Colette Lafia interviews Jonathan Montaldo

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Interview at Our Lady of Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, South Carolina

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Mepkin Abbey Treats

I was to present a five-day retreat at Our Lady of Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina in May: “Devotions and Spiritual Exercises: Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton as Mentors for Contemplative Living.” We would use Oliver’s last volume of poetry, Devotions, as the text for this retreat. As I described in my last post, I was still suffering from depression. I did not want to get on the plane. Once I arrived at the airport in South Carolina I wanted to leave on the next plane out. Fortunately, I was met at the airport by Father Guerric, Mepkin’s retreat center director, who expertly calmed me down and enabled my beginning the retreat the next day on Monday afternoon. I wrote this “story” at Gerric’s urging for a book of essays kept at the retreat center.

May, 2018 at Mepkin Abbey

Never having been to Mepkin, I arrived in distress to present a five-day retreat animated by the poetry of Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton, mentors for contemplative living. I had experienced three deaths in close proximity within months. Heavy rains in New Jersey, despite the best efforts of the sub-pump, forced water into my basement for a week. I suffered insomnia. I walked into the lobby of the Saint Francis Retreat Center on Sunday afternoon barely in my right mind.

And thus the first object in the retreat center I spied upon entering was an attractive jar with a red top marked “Abbey’s Treats” in black marking pen. I thought without second guessing that these round pretzel objects with peanut butter centers were a Mepkin Abbey industry akin to cookies sold at Genesee Abbey, jam at Spencer Abbey, and candy at Wrentham.

In the early hours of Monday morning, still dazed and unable to sleep, I wandered into the living room of the Retreat Center, made a cup of herbal tea, and thought to try an “Abbey Treat.” I took only one, chewy enough to satisfy but I marked its bland taste. The monks should do better.

After presenting the first conference on Monday afternoon, I congratulated myself on how well it had gone despite my depression. To celebrate while the retreatants went to Vespers at the Abbey Church, I again poured herbal tea and, wanting to refuel after expending energy on the conference, I took the jar of “Abbey’s Treats” from its low shelf and ate at least five of them before I told myself that I should not hog them from the other retreatants. It was only then, as I returned the plastic container to its shelf, that I saw the retreat center’s mascot Abbey lying just outside the window. Abbey. Abbey’s Treats!! I picked up the plastic jar whose packaging I had ignored to realize that I had been feasting on dog food: Wishbone Dog Treats. I laughed long and hard at myself.

Later that Monday night, I along with the other retreatants as we tried to sleep, heard Abbey barking furiously outside our bedrooms. The next morning some conjectured she had been facing off with an alligator from the Cooper River or perhaps was protecting the Center from a bear. Only I guessed that, as usual having counted her treats nightly after all retired, she had realized I had poached her jar. She was barking at me to cease and desist.

As the week went on, I saw how Abbey became an object of affectionate attention by every person approaching her. We were united in our devotion to her good nature and to her open hospitality to each one of us. It was only on the eve of the end of the retreat that I confessed to our group that I had eaten Abbey’s Treats. Everyone howled. The next morning of our departure, as part of our last ritual of gathering in a circle, I had placed twelve of Abbey’s Treats on a “communion” plate on the table before us. At a good moment, everyone smiling in anticipation of what might come next, I passed the plate to share an Abbey Treat with each participant.

Many elements of the retreat would unite us forever as we departed for our homes from Mepkin, I began to explain, and Abbey would abide in memory to bind us. We might forget all that was said during the retreat, and eventually forget each other’s names, but we would never forget Abbey. Abbey would unite us with all those who had come to Mepkin before us, whom she had also accompanied, and she would unite us with all those in the future upon whom she would exert her ministry of hospitality. Therefore I urged that each of us have a final private appointment with Abbey to thank her for her generosity and her affection during our stay. Offering her one of her own treats in thanksgiving, we would show her gratitude and bow down.

As I gazed into her eyes to say my own good-bye, I promised not to forget how she had shared her jar with me and pulled me for a moment from the pit.

