Postulants

by Ed Davis

The church of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani shimmered in the golden glow of fifty or so candles. Monks were arriving, dipping their fingers in holy water and touching it to their foreheads before taking their places in the choir. Soon they spoke, sang and chanted the evening prayer as if the lives of everyone in the world depended on what was happening here on a hill in Kentucky where it seemed more 17th century France than twenty-first century America. Martin just watched, his mouth gapped open, trying for deeper breaths and not getting them, panic rising.

Where was John?

When Martin had originally invited his son to meet him at the abbey, John said he could come no sooner than four on Friday afternoon, following his Peace Through Meditation workshop at Allamance College. But that was before the staticky phone message with the word “late” in it. How late? But John wasn’t answering his phone. Damn.

After checking in earlier, he’d gone to his tiny room in the Guesthouse and read the small card he’d found in the drawer: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”           

Thomas Merton’s words mirrored exactly what Martin felt. When Pearce, his sponsor, had suggested this retreat, the man had talked on and on about the famous monk of Gethsemani, who’d written books, protested nukes and the Vietnam War. Martin had zoned out. But now he found himself relating to Merton. Martin had even gone to the monastery’s library and flipped through the famous author’s books before Vespers.

Now the full-frontal assault, when it came, was like none he’d yet felt since ceasing his regime of two quarts of whiskey a day. His parched throat closed and his heart cried out for his beloved Jim Beam. He began taking deep breaths and his anxiety calmed. Sometime later tonight, John would surely arrive. Martin thought about calling Pearce, then shook his head. The man would just tell him again that he needed to enter a treatment facility if he wanted to stay sober. But Martin’s two relapses since last summer had been experiments, that’s all. He could handle this, once he talked John out of getting a useless degree at that hippy school, where his son was wasting his life. John could attend the community college where Martin taught. His boy could move back in with him, father and son against the world!

Standing shakily, he followed his fellow pilgrims outside into early December’s crystalline air. Hands pocketed, Martin lowered his head and walked straight into the lashing wind. Maybe you couldn’t see the road ahead, he told Merton’s ghost, but I can.

If I get my boy back, I’ll have a chance to fix what I broke.

Martin hiked up the hill to the cemetery and back, unable to keep himself away from the guesthouse lobby, where John would check in when he arrived. At first Martin stopped by every fifteen minutes, then more like ten. The longer he circled the grounds, the more depressed he became. His son was perfectly happy to waste time and effort majoring in “peace studies,” of all things. The image of John—wild, curly black hair flying, his fingers flashing a V—enraged Martin so much that he halted in his tracks, realizing he was standing in the cemetery staring at a stone inscribed Father Louis, 1936-1968. He’d read earlier that that was the name Merton had been given upon taking simple vows. The monk died at 53, almost exactly Martin’s age. Sixty books written—and what have you done, Martin? Let down your students, your son, yourself.

He glanced around, but saw no one. With snow flaying his face, Martin hugged himself and headed back to the church. He’d go inside and try to pray. By the time he finished, John would surely be here.

Small, discreetly placed flood lamps spot-lit the church’s grey wall.

 “Lovely Sabbath, eh?”

The voice made Martin jump. Turning, he saw in the diffuse light a tall figure. John! He lurched forward, arms wide.

“Whoa!” The figure’s hands shot up.

Damn. It was only the young monk who’d checked him in at the guesthouse hours ago. The shadows had obscured the white robe. “Sorry. I thought you were my son. He’s supposed to meet me here.”

“And if I were him, what would you say?”

It was out before Martin could stop it: “Don’t waste your life studying peace.”

Was that a smirk or a smile on the kid’s face?

“But you notice your son’s not here. Wonder why?”

“He’ll have a good reason, when he finally makes it. But hey, shouldn’t you be in your cell praying?”

The young monk backed up and sat on the bench along the wall. “I’m leaving tomorrow. Got a ride lined up first thing in the morning.”

As much as Martin longed to get inside where it was warm, he couldn’t ignore such an opening. “You aren’t happy here?”

“I’m a marked man.”

The boy uncovered his right arm, revealing tattoos all the way to the elbow. Even in the dim light, Martin could tell it was incredibly detailed work—vines or snakes, he couldn’t tell which.

“Both arms?”

“And a lot more.”

Rising, the boy began removing the white robe. Snow was falling harder, partly obscuring the images on the boy’s hairless chest, back and arms: crucifixes, Jesus with a glowing heart, flames from the famous burning bush climbing high on his neck.

