Get Thee to a Monastery

In fifteen years of singlehood I have gone out with a gorgeous mosaic of Manhattan men – novelists, campaign aides, drummers; WASPs, Jews, retentives – but there’s one guy who I’ve never dated. He lives uptown, wrote a bestseller and is totally obsessed with his career. He’s bipolar, wears a goatee, and changed his name when he got famous, and though he never returns my calls I can’t get him out of my mind. No, he’s not Jon Stewart. He’s God.

With desperate hopes of jumpstarting a relationship with the big guy, I decided to take the new, hip spiritual vacay – get me to a monastery. I selected the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York, one of the strictest Trappist monasteries in the country. For five days, I would live like a monk in a former monk’s cell and refrain from the three activities most central to a hedonistic Jewish single girl’s life:  drinking, talking, and well, you know. This was one serious ring of fire.

As the cabby pulled up to the Abbey’s retreat house I almost told him to hightail me back to the train. I missed my mommy, and what if I didn’t make any friends? What if I had a nervous breakdown? I hadn’t even brought Xanax, and though I did have my cell phone in case of emergency, what if there wasn’t any roaming?

Willing myself to be strong I got out of the car and pushed open the screen door to the guesthouse, which was the Abbey’s original monastery. It was totally empty and smelled musty and stale. There was a reading room on the left side of the hall, and on the right was a tiny chapel with a few pews and an altar. All this religion weirded me out. I knew I would be staying in a monastery; I just hadn’t expected it to be so Christian.

As I was eyeballing Mary and Jesus warily, a workshirted guy with white hair came up behind me. I jumped. “I’m Norm, the caretaker,” he said. I waited for him to say, “Welcome to the Bates Motel,” but instead he said, “Let me give you the fifty cent tour.”

The ladies washroom was communal, but clean, and the dining room was set for dinner – two long rectangular tables with a buffet table in the middle. If I had to talk, Norm said, I had to go out of the house. Fifteen other guests would be staying, I could sleep in any empty bedroom, and when I left I’d make a fresh bed for the next person. This was definitely not a Schrager hotel.

“So where do the monks live?” I asked Norm.

“A half a mile away in a monastic enclosure. Women aren’t allowed there.” 

I had to admit I was kind of irked. St. Benedict’s rule was, “Guests are to be received as though they are Christ himself,” but evidently Christ didn’t merit a room in the house.

My room was bare bones but clean and contained a hard mattress on a wooden frame, desk and chair, armchair, beat-up suitcase stand, and clothing rod with a few hangers. The only religious decoration was a plain wooden cross above the desk.

After perusing the schedule I discovered that I had arrived in the middle of Vespers – which explained my companions’ absence. The monks prayed five times a day starting at 2:25 am and ending at 6:40 pm and retreatists were “strongly encouraged to attend.” I didn’t see the point of waking up the middle of the night, to pray of all things, but I told myself I’d try anything once.

When I finished unpacking and hiding my cell phone I went outside to get in a Godly mood. A wandering path snaked around the house, with a bench every twenty feet overlooking dying soybean fields. I tried out different benches, like Goldilocks, staring out at the horizon and thinking about my Maker. The natural setting made me feel spiritual and calm, but I did not approve of the decor. I could get park benches in frigging Manhattan. The least the brothers could have provided was a chaise.

At 5:15 I scurried in for dinner. The retreatists were trickling in slowly, like kids late for detention. They looked like live versions of the people in Gary Larson cartoons:  obese, middle American, and anesthetized. There was a dead ringer for Joe Isuzu, a matronly woman in a “New York” T-shirt, a frenzied-looking middle-aged chick with frosted hair. The only semi-hot guy was skinny and bearded and looked suspiciously like J.C. himself. 

“Would anyone like to say Grace?” asked Norm. I averted my eyes, feeling like Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents. 

The Joe Isuzu guy did the honors, and then Norm disappeared and horrible choral Christian music came on the stereo. The meal was refried beans, rice and broccoli, fried fish filets, macaroni salad, and French fries, with fruit cocktail for dessert. It was so not Zone, but what choice did I have?

When I got my food I sat opposite J.C. and gave him bedroom eyes, but he just looked reverently at his fish filet. I got a horrible premonition I was going to die here and the Christian Breakfast Club would be the last faces I saw. But I realized there was one advantage to the universal freak factor:  I had no desire to talk to anyone in the room.

After dinner we had a group conference in the Abbey with the guest master, Father Francis, followed by bedtime prayer. He was a tall septuagenarian with a doddering manner and told us he’d been living at the monastery since its founding in 1951. I figured that explained the doddering manner. 

“What was the most important day of your life?” he said. I was about to raise my hand and say, “When I got my period,” but the guy next to me said, “Baptism.”

“That’s right,” said Father Francis. They all nodded like it was a no-brainer. I was so bummed out. I already spend half my life feeling like an outsider and these people were backing me up.

When I got inside the chapel for Compline, though, I relaxed immediately. It was stark and natural, wood and stone, and the setup was a triangle – with the public on one side and the monks on the other two. On the far wall there were a few narrow, stained-glass windows with a painting of Jesus and Mary on the side, very minimalist. The monks were wearing robes, the young guys with white tunics, and the old guys with black on white. Most seemed to be in their fifties and sixties, and with their Birkenstock shoes and crew cuts they looked like aging Chelsea boys.