Sister Abbey of Mepkin
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Beginning Again

Icon for International Thomas Merton Society Meeting, June 2015
Artist: Sister Donna Kristoff, Cleveland, Ohio

Saint Anthony of the Desert (so-called “father of hermits,” 4th century) is said to have written, “Every day I begin again.” Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 3, wrote that he was always needing to forget the past and keep stretching forward toward Christ. In his journal for November 29, 1952 (Journals, vol 3:25), Merton penned what has been for my life, especially in the decade of my Sixties and now at 73, an important paragraph. The annual retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani was ending:

“For my own part, I think much has been done to me in the course of this retreat in emptiness and helplessness and humiliation. Aware that I might crack up at any moment, I find, nevertheless, that when I pray, I pray better than ever. I mean by that I have no longer [a desire for] any special degree of prayer. But simple vocal prayer, and especially the office and the psalms, seems to have acquired a depth and simplicity I never knew before in any prayer. I have nothing but faith and the love of God and confidence in the simple means He has given me for reaching Him. Suspended entirely from His mercy, I am content for anything to happen.”

I suppose I have suffered post-traumatic syndrome since navigating out of my mother’s womb. I have always been melancholic. Even in my twenties I spoke of death often and told friends I would die early. But it was not until my sixties that the Black Dog (what Churchill called his depressions) no longer sniffed outside my window, but snuck into my bed and licked my neck, informing me he might visit frequently. I had tracked his scent for so long he finally found me.

When I returned home in February of 2018 from Baton
Rouge, Louisiana, where my brother Charles had died after ten years in a wheelchair, and shortly thereafter his wife was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer (I accompanied her to her death), the Black Dog visited to mourn with me and promised he would stay awhile. I can use literary images about depression now because of my daily reception of blessed Prozac (40 mg) after eight months of the worst siege against my life I had ever experienced. I got out of bed reluctantly and every day in a daze. I ate little. (I’ve lost 30 lbs, but don’t try this diet). I spent the day hour after hour sitting in one chair conscious of nothing, my eyes closed, only to move to another chair to spend more hours conscious of nothing, waiting for nothing except death. I remember laying on my living room sofa convinced I was in the process of becoming dead within the hour. I did not die. I picked out the belt I could use and tested which banister of the stairs would hold my weight. I frightened my housemates neither of whom would leave me alone. One time they did leave me to shop and I went out into the yard with the belt, thinking hanging from the fence would be less mess. I went back into the house. It began to storm: what a scene that would have been for Robert and Dean once they realized, “Where’s Jon?”

What stopped me? I was not so gone that I could not see how disrespectful of my friends my suicide would be. And given my writing and retreats on Merton, some might be scandalized. I asked the psychiatrist if he agreed with me that those actually killing themselves are either high on a drug or temporarily out of their minds to actually commit the act. He agreed. Even though I put aside alcohol and marijuana, I knew the chance remained, before the Prozac kicked in, to quote Merton, that “I might crack up at any moment.”

There are more ways to commit “suicide” and I have committed facsimiles of the real physical thing. I called producers to cancel up-coming speaking engagements and retreats. I told a publisher that I could not write a book for which I had a contract. This was the second time I had done this to him, the first during a previous depression, and I did not care that he would for certain never take a chance on me a third time. I deleted nearly all of my blogs for some nine years on monksworks.com. I only saved one of my favorite reflections, “The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face” and kept all the blogs/podcasts from my hiking journey in 2012 to Santiago de Compostella with Jim Gravois. I knew Gravois often revisits these blogs to relive his pilgrimage. I didn’t want to deprive him of that. I have most recently thought, however, of just taking down monksworks.com forever or of just putting a photo of Merton and refer anyone visiting the site to The Thomas Merton Center’s www.Merton.org. I have deleted many skype contacts and slashed a chorus of loved acquaintances from my email address book.

I have at this moment been called back from death by the epiphany of Sara Prozak Tonin. The psychiatrist, the first I’ve ever visited in my life, said I must engage her for at least a year and possibly marry her, or serially one of her siblings for the rest of my life. I bow low with gratitude to Prozak’s presence in my body. I realize now how much I’m an unstable mix of chemicals. Let your potassium become imbalanced, Jonnie boy, and you will become another “person.”

I also attribute my current mental health to the prayers of my friends and to the Holy Spirit Herself–all those friends and She who inspires them to keep loving me in spite of myself and in spite of themselves which is, quoting Merton again for me, “a mercy within mercy within mercy.” A young friend in Sweden made me a “Jesus Prayer” rosary when I had presented conferences there in 2015. An Egyptian monk had taught him how to make them. At every knot, one prays, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In my sleepless hours of depression, I could only cling to those beads and pray the only prayer I had to hand. All this is Grace.