Martin whistled. “The brothers giving you a hard time about these?”

“Not them—me. I can’t forget my life before.”

Martin didn’t want to ask; he didn’t need this distraction just before John appeared. He pointed to where the robe lay on the bench between them. “You’d better put that back on.”

The nearly naked monk extended his hand. “I’m Justin. I know you’re Martin.”

“Pleasure. Now, cover up before you freeze.”

“I should be so lucky. I stole from my father for years to support my ink addiction, but he eventually saw my tats and kicked me out. I was on the street at sixteen with zero job skills. Then I answered an ad in the paper for a personal assistant from a disabled Namvet, George, may he rest in peace. Turns out George already had ‘real’ caretakers, nurses who’d come in two or three times a week and take him to appointments at the VA. What he wanted was someone to take him to places no one in his family wanted him to go.”

Martin glanced around. No monks rushing to shepherd their missing sheep back to the fold. What the hell—couldn’t the kid confess inside where it was warm? Did God want him to hear this? (He heard Pearce saying, Listen and learn, fool.) All right then.

“Was it bars?” Martin asked.

 “Crack houses, brothels, places you wouldn’t believe. George had an appetite for squalor. I knew he was killing himself. And I let him.” The boy held out both arms: evidence for the prosecution. “So I could feed the beast. My old man told me he wouldn’t support a loser—that was even before he caught me stealing. But nobody’ll ever see old George again. He took a bullet, and it was my fault. Not only did I take him to the place where it happened, I waited in the car.”

“And you came here to—”

“Unmark myself. I know that sounds stupid. This work goes all the way to the bone, because that’s how deep my sins go. I’m letting a lot of good people down—no good at farm work, cooking, baking. I can’t even sing. And I sure can’t pray. I’m a terrible postulant.”

“What’s that?”

“A pre-beginner. A monk who hasn’t taken simple, much less solemn, vows.”

Postulant. The word lodged in Martin’s heart. It fit him to a tee. Closing his eyes, he glimpsed Merton’s empty road, beside which leafless trees stood. An image of John with outstretched arms, beckoning—but not to him. He had been a terrible father, who’d done terrible things. Like coming up behind his fourteen-year-old son and snicking off locks of the long hair his late mother adored; like the time, drunk, he’d gotten pulled over by a cop with two of his son’s fellow soccer players in the backseat; or the day he’d pawned the electric guitar he’d given John for Christmas and spent the money on whiskey. The sooner John got here, the sooner he could begin making amends.

He slumped down onto the bench beside the boy. While they sat in silence, he found himself fondling the robe’s cloth between his fingers. He remembered it was called a habit and wondered what it would feel like enveloping his own body.

“Mind if I…”

“Knock yourself out, man.”

Standing, Martin squeezed his head through, felt the garment’s weight, surprisingly heavy, fall over his clothes. Head back, he let the snow fall on his face, into his eyes, and waited, the habit heavy on his liquor-emaciated frame. Nothing. Its power, if indeed it held any, was as inaccessible to him as prayer had so far been. Lifting the heavy thing back over his head, he lapsed into welcoming darkness for a moment before re-emerging into light.

“Stand up, Justin.”

Amazingly, the boy obeyed. Lowering his head, the postulant let the older man gently re-robe him, an act which, Martin believed, required words of blessing, though he had none. As Justin stretched out his arms and whirled, Martin imagined birds covering the sleeves as if the boy were St. Francis. It made him laugh, and he was pleasantly surprised to hear Justin join him. The young monk turned and turned, snowfall seemingly increased by his whirling. He stopped abruptly. While they listened, snow hissed among dead leaves above.

Still longing for the chapel’s warmth, he imagined his sponsor saying he was of more use here outside in the cold. As a witness to this kid’s pain? From within the chapel issued a high-pitched voice chanting. Martin found himself thinking about monks praying and chanting hour after hour, year after year, one day at a time, for the world’s salvation. Maybe living sober was like that. Maybe it was no more absurd than a college boy believing he can become an instrument of peace. Martin shivered.

“Justin, how about sticking around the monastery one more day?”

“And why would I want to do that?”

“You can show me the paths across the road, where Merton walked.”

“Aha! Another Merton groupie?”

When the boy shook his head in disappointment, Martin felt weighed down as if from a heavy pack. Why had he all of a sudden decided to be this kid’s keeper? Pearce had quit nagging him to listen and learn; in fact, he imagined the man saying, “It’s a selfish program, Marty. If you don’t stay focused on yourself, you’re screwed.” But he felt that allowing the boy to quit now, before even beginning, was the same as leaving another drunk lying in the gutter. Pearce would say a beginner had no business Twelfth-Stepping, and maybe he was right. But before Martin could speak, a voice came from behind.

