My monastic life Wilfred De’ath
WILFRED DE’ATH is relatively happy in his French retreat
The elderly monk/gardener in charge of the monastery graveyard at Solesmes doesn’t like me using the side gate to le cemetière. ‘The dead like you to use the front entrance,’ he told me. What are they going to do? Rise up out of their graves and shake their rosaries at me?
This wasn’t the only funny thing that happened to me during my two months as Solesmes, the great Benedictine monastery on the River Sarthe. A bald bearded retreatant in the room opposite to mine in the guesthouse complained that I made too much noise locking and unlocking the door to my cell – he further alienated me, later in my stay, by asking if I knew of a ‘gay’ club in Sablé, the little town three kilometres away. This would be like expecting to find a gay club in a small English cathedral town like Ely or Wells. Even if there was one, I wouldn’t be seen dead in it.
The guestmaster, a very nice American named Michael, lent me a book called The Day-by-day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth-century Egypt. I found it heavy going. He also lent me a book named Sexuality According to Jean-paul II by the appropriately named Yves Semen.
One night, we all had to stand by our tables in the refectory for nearly ten minutes before the Latin grace because a cardinal from Africa (Senegal) was coming to dinner and he was late: even the Abbot grew restless. But the black cardinal did us all a favour. He ate so slowly that we did not have to rush our meal, for once. It took him nearly five minutes to put his napkin ring back on. That is the time we normally get for the main course! This is not good for the digestion – the only thing I do not like about life at Solesmes.
The book about the desert fathers in fourth-century Egypt does contain one very illuminating anecdote. Two brothers each quit the desert to take a wife. They reported that the Fathers gave them both the same penance: one year in seclusion with nothing to eat but bread and water. At the year’s end, one was pale and glum, the other in great health and very happy. This was because the first one had spent his year in fear, thinking of his faults and the punishment. The other had done nothing but thank God for having extracted him from his impurity. I am trying to put this lesson into practice.