I had a significant dream in a past depression. It was the night after a day in which I made an important decision against changing my life at a time I so wanted my life to change. I dreamed that I was Lazarus in the tomb bound up tight and began to chant a mantra to which I eventually woke up: “Only Christ can save me now. Only Christ can save me now.” Whether by means of Prozac or the love of my friends, I choose to believe that Christ has saved me now. Of course, like Lazarus, after Jesus’ miracle on his behalf enjoyed only a temporary reprieve. He would one day die again after Jesus ascended to the Father and was seen in Bethany no more. So I’m cognizant that the Black Dog remains at large and available, capable of kissing my mouth again.

Why confess all this? Isn’t this just another way of committing suicide by killing my “image” in the eyes of my friends who don’t know me deeply enough, like I don’t know them. Will this confession preclude my ever appearing on television with Oprah Winfrey? I would love that, a chance to brighten her eyes and win a lottery of notoriety, but I can’t afford fame. It would take five minutes on a computer for some interested soul to find out who I am when I think no one is looking. To quote Chuang Tzu, achieving fame would be the beginning of failure. My achievement of having five minutes with Oprah on national television would be the beginning of my disgrace. I have a standard way of ending my retreats by saying, “There is one thing I’ve learned from Thomas Merton. One can write and speak beautifully about the “spiritual” life without being able to lead a beautiful spiritual life. So as you leave this room, I ask that you pray for me so that someone who dares to speak to you of such important and deep things might not himself be lost.”

This new blog is a signal that I am going to write here again. I have a lot of narrowly published and unpublished reflections on Thomas Merton. I might gather them here for whatever they might be worth. I’ve thought of an e-book but why make anyone pay? But such a project is proof that I have not obeyed the injunction of the Prophet Mohammed, blessed be he, and learned to “die before I die.” If I am to live in Christ, I must die to my “self.” Sara Prozac Tonin has only provided a false hope that my mind will never go dark again. She has provided a temporary respite from the necessity of packing all my false selves (they are a chorus) in. She is only allowing me to get stronger so that I can embrace the Black Dog when he returns, let him wound my thigh and then tell me his secret, his wisdom only transmitted when I without calculation entrust my spirit into the hands of God.

Resuscitating this blog again is proof I’m not ready to die. I am actually finding myself ready but not willing. Maybe tomorrow “I’ll begin again.” Perhaps continuing a blog and archiving my crap is a weapon to make the Black Dog keep his distance. This too is a delusion. I know he’s thinking of me right outside my window as I type. “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, old man. Spilling your guts transparently could really turn me on.”

And as to “fame,” that Merton achieved and would like with most of my heart, my entrails know the truth of Marcus Aurelius’ remark in his Meditations: “In the future, you will forget everything and everyone will have forgotten you. Marcus was wrong about himself but not about me.

To write about all this without shame but not thinking about a future fortune if I bet on a horse named Public Catastrophe would be a last and final grace. Merton in his journals once prayed, “Not to be seen, not to be heard.” He didn’t get his wish. Fighting this reality every step of my way, I’m certain to get mine. “Thank God Cokey’s funeral was brief. Let’s go get a beer and eat some fried oysters at Mandina’s. Tomorrow is another day.”

Jonathan Montaldo 12/23/2018

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The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face

The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face

© by Jonathan Montaldo

Bougereau, The First Mourning, 1888

Back in 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky on the downtown corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, after visiting his doctor, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton stepped out onto the busy sidewalk and found himself suddenly in deep communion with the procession of human beings he saw there. In that moment of sunlit clarity, the haze of his monastic separation burned off from his eyes, and Merton discovered a kinship with everyone on the street. “Thank God,” he wrote later in his journals about the event, “I’m a member of the human race just like everyone else. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. …I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race: if only everybody could realize this! There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 156-157, modified by JM).

