The Christmas story that broke the vows of silence

Benedictine monks are men who live in a monastery under a set of rules and disciplines mandated by vows. The disciplines vowed by members of the Benedictine community, like those of other monastic communities, are poverty, chastity and obedience.

Whether priests or brothers, all members of the community voluntarily profess these vows after a period of discernment. There is another discipline that is commonly accepted by these men, silence. Silence is observed throughout the day except for necessary communication and prayer; an exception being an hour of communal recreation each evening. Silence is also observed at meal times except for a reader. During meal times, a member of the community reads from a book centered on the life and times of Christ, with "the word" being quietly digested along with the food.

Twice each year an exception to the rule of silence during meals is permitted, Christmas and Easter Sunday. At the main meal on those days, each priest and brother is allowed a brief opportunity to speak. As the newest member of this community in 1956, I looked forward to the relaxation of this rule since I had not, as yet, developed an appreciation for it. Admittedly, the rule of silence proved most difficult for me at 14 years of age. Upon hearing about this mealtime exception, I formed the idea that there would be an open exchange among the community members, so I looked forward to talking fishing with brothers Joseph and Patrick.

My primary job in this community was to cook and serve the meal and set up the dining room. So on this day I arranged folding tables in a rectangular pattern suitable to accommodate our 18 members and guests. The Prior, head of our community, always sits central on one side with fellow priests to his right and left. The brothers take respective positions after the priests and guests last of all. And so it was on this Christmas Day.

After helping himself to turkey and dressing, Father Alphonsus, our Prior, began to speak, "Something I read recently," he said, "taken from Galatians: 4:4. When the fullness of time was come, God sent His Son. At last the great Advent was over. The Fullness of Time had come ..." The Prior's theological commentary went on another three minutes and set the tone for all to follow.

Father Jerome, sitting to Father Alphonsus' right, in turn, spoke of the honor given to the father of the family during the time of Christ. "At that time," he said, "the father was given God-like power. It was the law of the time that sons honor their father, and those who did not could be killed. I hasten to add, that not too many are on record to have killed their sons," he said in closing.

Next to talk, Father Nathan began by contributing, "For Mary to be chosen from among all women."

Each priest and brother, in turn, gave testimony to some theological point centered on Christ's birth, and as they did, my turn to speak drew closer.

A very shy young man, I realized an increase in fear with each passing moment. What theological insight could I hope to bring forth without looking the fool?

Brother Joseph spoke of St. Joseph, the head of the Holy Family into which Jesus was born. Only three others remained ahead of me. What will I say? Why couldn't they have just talked about fishing? Now, only two remained. With panic gripping me I searched the library of my mind for a Tenet of our Faith or Christmas story to share. My head and neck throbbed as an excess of blood rushed upward through my body. Suddenly, the smells of the turkey and dressing were nauseous to my senses. My vision clouded as blood pressure increased.

Brother Patrick, eight years my senior, quoted. "The Prophet Isaiah said ...." I remember no more. Still, I lacked even a subject on which to talk much less something of importance to impart to this community of learned men. Next to speak would be Brother Aloysius; then me. Even my hearing was distorted. I'm quite sure that everyone in the room could see my temples throb. At this point, even my survival was in question. I scarcely remember hearing Brother Aloysius speak. Desperate, I questioned what emergency situation I could suddenly need to tend in the kitchen?

Then, I remembered a Christmas-themed joke. Do I dare interject it? It's all I have, I thought. At that moment, Brother Aloysius ended his brief contribution, and silence settled over the dining room as my turn came. With 90 percent of my blood now compressed into the neck and head, I began.

"Do you know what you have when a cat crosses the desert?"

Silence, again, settled over the room. While I awaited a response, I noted the passage of time by counting three throbs in my temples as equal to one second. Why couldn't I have gone to high school like my peers, I thought? I searched the table for some sign of response, but noted everyone solemn-faced or with eyes directed toward the floor.

Finally, the silence was broken when the Prior asked, "What do you get when a cat crosses the desert, Brother William?"

With a quaking voice I replied, "You get sandy claws."

Another minute must have passed before the silence was again broken with clapping of hands and the joining in by others.

The rest of Christmas Day I happily spent with the cowl over my head and in silence.

-- William Bley is a resident of Carson City.


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