When I was 19 I met a Trappist monk who could not shut up. He had been a Jesuit for about 25 years and had crucified his companions with endless talk. In a Quixotic move, he decided to confront this deficiency in himself by switching orders — to the Trappists.
It didn’t work. He almost burst.
Trappists do not actually take a vow of silence and are not, in fact, all that silent — they sing the psalms at three hour intervals through the day. Over the centuries, they developed an elaborate set of hand signals to conduct conversations. After Vatican II, the order concluded that things had gotten a bit silly; they permitted the monks to speak when necessary.
Father Ambrose (I will call him that) was a different story. His superiors decided it would be cruel to shut off the torrent of words that came out of him. But they also outsourced their problem. They sent him from the monastery at Oka to a tiny daughter daughter-house in Ontario, and made him guest master so that he could talk to his heart’s content, just not to the other monks.
The Jesuits remembered him and invited him back to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of joining their order. Each surviving member of his year had a task in the celebration, such as main celebrant or preacher at Mass. The trick was to find some role for Father Ambrose that would not cut him loose to talk. It was believed that if he said the grace after dinner they might all get through unscathed. Alas, no — that grace went on for about forty-five minutes.
When I was 19, I was a Jesuit novice, and a devotee of Thomas Merton. One day, the other novices worked up the idea of going to see the Trappists. We made our way to Georgetown, where the monks had purchased an orchard. Among the apple trees I spotted a young-ish monk, in white cowl and jeans, playing with a dog. I was a bit surprised to see that he was talking to it.
The greater surprise was Father Ambrose, who talked to us steadily for about two hours — about being a Trappist, about praying, about apples. Then he began his Mass — I remember that he donned an ornate old-fashioned chasuble. He seemed full of devotion for what he was doing. Then, he got to his homily, and it went on for well over an hour.
The older fellows in our group thought he was ridiculous and that they had been cheated out of an afternoon’s quietness and reflection. There was much grumbling in the car going home.
For my part, I was fascinated by him. It seemed to me that he might be one of those odd saints, like Benedict Labre who lived on the streets and suffered from a mental illness. I could not articulate it at the time, but now I would say emphatically that there is no reason why a mentally ill person should be excluded from grace or why such a person should not be capable of extraordinary witness. Yes, of course, it’s complicated.
And perhaps Father Ambrose was not sick at all, just a chatterbox.
Some months later, I was troubled about remaining a Jesuit. I loved the Society, and still do. But I had fallen in love with a woman just before entering, and I was struggling with the whole question of obedience. I was sent to work in a jail and rather identified with the inmates. It was not that the Jesuits had imprisoned me at all, but that I had discovered an urgent need to make my own peculiar way.
I decided to go back to the little Trappist house among the apple trees. I arranged a very short stay in a guest room. I ate with the monks, tried to join in the chanting, and just wandered about the property. And I listened to Father Ambrose. He picked up right where he had left off.
In the middle of the night, a knock came at my door. It was Father Ambrose inviting me to Vigils — the night office. He sized me up, and could see that I was not going to make it. ‘You go back to sleep.’ Afterwards, I regretted not getting up to join those men in their midnight songs.
I went back to my novitiate the next day. As I left, Father Ambrose asked what may have been a practised question, ‘Did you find what you came for?’ One does not go to a Trappist monastery for no reason. I remember that question more clearly than almost anything else from that eventful year. I did leave the Jesuits. Before long, I got married. And yet some part of me remained ever after in Georgetown to chant the night office.