This paragraph from Merton’s journals is famous, but there is another that follows shortly after that is another powerful revelation of a deep truth about us human beings. On that same afternoon trip in Louisville Merton had bought for fifty cents a book of photographs from Life Magazine called The Family of Man. The Family of Man had photographs of ordinary folk at weddings and funerals, in bars and churches, children at play and elders at rest. Merton reacted powerfully to this book:

“All those fabulous pictures. How scandalized some would be if I said that the whole book is to me a picture of God’s face and yet that is the Truth. There, there is God in my own Kind, my own Kind—“Kind” which means “likeness” and which means “love” and which means “child.” Human kind. Like one another, the dear “Kind” of sinners united and embraced in only one heart, in only one Kindness, which is the Heart and Kindness of God. I do not look for sin in you, Humankind. I do not see sin in you anymore today (though we are all sinners). There is something too real to allow sin any longer to seem important, to seem to exist, for it has been swallowed up, sin has been destroyed, and there is only the great secret between us that we are all one kind. God is seen and reveals God’s self as human, that is, in us and there is no other hope of finding wisdom than in God-human-hood: our own humanity transformed in God. [The Search for Solitude, 182-183 inclusive language added.]

My sister Janet died, it seems like yesterday, a very young sixty-seven year old. Two years before she had discovered a small lump on her left breast. The doctors removed it. Doctors treated her with chemotherapy and radium and pronounced her clear of cancer. A year passed and she became sick again. Doctors told her cancer was now everywhere in her lungs, her liver, and bone system. She lived for seven more months and lived more beautifully than I had ever experienced her living before. It was as if she had surrendered to her life’s end every mask she had worn to protect herself and became the person we had seen before only in glimpses. She reconciled enmities, she drew her children to herself, and she healed long-standing open wounds. We were awed by her kindness to us and by her appreciation of every kindness we were moved to show her, she being so kind. I spoke to her every day for seven months and every day she ended our conversation by telling me she loved me, a mantra ensure I would not forget. She lost consciousness only four days before she died. Her body cremated, this beautiful human being whose depths of kindness I had only just begun to appreciate became fire and disappeared.

Without the graces of palliative medicine, my sister would have been unable so strongly to show her true face as she departed from us. But it was more than medicinal herbs that robbed her death of its sting. It was the epiphany of kindness in the face of sorrow, it was her revelation of kindness in the middle of everything that was failing her, that made her death a final act of compassion for the life she had loved living.

Life and Death are identical twins to every human being of us. At the banquet of human existence to which we have been invited the menu is both sour and sweet. We eat our bread together sometimes celebrating, sometimes in tears. Just as weeds flourish with the wheat, evil in our lives nestles close in the heart of what is good. The climate of our lives is always changing. We are hot, then cold. Now we are happy this month, depressed in the next. This year we are famous, next year, disgraced. In the morning we are kissing our children a good day as we leave for work and, by the afternoon, we are incinerated, disappearing like incense into a blue sky. We are all kin as we suffer the curved streets of this life that every one of us travels.

But being kindred, why are we so unkind to one another? Why are we blind to each other’s dilemmas as being identical to our own? Why do we so unrelentingly accept Unkindness as the order of relations among us when it is our Kindness that binds us all together?

To be unkind is to be unnatural. For us to live our lives vis-à-vis one another unkindly is to be sick of soul. Our thoughtless unkindness to one another is a low-grade depression of the spirit that robs us of joy and sanity. Unkindness among us exiles us from the sunlit paradise our lives could more be if the scales of self-interest were to fall from our eyes and we could see everyone bathed in a light revealing them to us as our own precious kind.

How do we relearn kindness in an unkind world? Humility is the mother of Kindness. Humility prevents our taking first places at life’s banquet; humility prevents our hogging resources while sisters on other continents or just down the street cannot feed their children. Humility helps us step down from the pedestal of individual, unkind destinies to share life with the crowd of us. Humility helps us see how easy it is to lose everything we hold dear in an instant: our houses, our status, our families, our very selves lost in the distractions of the ten thousand things that keep us from realizing our kindness with one another.

Even religious faiths do not insure our kindness. Lives of faith, when most authentic, should reveal our fundamental unity with all human beings. Lives of faith should reorder our usual priorities, should move us to attend to the least privileged first, and should let the sick and the lame lead us in procession through life by their slower pace and with rhythms more appreciative that we must all proceed together carefully or suffer soul-death alone.

