hooks. What can’t you accomplish once you put your mind to it . . . ? Ah, when I think back on all my reckless, overweening self-confidence, I can’t help but shiver and laugh at the same time. But truly, if it weren’t for that recklessness, who would bother to brave the Himalayas, explore the deepest reaches of the ocean, set up a research station at the far end of a glacier, or bring a woman into your life on the absurd claim that you will love her forever?
29. That day, I spent the night at St. Joseph’s instead of at my parents’ house and participated in mass in the morning. The monks entered the cathedral together in our black habits with the hoods pulled up. The pews were sparsely occupied by nuns from a nearby convent and people who had been staying at a Catholic retreat. After mass, I stepped outside into the courtyard, which was filled with the cold air of dawn and the white pear blossoms. I walked among falling blossoms to the dining hall. The pale green leaves sprouting from the branches and the white pear blossoms shone in the morning sun. When I entered the dining hall, I saw her. She had skipped mass and gone to eat first. Kim So-hee. Her white plate held half a piece of toast, a spoonful of yogurt, and a tiny pile of raspberries—no more than what a bird might eat. She was fully aware of the fact that people were entering to eat breakfast after mass, but though she sipped her coffee with her eyes down, as if bashful about being recognized, she was also already showing the arrogance of someone who is used to being stared at with envy. She had that glow that very
beautiful women have when they know just how beautiful they are, the glow that can make the other person lose his or her nerve. She smiled, seemingly reluctantly, at Brother Joseph’s hearty hello, and lowered her face once more over her coffee cup. I made a point of not staring at her, but a moment later I couldn’t help but notice her thin, white hand rise to conceal a long yawn. 34 30. When I returned on the train that evening, a small commotion had broken out at the abbey. They had received news that Brother Michael, who was absent at the evening prayer, had been arrested. Our monastery was already famous for its anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy missionary work, along with its German monks who were interested in human rights and democratization, ever since the era of the Park Chung-hee regime. Our monastery was also the first in North Gyeongsang Province to film Jürgen Hinzpeter’s documentary on the Gwangju Massacre, which he had risked his life to film and smuggle out of South Korea in order to show the world what was happening. The cathedrals in downtown Daegu, where our priests were dispatched, were the object of intense surveillance by the dictatorial regimes during the 1970s and 1980s—every time a mass was held, one or two riot police buses would be sitting right outside the cathedral door. This history was a point of pride for the older monks at the abbey. It reminded me of the kind of pride you see in people who vote for the exact same political party for forty years straight. But, it was the first time a young monk had been arrested for acting on his own. As soon as I arrived, the abbot paged me and we took his car to the police station in Daegu. The abbot didn’t say a word during the entire forty-minute drive to the station.
Brother Michael had made a huge mistake by leaving without getting permission from the prior. Out of the entire monastery, it was a serious offense to commit with the sacrament of the priesthood still ahead of you. In secular terms, you could probably compare it to getting a phone call that the groom has been arrested right before his wedding. I could feel the anger and indignation coming off of the abbot as he sat in the back seat with his eyes closed. A sudden nervousness came over me. All I could do was hope that Brother Michael’s usual clear-headedness and irreproachable conduct would get him through this. But what weighed on me was the fact that things had been growing rocky between him and the abbot. Brother Michael often skipped the morning prayer, and on the days that he attended theology class in Daegu, he had been skipping the evening prayer as well. For someone who had taken vows to dedicate both body and mind to stop showing up for prayer was a clear sign to anyone looking that that person’s soul was seriously troubled. It didn’t take more than a single day as a member of the 1500-year-old Benedictine order to understand this. Of course, being the closest to Michael, I understood him. I had seen him poring over books or sitting in front of the computer in the common room typing out long drafts of something until late into the night. So I wasn’t surprised he would find it difficult to get up for the morning prayer. He obviously deserved better consideration than those monks who missed morning prayer because they were drunk off of the hard liquor they’d hidden in their rooms. But lately, Brother Michael seemed to be mixing with a new group at the theology school where he went to work on his thesis twice a week. They were partial to the model of the early Christian church with its revolutionary ideals and concern for the poor and sided with the most downtrodden of society. I often thought that if I hadn’t been assigned to work as the abbot’s secretary, I would have been there right alongside him. After all, what is Christianity without the poor and the oppressed? But I couldn’t because realistically I was
busy taking care of all the trifling tasks the abbot had assigned me to do. After hanging out with that group and having drinks with them, Brother Michael would grab the last train back from Daegu and come running helter-skelter through the gate to make curfew. I knew the abbot had been waiting for him to slip up because of that. In the meantime, Brother Michael’s rants had been growing more pointed. Isn’t it high time someone finally straightened out the crookedness of the Catholic Church? Brother John, I can’t help but think that God has planted landmines of evil all over this valley of tears we’re living in and secretly entrusted the sole copy of the map of that minefield to the Pope, bishops, church elders, and no one else. And our job is to go to Mass every Sunday and learn the locations of those mines one by one. Those bourgeois housewives, they come to church and weep and pray for the poor, and sometimes they even personally take to the streets to hand out food with those soft hands of theirs, but when it comes to the wrongful firings and character assassinations that take place in their own husbands’ factories, they feel nothing! They come to Mass every week and believe that they’re disciples of Christ, and yet they feel no remorse at all. This is the world we’re living in! And the biggest supporters of the status quo are the diocese and the monastery! The bishops and the church elders! If Jesus were to return, what would he say to them? What I think is that if Jesus ever did come back, they’d be the first to re-nail him to the cross. Or they’d lock him away in a dungeon where not even the rats would know where to find him. Or no, no! That’s not how things are done these days! They’d catch too much flack for that. No, their best resort would be to use the media to turn him into a laughingstock. They would pick on every single thing he does and report it in the papers. He gets invited to someone’s house, and the reporters criticize him for being accompanied by some young thing named Mary Magdalene. And, would you believe it? She goes and pours two million won worth of perfumed oil on his feet.
