Vasily Perov — Monastic Refectory

That night they found him again lying down on the steps leading to the entrance door outside the abbey. They had found his habit collapsed on the floor of his cell, as though the owner of it had been no monk but some ghost who just decided to expire back to its spectral realm, leaving behind its earthly shell. When the brothers reported it to the superior it was as if he already knew before they had finished speaking, the finding of the drunk monk on the steps but the unnecessary confirmation of established foreknowledge.

the superior thought as he smirked to himself, contemplating the crumpled figure of the monk illumined by the pencil of light cast by the open door. He lay on the steps like a giant fetus, the dank, sharpsweet reek of overripe fruit emanating off of him. He was dressed in the layman’s clothes which the superior had kept under lock and key for emergency purposes. Without his habit the monk looked like an entirely different man. the superior thought.

“We best get to bed,” the superior said. “It’s late. Let’s carry him to his cell.”

They carried him clumsily by the arms and legs. With their dark brown habits and the scant lighting they scuttled across the hall of the abbey as though in a sort of cabalistic ritual or procession from some forgotten age.

The drunk brother started to grumble. “Oh dammit,” he said. “Oh goddammit. Got to get back. Never do it again. I promised. Dammit.” The brothers looked at each other and they contained their smiles.

The next day the superior had to shake him to get him to wake up. The superior sat at his bed and watched as his lids slid off of his eyes languidly, as though some sticky fluid friction had kept them shut. His eyelids had the pathetic and crumpled look that characterizes the post-morning of all debauchery and inebriation. When he saw the face of the superior looking at him he sat up. Then he crumpled his face and placed the heel of his fist on his head, as though in the sitting up he had hit a beam. He shook his head.

“I know, I know,” he said, as he slipped his legs off the sheets. “The morning prayers. I’m on it.”

“I’m calling you for lunch,” the superior said.

“Lunch?”

“Lunch.”

He stopped. His eyes widened as he turned to look at the superior. His gaze dropped to his clothing and he saw he still had on what he had worn the night before.

“I thought I’d finally found a good place to hide the key,” said the superior.

“Listen…”

“Explain it to me later. You’ll be late.”

Lunch was an awkward affair. There had always been a silence imposed every lunchtime, as one of the monks read from the spiritual book in that sanctimonious monotone, the only other sound being the clinking of cutlery or the occasional authoritarian cough from the superior’s table when someone got out of order. But this time the it was a different silence. A thick and meaningful (and for him in particular, torturous) silence.

The other monks didn’t look at him. Yet he could feel their eyes on him like some warm ray refracted, as though aside from those physical orbs sitting on top of their noses there existed another pair of eyes not quite figurative but rather subliminal and kinetic and perhaps more potent yet. The voice of the reader of the spiritual book kept reading, this forming the backdrop of the tension mounting. He felt his armpits and neck grow warm and he started to sweat. He pushed his chair back and he stood up. All the monks turned to him and the monotone ceased abruptly. Their eyes followed him as he walked out of the dining hall.

That afternoon during the work period a brother knelt down and whispered to his ear that the superior was summoning him into his office. When he entered the superior sat at his desk with the giant, imposing Bible on his side and papers scattered all over the surface. In one motion the superior pulled off his reading glasses and motioned at him to sit down on the sofa across the desk, the glasses hanging precariously from his hand. The superior stood and pulled a chair from the desk and carried it facing perpendicular to the sofa. He sat.

“I think you know why I called you here,” the superior said.

“I might.”

“Third time in… how long? Three weeks?”

“A month.”

The superior set his elbows on the armrests of the chair and pressed his fingertips together, his hands forming a fleshy, multifaceted prism.

“For a monk this isn’t fitting.”

“What isn’t?”

“This kind of behavior.”

“Are you doubting my vocation?”

“Are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“So yes.”

“I don’t know.”

The superior broke that handprism and placed his arms parallel to the armrests. He sat still and erect like some carved wooden romanic Virgin. “You can still leave,” he said. “It’s only been six months. You haven’t made the vows.”

“I know it.”

“And yet you stay.”

“Do you want me to go?”

“No. But neither do I want you to make a mistake. The vows are binding for life, you know.”

“I know it.”

“Good.”

“Please don’t think I’m not trying. Dammit I want — ”

“Watch the swearing.”

“Sorry. I want to be here. I know I’ve been called. He called. It’s just. It turned out harder than I thought. The life here I mean. I guess it’s my way of…reacting.”

“I don’t seem to understand.”

“The drinking.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah. But God knows it am I trying my best. I just don’t understand why He won’t help me.”

The superior’s lip corners whipped up in a controlled smile, his momentary teeth sparkling like the lighting of a match. “A bit demanding, isn’t it?” he said. “To demand from God, I mean.”

“But listen now. I’ve given Him everything. Left behind a lucrative business. Left behind the possibility of settling with a girl. Getting married. Starting a family. I just thought He’d make things easier for me, you know?”

“Easier?”

“Easier. Make the life more… how should I say. Likeable, for one thing.”

“Likeable?”

“Yeah. Enjoyable.”

The superior chuckled. “But that would negate the value of the self-giving. If you gave something up in expectation of receiving something better. That wouldn’t be detachment but greed in a more covert form. Self-interest. The value of our giving comes exactly from the emptying. Free of any expectation. Only so can God enter.”

