Saturday, September 29, 2012


The first time I heard about a proposal to make a fictional film based on the story of Newark Abbey and St. Benedict’ Prep I was skeptical. How much would “Hollywood” have to distort and fantasize in order to get the required formula of thrills, sex, violence, and so on? I felt we were really taking a leap in the dark by agreeing to let someone even try to write such a movie script.


Well, as you know if you read my last week’s post, the fictional film project is actually happening, and I have been enlisted to help write the outline and the script. I’ve been learning a whole lot, of course, about how the process works. But much more important, I’ve come to appreciate the marvelous improbable gift that is our actual story here at Newark Abbey. In our case a script writer doesn’t have to make anything up! It’s all there – including violence, surprising reversals of fortune, and conflicts. In most cases, in fact, as they say “You couldn’t make this stuff up!” I was thinking recently that in some scenes we might have to tone down the true story because moviegoers would complain that they are too far-fetched and unbelievable. Well, I don’t know if unbelievable events make for good cinema, but they have surely been the stuff of my life as a monk here for the past forty-two years.


Back to the ingredients of the film script. Living in this monastery in the middle of Newark provides lots of violence – sometimes even inside the cloister, unfortunately – so we’ve got that angle covered. As for excitement and drama, well we’ve got an over-supply of that, too: financial crises being miraculously resolved at the last moment, heart-rending decisions to be made, students being murdered (I swear, I’m not making it up).

But what about the seemingly inevitable “love” angle in the film? This poses an interesting question. We don’t want the monks to come across as neutered and asexual: Firstly because that would be inaccurate, and secondly because it could make for some pretty boring two-dimensional characters. "Do people think that our lives as monks are lacking in love?" I wondered. So I took a walk down to the Newark Museum the other day and sat in their lovely garden as I often do, and started making a list of how the idea of LOVE shows up in the story of the monks, our monastery and its school.


Here are some of the notes (slightly revised and expanded) that I wrote while sitting on the bench:

- The love for one another that the monks come to discover as they share pain, frustration, sorrows and joys is evident in the way they  interact with eachother.
- The monks’ love for the kids they're teaching seems to be the main point of the movie: Effective education based on making a kid feel that he matters, 
- “None of us lives alone” – the need to be in community, to belong, is a primary insight that the monastic community shared with the students when we re-opened our school in 1973. In the midst of a racially polarized Newark, students of various races were brought together in the monastery's school to learn to live together in love as brothers of a single family. 
- Love of God is (a) the underlying  motivation for the monks’ whole lifestyle and dispositions: Prayer, obedience, stability, etc. and (b) is expressed explicitly in students’ deep faith as shown in their gospel music and (c) is undeniably central to the African American Soul (an interesting counterpoint to the centrality of God in the monastic soul).
- Caritas: The monks’ charity toward the poor and needy in the food pantry, street folks, financing the school itself.
- Trusting, leaving yourself vulnerable (no locks on lockers), grieving and other signs of genuine loving.
- The love shown by parents/guardians in making financial sacrifices in order to send their kids to our school.
- Love of self – Monks try to teach our school kids to do this despite the students' previous negative experiences of violence, deprivation, racist discrimination, etc.
- Drop your mask – a prerequisite for real love, this is a central task of the monk in the monastery; monks as teachers have to model this for the kids.
- “I was happiest , most myself, freest and most contented in those brief moments when I was fortunate enough to be worrying not about my own needs but about those of someone else.” This quotation from a book I’ve been re-reading reflects a truth that we try to get across in the school with our motto “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me.”

After about fifteen minutes of writing I found myself asking: Given the rich tapestry of “love” that comes across in so many ways and in such depth and breadth in the life of both the monastery and the school, would a screenwriter really need to "make" someone fall in love in the plot of the film?


 “Falling in love” is a topic which tons of movies routinely cover very beautifully. Thornbirds and other films even cover the angle of priests falling in love. So, since our movie outline already has so much to say about the challenges and rewards of loving in dozens of other ways, I'd be quite content to leave the romantic subplots to those other films.

In any case, I left the museum garden that afternoon uplifted by the renewed awareness of all those different ways of loving that God has given to me and my brothers. It's a beautiful way to go through life.

And really, you couldn't make it up.

1 comment:

  1. P.S. The day after I posted this, the film folks came up with two charming scenes that give the monk-character some depth and some humanity with regard to the "love interest" thing. I'm happy with their suggestions. But you'll have to wait until the movie comes out!