“Is this an exorcism, prayer meeting or what?”

Turning, Martin beheld his son, his face half-shadowed but not enough to hide his grin. Only a few minutes ago, Martin would’ve crushed his boy in a bear hug. Now he found himself caught between these two boys’ worlds. He tried for his most welcoming smile, knowing it probably looked like a dying man’s grimace.

“Glad you could make it, son. I’m just talking to Justin here. Justin’s a postulant, a pre-beginner. Says he wants to leave before taking his first vows.”

Martin found his body vibrating, with excitement or fear, he hardly knew. He expected John to come closer into the light, but his son kept his distance in the shadows. Crossing his arms, John addressed the monk.

“That’s heavy, dude. You’d better think about it.”

“I have, dude.”

The ensuing awkward silence left Martin feeling several emotions, all of which boiled down to What in hell is happening here? Though he had no clue, he did recall how it felt to have the habit’s weight covering his body, a good weight—not the mantle that always resettled on his shoulders following a binge. More like a choice he’d freely chosen, a path leading somewhere. He wished he still had the thing on his shoulders–not only to warm him enough to make his mouth stop quivering, but to help with whatever came next. When he spoke, he was glad to find his lips not too frozen to slur his words.

“I was telling Justin he should wait one more day before deciding.”

John unfolded his arms, dropped his hands to his sides.

“Good idea. One more day just might do it, man.”

Justin snorted. “Why would you guys think that one more day will change anything?”

Martin was studying his son’s face, glimpsing the eyes set far back in their sockets. They’d seen so much in his short life; they’d seen him, a father at his worst, and still his boy had come when summoned. Yes, they’d have some time, but how often had Martin known time to make any difference? But his two months’ sober meant the world to him. Also, there was this place—holy ground, not his, maybe, but someone’s holy ground. Just because it’s not yours doesn’t make it any less holy, not if one can find two nickels’ worth of humility to rub together.

“Because,” John said, “we’ll be here, too.”

Justin threw up both arms. “Okay! All right! One more day. I’ll show you the paths he walked. And the statues. But”—his glare was threatening—“we’re steering clear of his hermitage. No empty shrines to would-be saints.”

John nodded. “No shrines. Just statues and this heavenly snow.”

Martin was shivering to the point of quaking now. What were their chances of him and his fellow postulants getting anything right, really, like staying sober, taking vows, finding a career? Slim, Pearce would say, as a snowball’s chance in hell. (Martin’s hands were frozen; he couldn’t feel his ears and feet.)

“G-gentlemen, h-how about we go inside now?” Much longer and he’d lose the power of speech.

“Right,” Justin said. “We wouldn’t want to catch our deaths out here.”

“And ruin our chance to totally fuck things up tomorrow,” John added, full-blown smiling now, so beautiful to see. Hugging himself, Martin watched them erupt in laughter like two middle schoolers egging each other on.

“C’mon, let’s go.” Martin shooed them with his frozen fingers.

Justin stood and strode toward the church. Stepping forward, John clapped his father on the back.

“Dad, I’m not going back to college.”

Martin’s heart rose from ashes, flew.

“I accepted a job offer framing houses in Alaska.”

Martin wavered again on the lip overlooking hell. Behind John, he saw that Justin had opened the heavy door, unleashing a torrent of light from within. The road lay before him, his low beams slicing the darkness.

“Congratulations, son. I’m proud of you.” Now he’d said it, he had to get inside before he’d unsay it. John grasped his arm.

“You’ll be okay, Dad?”

“Good as gold.”

They let it hang in the air between them. Pearce had said the phrase a hundred times, one of the man’s favorites. Martin usually hated it, but tonight he liked thinking of the ex-housepainter who picked him up for meetings and then drove him home, where they’d talk for another hour in the driveway before Martin finally got out and went inside the dark apartment. John exhaled, breath mingling with the falling flakes.

“All right then.”

He released his father, and they stepped forward to join Justin, waiting in the doorway so they could cross the threshold together. 


Ed Davis’ fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in many anthologies and literary journals such as Heart of Flesh, Slippery Elm, and Blue Mountain Review. My novel The Psalms of Israel Jones won the 2010 Hackney Award for an unpublished novel and was published by West Virginia University Press in 2014. 

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