“Easier to say it than do it.”

“Of course. Of course. In fact it is impossible to do it.”

“What?”
“Impossible if we try to do it ourselves. That’s why we need — ”

“His help.”

“His grace.”

“Right.”

“That will be the story of our entire lives. Not to be perfect and immaculate all the time. Quite the contrary. It’s in the getting up. Again and again.”

Three days passed. One night the superior was kneeling beside the bed saying his night prayers, arms outstretched in cruciform, when he heard footsteps coming from his office at the end of the hall. He put on his glasses and walked out. Yet he didn’t want to. It was though he already knew what he was going to see, the picture forming in his mind of the fury of action and suppressed guilt and brimming and unchanneled passions occurring in his office, a picture more real and lucid than that he saw with his own eyes as he walked the unlit hall. He held the doorknob of his office. It was as though with his mind’s eye he already saw what was going on behind that slab of wood, the opening of the door and the revealing of the interior of the office not the abrogation but the coinciding of his ocular vision to the psychic.

He opened the door. Desk drawers hung out jutting without configuration from their slots and upon the desk books were flung around and overturned and piles of papers scattered on the floor like collapsed lines of dominoes, as though some diabolic poltergeist had chosen this unholy hour and this holy place to wreak his capricious malevolence and desecration.

He heard a frantic, scratching sound coming from the desk. When he walked towards it he saw the monk in his nightgown kneeling and crouching there by the bottom-most drawer, scrounging through the trinkets and long forgotten documents like some poor old widow who had lost her last few copper coins in the dust. He didn’t even look, didn’t even hear the superior when he entered the room.

The superior coughed. The monk stopped what he was doing and slowly turned his head up until his gaze met with the superior’s. He jolted like some wild surprised cat. thought the superior as he held back his smile.

“I think I know what you are looking for,” the superior said. “You’re not going to find it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s time we got to bed.”

“I can’t. I just…”

“Just what?”

“I need a drink. Please. Please let me.”

The superior looked down at that abject creature of God down on all fours panting and sweating, as if demoted from its anthropological status. The superior sighed. “Come,” he said. “Follow me.” He told the monk to wait outside his room and then he searched his belongings for a small coin, enough for one small drink. He held it out to the monk who took it greedily into his cupped hands.

“Know that I’m not condoning it,” said the superior. “I’m not condoning it at all.”

The monk hung his head like a condemned man.

“Well,” said the superior. “Do the deed.”

The next day during the afternoon the monk knocked at the door of the superior’s office and entered the room. The monk entered the room and took his seat in front of the superior’s desk. The superior had stopped writing and had put down his pen and was looking at the monk now.

“I’m sorry,” the monk said. “About what happened last night.”

“It’s not from me you have to ask pardon.”

The monk hung his head and was silent for a moment. Then he said, “And thanks.”

The superior smiled. “Don’t mention it.”

“Why’d you let me do it?”

“It looked like you needed it. But — ”

“You don’t condone it.”

“I don’t.”

The monk sighed. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

“What did I say?”

“About my vocation. My calling. About the possibility that I might not have it.”

“And what about it.”

“Nothing. Nothing. I just got to thinking. I mean, in the light of what’s been happening to me.”

“Been happening?”

“The drinking.”

“Ah. The drinking.”

“In short. Well. In short, it fills me with doubt.”

“Doubt,” the superior said, thinking “Doubt.” His voice faded now like some distant echo. As he sat in his stiff manner it seemed as though he were a wooden mannequin manipulated by some unseen ventriloquist, the moving of his mouth concomitant but not progenitor to the faint yet somehow meaningful syllabications.

“I always thought to myself why our Lord never made things easy. I mean to say, well. For example. Why he never resurrected in front of his executioners. Manifest his holy fire in its fullness. Why he chose to show himself to some women instead (they didn’t value the witness of women then). I always thought if he had shown himself in full glory and fury to all those Jews and Romans by now everyone would be Christian.

“Or why for example he had to leave it to some unscholarly fishermen to spread his doctrine. In short I always ask myself why did God have to make it so hard to believe in Him. Why does He always have to leave room for doubt.”

“Did you get an answer?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps it’s because that’s where the value of faith lies. That there exists doubt. That we believe despite the fact that there is no fullness in the certainty. The possibility to reject God. And God gave us this possibility to reject Him so that there could exist a possibility to love Him. One cannot go without the other.”

On the night of the next day a fumbling sound woke the director up. His eyelids slid open and he just lay there as if paralyzed, thinking He got out of the bed and lit a candle and walked to his office. This time the lights were turned off. There was no one there. it occurred to him. He crept down the hallway toward the front door. As he passed by the closed door of the oratory he thought he heard a subtle noise. he thought.

He opened the door. The monk lay on the ground with his arms wrapped around the stone statue of the Virgin and child, as though he had clung tightly and slid down and collapsed to the ground. The keys were sprawled not far from him. In the scant and dancing light cast by the candle flame the face of the Virgin seemed to be looking down at the monk and holding back an amused giggle. The superior took the keys, went back to his room and, taking a blanket, spread it out on the monk and closed the door of the oratory gently.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.