For the health of our collective souls, we must uncage our kindness from the narrow cells of our immediate family and friends. We must go off the restricted reservations of our corporate interest groups. We must leap over the wall of the gated communities of our minds that divide our world into the precious few who are saved, while the rest of them, not our kind at all, go unwashed in the Lamb’s blood. Who will deliver us from these narrow-minded perspectives every one of us easily adopts that divide our one humankind into the family and the strangers, into the have’s and have-nots, into tribes of Abel and tribes of Cain, into the descendants of Sarah and the offspring of Hagar?

This virus of irresponsibility for other human beings, our own kind, infects our relationship with all of Nature upon which the health of all creation depends. The circumference of our enacting kindness must, therefore, as Albert Einstein wrote, be as large as planet Earth’s. We must repair our kindness to all beings. We should convert ourselves to fostering ecologies of kindness in all our relationships as a daily spiritual practice.

Now has always been the acceptable time to be kin to one another, not next week, not in our next reincarnation, not in heavens that are elsewhere than where we all are now. This great work of our becoming epiphanies of human kindness in our relationships is the personal inner work that we each must take up more deeply.

I love this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye from her book Words Under the Words. She calls the poem “Kindness”.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a heated broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness. …

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I, kindness, you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

[Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under The Words]

My mothers and fathers, my sisters and brothers, dear cousins, we are all one kind: we must recognize ourselves as kin or not be well. Kindness is our only cure. Kindness is the medicine prescribed to be taken every day until its light burns off cataracts on our eyes and everywhere we look we shall see kin, everyone our own kind everywhere. Even in the middle of all that fails us and in full view of Sorrow’s face, may we finally realize an epiphany of our hidden kindness revealed at last.

© Jonathan Montaldo. <montaldo@monksworks.com>

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Reading Merton to Friends at His Hermitage, ITMS Meeting 2015

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All Saints Day 2012 in Santiago de Compostela

I walked with my friends into Santiago de Compostela, mind clear and heart content, but without elation. I could not conjure any of the two months of walking as I entered the Square in front of the Cathedral of Saint James. Mindful of “all my relations”, I attended the noon Pilgrims’ Mass. The journey ended on Monday, October 29th and I dutifully picked up my “compostella” at the Pilgrims’ Office, the certificate that certifies my pilgrimage to Santiago from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.

Jon CathedralI end this cycle of podcasts with a poem, “Ithaca”, by the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy. In Homer’s Odyssey “Ithaca” was the island home to which Odysseus struggled to return, through many adventures, after his participation in the Trojan War. Here is Cavafy’s poem followed by a podcast of my reading it, then adding a “riff” of my own on his last stanza.

Grateful for everything in the past, I wait in hope for what is to come. Even though I left home alone for Santiago seven months ago to travel through Portugal, England, Italy, Switzerland and now Spain, many have departed with me “in the spirit” and have been my companions through my travels.

Our destinies are one. I don’t know how this can be true on a macro-level, how my destiny is one with everyone in the world, but I am certain how it is true that I share the same destiny with the entire network of my intimates–with all my personal relations. I know that I am, through the network of us, participating in creating the world with  and for those I know best.

ITHAKA

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like them on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfumes of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Camino de Santiago: Jim Gravois Podcast on "The Spirit of the Camino"

A couple of days ago I was thinking about the “Spirit of the Camino,” which probably has as many interpretations as there are pilgrims. I decided to do an audio reflection on this topic on Wednesday in Melide, and then I changed it a bit and recorded an extra treatment, while I was walking along the Camino yesterday (25 Oct.), headed toward Arzua, Spain. Hope you enjoy the sound of my feet slapping their way to Santiago. —Jim Gravois

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From El Camino de Santiago: The Consoling Fragrance of Galician Cow Shit

As we walked out of Villafranca de Bierzo, the river flowing with force past us on our left, we had no notion of the beauty that awaited us, nor did we realize the hard climb up and forward we would have to make into Galicia. Galicia is said to be one of the most economically challenged regions of Spain, but its beauty is incomparable, except perhaps to Ireland. Galicia is a Celtic land made green by constant rain.

Breaking up the climb between Villafranca and O Cebriero, Jim and I stopped over-night in the small village of Portella. It was here that I would encounter the milk cows of Galicia. The cows of Portella were more numerous than its human residents. They daily parade through the narrow streets from milking barns to feeding barns, goaded on by dogs and usually a woman with a stick. Pilgrims encountering the daily ritual passage of Portella’s cows must step aside and let them pass. I have now had this experience of Galician parading cows many times. If I had held out my arms, I could have touched these huge animals. When they looked into my eyes, as many of them did, I wanted to embrace them.

