Friday, July 26, 2013


On July 11th I celebrated 50 years as a monk. The anniversary got me thinking, naturally, about the past fifty years of my life in vows. I think I’m a pretty observant monk, as are all of my brothers in the monastery, as far as the externals go. But the inner conversion piece, well, that’s another story – it’s the part that we work on until our dying day.

An image occurred to me last week, from a dream I had almost twenty years ago, and it seems more apt than ever. I recorded it in the introduction to my first book, A Saint on Every Corner,(1998), which was later reincarnated as Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey Through Lent.

Here’s the dream as I wrote about it in 1998:

It’s 7:40 a.m.  By some pleasant accident I have a whole twenty minutes before I have to leave my room in the monastery to teach my first-period class in our prep school next door.   I sit down in my rocking chair by the window. The warm spring sun rising over downtown Newark shines though my venetian blinds in yellow slices. I start to pray quietly, but soon my eyelids get heavy... then heavier...

Velazquez "Man on Swing"
I’m riding a swing whose ropes are tied to the lowest branch of a great oak tree.  I lean way back, pushing my feet out in front of me to make the swing go higher.  To my delight the ropes untie themselves and jump up to the next higher bough.  I keep pumping and the ropes keep working themselves upward  through the tree, climbing from branch to branch.  Finally my swing is attached to the highest limb and I’m working harder than ever.  Above my head fireworks are bursting in fountains of sparkling colors against the blue sky.  If I stretch my toes a little more I ought to be able to touch the sparkles... An overwhelming feeling of joy and freedom surges through me.  I keep bending my knees, then kicking my legs out straight and pointing my toes heavenward.  With every new arc the swing takes me higher...  My feet are almost touching the fireworks now, but I still can’t quite reach... I stretch... then pump some more... Can’t quite do it!  Suddenly a gentle voice whispers: 

“Albert, just let go!”    

I ignore this crazy advice and start straining even harder to touch the sky. Kick and stretch again.  Then again.  I hear the voice a second time, but more clearly now:  

“It’s okay.  Just let go and watch what happens!”

I grab the ropes more securely than ever and hang on with all my might...

Suddenly I’m in my rocking chair, with both hands clutched in panic around its solid wooden arms.  My clock says 8:01, so I shake off my dream and stumble sleepily over to class, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of my black Benedictine habit as I walk. On the way down the stairs a terrible question strikes me: What would have happened if I had actually let go?  Well, I’ll never know now.  The more I think about it the angrier I get at myself for not letting go of that swing!  “If I ever hear that voice again,” I grumble out loud, “I won’t make the same mistake a second time.” I arrive at class in a bad mood.

Well, that dream was in 1994 or so, and I’m still working on letting go of those darn ropes! Sometimes I manage to let go and start flying up through the fireworks. But life being what it is I always come back to earth and have to get on the swing all over again. Letting go is not only hard to do, but it’s also something that you have to keep doing over and over, every day.

So, after fifty years of succeeding and failing on the swing, I thank God for the call that keeps me pumping that swing, and for my brothers in the monastery whose example of faithfulness to their vows keeps encouraging me to just keep letting go of the swing.  

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