I found a seat – not so much of a seat as a hard wooden shelf. As I was trying to get comfortable a series of bells rang and the monks scrambled to their feet. One guy sang the first line of a psalm, and they all joined in. The sound was miraculous and soothing, and no one sang loudly or off rhythm. “You shall not be afraid of any terror by night,” they chanted, “nor of the arrow that flies by day.” As soon as I heard that I felt God was telling me I would be all right.

When I got in bed, though, the terror of the night bit me in the ass. The crickets were deafening and the mattress was a rock. I took out The Sportswriter (I had also packed Independence Day and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both of which I considered religious reading). After fifty pages, I didn’t feel any less awake.

Usually when I can’t fall asleep there’s an independent activity I do to help myself. It’s a pastime I was certain the monk that once lived in my room had done himself, which inspired me. If I was living the monk’s life I had to do so in every way. I reached down, closed my eyes, and pictured Richard Ford with his head buried between my breasts, chanting Psalm 4. 

No go. I imagined the J.C. boy naked but all I could see was him making love to his fish filet. This wasn’t fair. As much as I needed to and wanted to, I couldn’t masturbate in a monastery.

The next afternoon I took a walk on a trail that led to the Genesee River. I breathed through my nose and thought profound and deep thoughts, such as:  Will I be alone for the rest of my life? (Probably not), Should I go on the Pill so I don’t get ovarian cancer even though I’m not having regular sex? (No), Should I buy sneakers that don’t inflame my corns the way these ones do? (Definitely) and When there was only one set of footprints in the sand, where was God? (Carrying me).

After an hour and a half I came to a fork and wasn’t sure whether to take it. I was serene but also sweaty so when I spotted a hippie-ish middle-aged couple coming toward me I decided to break the silence. “Do you know the way to River Road?”

“It’s that way,” said the man, pointing to the turn. “How’d you get here?”

“I’m staying at the Abbey.”

They slit their eyes at me and nodded slowly. “What do you think of it?” asked the woman.

“Well, everyone else there is really religious and I’m not, so it’s a little strange.”

“We know all about that,” said the man. 

“You do?” I asked excitedly, relieved for normal human contact, if only for a moment.

“Oh yes,” he said. “We met because of The Word.”

“You should read The Word,” said the woman. “There’s a lot of valuable stuff in there.” A bird started squawking in a tree.

“That’s a catbird,” said the man. “I know that because I used to be very into bird watching. That was before I got into The Word.”

I felt like I was in some kind of biblical Blair Witch Project. I couldn’t get away from these people. I loved God but I hated people that loved him. “I have to go,” I said, and raced up the road as fast as I could.

The week went downhill from there. I had insomnia every night, fell asleep during the Feast of the Assumption Mass, and was lonely every minute. I went to services every day but although I liked the chanting I was bugged that the monks always left through the back door. One afternoon I tried a process called “centering prayer” that Father Francis had told us about in which you sit outside and meditate on a phrase, but just as I was silently repeating, “God is love,” a bird crapped on my shoulder and I had to bolt inside. If this was serenity I wanted a refund.

On my final night, as I was emerging from the church after Compline, I spotted the young woman that roomed across from me getting into her car. I ran up to the window. “Can I have a ride?” I knew I shouldn’t break the silence again but we only had twelve hours left. 

She let me in and said, “I’m Lynn. The lone non-Catholic in the group.”

“No you’re not,” I said. “I’m not either.”

“You’re Protestant too?”

“Worse. Jewish.”

She nodded and said, “I work in a dental office so I know a lot of Jews. What do you think of the retreat?”

“Mostly I’ve been miserable,” I said. “You?”

“It’s been relaxing. I have a high maintenance boss and I needed to get away. I’ve read four books here already.” 

“Which ones?”

“Shmuley Boteach’s Why Can’t I Fall in Love?, Prayer for People Who Think Too Much, the Bible, and a book about this New York restaurant chef that’s sort of an inside-”

Kitchen Confidential?”

“That’s it!’”

“You brought Kitchen Confidential to a monastery?”

“I had to bring some pleasure reading.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “But I only read it in my room because I didn’t want anyone to see.” 

When I woke up the next morning I took a jaunt outside, sat on one of the benches, and watched a flock of crows fly across the sky. I saw a squirrel climb up the tree next to me, and a frog leap across the shining grass. Suddenly I felt a tear begin to roll down my cheek – a tear of joy. In fifteen minutes I could kiss this pastoral purgatory goodbye. I hated nature, the monks had been hot and cold, and God had totally let me down. I’d been hoping the trip would make him more accessible, but despite my efforts to communicate He’d turned out to be just as elusive as all my other boyfriends. I realized trying to find God was like trying to have an orgasm – the harder you work the harder it gets.

When I got on the train home it was crowded and all the window seats were taken. Finally I spotted an empty – next to an elderly gentleman in owlish glasses. “Excuse me, sir, is that seat taken?” I asked.

“MY WIFE’S SITTING THERE!” he snarled.

At first I wanted to strangle him for his insouciance but as I gazed at his melanomic, high-strung face I felt an overwhelming surge of love. He was a shmuck and off balance but unapologetic. He was maladjusted, unsociable and unnecessarily hostile –one of my people. I thanked him and made my way down the aisle. I was home.