It was in Portella that I remembered my nose’s affinity for cow shit and the smell of the barns where cows are milked or bedded down. My yen for the odors of cow barns is perhaps a legacy of my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents, who were dairy farmers in New Orleans, who continued the traditional work of the Deffes clan out of Alsace-Lorraine. I have not paid enough attention to my mother’s family, but have always more gravitated toward my Montaldo-Paretti roots. The Parettis were green grocers in New Orleans’ French market. The Montaldos managed gambling houses and my grandfather, Charles, managed a saloon in the French Quarter. I have more thought of myself as Italian rather than as my mother’s blend of French (Deffes), Spanish (Gomez) and German (Schindler). My great-niece, Cali, has traced the Deffes clan back to Jews living in Germany in the 1600s. Being in Galicia and bewitched once again by the aromas of dairy cows, my mother’s family is finally claiming its due in me.

Whatever the source, I have always liked the smell of cows and their shit. I remember visiting Bellefontaine Abbey in France, the motherhouse of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where my cousin is a monk. On the first morning after my arrival at Bellefontaine, I attended Lauds and Eucharist in the twelfth-century abbey church. When Mass had ended, I walked out of the church and got a whiff of cow shit from the monastic barn. I thought back then how wonderful it was that these French monks had built their church so close to the cow barn. Psalmody and a cow barn harmonize with one another—the heights of singing for God linked to one of our souls’ basic elements.

Cistercian abbeys in America no longer have cow barns. No matter how reasonable it is that American Cistercians no longer drink the milk of their own cows, nor enjoy a daily dose of the aroma of their shit, something essential to their monasticism might now have gone missing. Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, once a working farm, no longer has an animal on its property under the care of its monks. No matter how foolish it might seem, given the inexorable decrease of their numbers, perhaps it’s time for Gethsemani to bring back the cow shit. Monks might need to be farmers again.

The fragrance of Galician cows brings me back down-to-earth from flights of fancy I am entertaining as I walk El Camino. Before I open my mouth publicly again, orally or in writing, I’m now vowing to pause a moment and recall the odor of cow barns. Perhaps I should spend a little of my social security money to have a perfumer concoct a fragrance of cow barn odors that I could lightly touch behind my ears before addressing an audience. I could call it Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache. If it could be made cheaply enough, in addition to storing it in beautiful bottles for my own use, I could send Vatican City 500 bottles for future use in consistories that raise men to the rank of Cardinal. My gift would designate that each new Cardinal receive a bottle of Bouse de Vache in a crimson-silk lined box, bearing their coats-of-arms, along with a note: “A gift for your wise use as you become a Prince of the Holy Roman Church”.

Holding the sole patent on Cologne deBouse de Vache, I would exercise my prejudice to insure that no woman ever received a bottle, no matter how high the station to which she rose. Women already have a natural facility for smelling bullshit whenever its equivalent in speech reaches their mouths or their ears.

Walking through Galicia, I have meditated on these things. It’s a crazy notion—bottling the essence of cow barn. However, I might do a video for You-Tube in which I explain my idea. It might go viral enough that it would become a meme widely used by anyone finding themselves trapped in an audience with a pompous speaker (someone like me).  In such a situation and without much thought, a person would turn and whisper to another sitting in an adjacent chair, “If only he had remembered to wear Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache!”

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From El Camino de Santiago: A New Blog and Podcast from Jim Gravois in O Cebreiro in Galicia

I am writing a few words today in O Cebreiro, one of the highest points along the Camino, and certainly one of the most beautiful. When the weather is clear, as it was yesterday upon our arrival here, the views of the surrounding green hills and mountains are spectacular. The sunset yesterday was something to behold. Today it is windy, foggy, rainy, and chilly. I am reminded of the power of Nature, especially in high places. Will we even see the sun at all today? The Camino contains so many metaphors for life: its challenges, its disappointments, its surprising rewards. As we approach the final stage of this grand adventure, I offer some audio reflections on what the Camino may mean for the rest of my life. —Jim Gravois

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