How extravagant! And after claiming to have sold all their worldly goods to help the poor! Once Brother Michael was on a roll, it was hard to stop him. They would track down which brand of perfumed oil she used and reveal the price, and then everyone would start calling it Perfumegate, or referring to Jesus as a metrosexual. Netizens would bitch about how they could have given a month’s worth of lunch money to thirty poor children if only they’d sold the oil instead. And you know what else they would say? They’d say that the real problem was his standing by her, that it’s absurd of him to claim it’s okay for the oil to have been poured on his own feet, and they would say there were rumors of inappropriate goings-on between Jesus and Mary Magdalene even though no one has been able to confirm it, and that while Jesus hasn’t said anything yet, according to someone who claims to know him well, they have a secret child together. You know that’s what would happen! If you googled ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ images would pop up of Mary Magdalene anointing him with oil, and the tabloids would say things like, ‘Jesus and Mary Magdalene share a very private moment!’ and ‘Jesus: Is he really a bachelor?’ He would be in the news everyday: ‘Jesus claims he’s Son of God,’ ‘Jesus keeps the commandments one day and the next acts as if they’re only meant for other people and he and his disciples are exempt,’ ‘Jesus spends all his time drunk and is such a lush that the first miracle he performed was to turn water into wine the moment the booze ran out,’ and ‘His so-called disciples have barely a middle-school education among the lot of them.’ And so on, and so on! Even those who liked him at first would see all of that and start to think, ‘Hm, maybe he has gone too far, maybe this is all too much,’ and every single thing that someone could find fault with would be taken out of context and plastered online until eventually everyone would see him as a lunatic . . . And that's how they do it. Killing someone online is the new form of murder. Media is the new crucifix. Instead of death by crucifixion, now it’s death by media-fixion.
I kept my hands on the steering wheel and prayed silently to Brother Michael’s namesake and guardian angel: Please watch over Brother Michael. Please keep him from resorting to radicalism and violence. Keep him on the path of peace and lead him at last to victory through goodness, silence, and obedience. But no sooner had I begun praying to Saint Michael then I realized Saint Michael the Archangel was the first of the warrior angels to take up a sword and spear and step up to the frontlines to battle evil directly. So I tried praying instead to my patron saint, John the Baptist. But as luck would have it, John the Baptist had also sternly rebuked those in power during his time, and had fought more rigorously against them than Jesus had. He had even refused to eat the food of the upper classes. In the end his head was chopped off and displayed on a silver platter like a piece of ripe fruit at a party for the king. So then I tried praying to Saint Samuel, the patron saint of our abbot. But he had stood among the ranks of the revolutionaries who ousted King Saul, who had fallen out of God’s favor, and instated David, the poor shepherd boy, as the new king instead. I thought to myself, Why? and a sudden chill ran down my spine. “Peace, peace!” I tried to recall the peace prayer created by St. Francis. I wanted to pray to him. But then I remembered his life story. When he joined the monastic order to become a mendicant priest, his father brought legal proceedings against him. As a wealthy and successful merchant, his father could neither understand nor accept his son. As he listened to his father plead before the court about how much he had spent feeding, clothing, and educating him, he said, “Then take back the clothes you bought for me,” and stripped naked in front of everyone. Then he walked out, naked as the day he was born, and became a penitent, just as he had desired. To the eyes of an ordinary person, it probably doesn’t get less peaceful, rational, and moral than that. Could there be any crazier act? And how embarrassed must his father have been?
By the time I finished praying, we had arrived at the police station. To my surprise, Brother Michael was sitting quietly. But the abbot’s face hardened when he saw him. Since I knew better than anyone else just how high the abbot’s hopes for Brother Michael were, my whole body started to shake. The situation turned out to be simpler than we’d thought. The laid-off female employee of a nearby textile factory had climbed a transmission tower on the outskirts of Daegu to protest her wrongful firing. Labor union members who had been fired along with her were assembled at the base of the tower. It seemed Brother Michael had been joining them whenever he could. That day, the police had finally brought a crane to forcibly bring the woman down from the tower, and as a result a fight had broken out between the police and the laid-off union members. Since Brother Michael was there too, he’d been arrested along with everyone else. Even if it weren’t for our abbey’s many contributions to the local community and the abbot’s own personal connections, the charges weren’t that bad. The police must have planned the bust as a way of putting a little scare into the protesters, so everyone was let off with a warning. We drove Brother Michael back to the abbey. The problem now was not one of criminal charges. Even if he had only taken a provisional vow, a novice monk was still expected to dedicate everything to serving the church. Strictly speaking, even your body is dedicated. Which tells you why the idea of ‘martyrdom’ is so important.