Hi, here's Chapter 1 of my next book, Outside In, in its entirety. I have several people already reading the book for edits, but if you catch anything, please let me know. Thank you! -Sean ...All writing (C) Sean Patrick Brennan, proof on file. [Note: there's a line space in the copy below that doesn't exist in my original Word document or PDF. Can't remove it here, so not worrying about it.]
Monasteries have survived all sorts of drastic changes over the centuries, and the same could easily be said for the monks who live in them. Though most ancient monastic buildings are long since lost to time, many still remain, and some are even open for the public to walk through and visit, pray in and remember.
Just north of the chaos of Manhattan, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights an incredible collection of buildings and monastic treasures up in a separate campus in the Bronx. It’s there, on the stunning shoreline of the Hudson River, where visitors to The Cloisters exhibit can walk through the very real ruins of European monasteries from centuries past. Each wall, each stone, each impressive edifice found there was painstakingly brought over from across the Atlantic, and then reassembled right there in Fort Tryon Park.
Among all the exquisite unicorn tapestries hanging along the walls, and the gorgeous artifacts surrounding several beautiful garden squares, there’s an unmistakable feeling of solemn peace and spiritual energy.
If you take the opportunity to quiet your mind while walking through this sacred space, you might even find yourself transported to another place and time. You could be listening to someone speak about the facts of the museum, when without warning, the spirits of deceased monks seem to float right by you. In just a few moments of timeless peace, you might even find yourself possessed by the spirit of a 13th Century monk.
“Brother Cody? Hello? Brother Cody? Are you listening to me?”
The others squirmed, with not just an ounce of judgment too, as they watched Cody slowly realize the old priest had been trying to get his attention. He’d been momentarily lost in a beautiful peace far away, thinking about all the monks of old, but he knew he couldn’t tell Father Peter that. Some truths just don’t fly. No, he knew he had to just answer it, and answer it well, the question he hadn’t even heard.
“I’m sorry, what was the question?”
Father Peter sized him up thoughtfully, but kept his patience and said it again. “What is the book called that the brothers of a Benedictine monastery read from?”
Cody’s mind paged through file after file of information he’d recently learned. He even glanced down at the Cloisters brochure in his hands, hoping the answer might magically appear there, somewhere between the Met logo on the top and the visiting hours at the bottom. He was discouraged to see it was nowhere to be found.
“The Bible?” he asked.
A five-second space of clear disappointment followed this, before the priest looked over at the other young brothers and asked, “Okay, does anyone else know?”
Henry raised his hand halfway with a cock of his head and a few blinks. “The Book of Common Prayer.”
The priest nodded a yes, then began telling them more as they started walking on to the next room. Cody and Henry shared a brief glance that said it all. Henry knew his fellow young brother wasn’t dumb, but he did wish he’d focus more, try a little harder at least, if for no other reason than to alleviate the uncomfortable moments he so often brought the others. And Cody knew this all, too. He knew he could have started by explaining how the spirit simply moved him to reflection just then, and that he soon found himself lost in a transcendent experience of God’s peace. But he also knew he’d failed the pop quiz anyway, and really should have remembered the answer from his studies.
Getting this far in the monastic life is already a great achievement, Cody often told himself. He knew he was called by God to do this, to live this crazy life, despite all his doubts and struggles, and he swore he’d try harder in the future to remember all those facts and figures. He had to. It was made clear to him from the beginning: monastic life wasn’t only about prayer and reflection, as he used to dream it was. It was about learning and mastering his religion’s history as well. Answering the call was no longer enough in a modern-day vocation. You had to be able to transcribe it, too.
It was a Friday afternoon in late August as they made their way through The Cloisters’ many halls and exhibits, but Cody thought back on another Friday that had changed his life forever. It was the Friday just three years earlier when he’d decided to become a monk, to give his whole life over to the Roman Catholic Church, and become Brother Cody. It was a day when every doubt he’d ever had seemed to disappear forever, when the clouds of his brain parted at once to make way for a perfect clarity about what his life path would ultimately be.
For months beforehand—even years if he was honest with himself—he’d thought about the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life, and for a long, long time, he went back and forth about whether or not it was right for him.
Cody didn’t think he should make such a big decision unless he was absolutely sure, so he kept praying all the time for a sign. Please God, he prayed, tell me what I should do. Help me understand, and know for sure what my life should be about.
Day in and day out, he prayed this same prayer, and day in and day out, he received no answer. If God was talking to him, Cody couldn’t hear it, and he soon felt lost and overwhelmed with the frustrating confusion of it all.
Henry caught his eye as they turned another corner at The Cloisters. “Try to pay attention. I know the place is beautiful, but Father Peter’s a good guy, and he’s only trying to help you out, you know?”
Cody nodded with a smile, and Henry walked ahead with the rest of the group. Henry was much smarter than he was, but he was always a good friend too, probably the only friend he had left anymore.
Everyone knew Cody was prone to act strangely at times, especially lately, but no one really knew why. Of the six young monks walking around The Cloisters that day with Father Peter, Cody always felt he and Henry stood out somehow as different. More sensitive, he told himself. More artistic, or, or something. He’d known Henry since middle school, some nine years earlier, and both believed strongly in their own shared future in the monastic life.
Henry had also helped Cody decide to join the monastery in the first place, as he was a year older than him. They spoke a lot more just before Henry joined the order, while Cody was still discerning the possibility of his own calling. And once Cody started seriously talking about a vocation with his future Novice Master, Brother O’Conner, he’d often see Henry on his way in or out of Brother O’Conner’s office in the school.
The more Cody thought about the mysteries of what life might be like in the monastery, he often reminded himself of Henry. At least Henry will be there, and Henry’s a nice guy. He’ll help me if I need someone to talk to.
But now over three years later, after living the monastic life and taking vows, everything was starting to feel much more difficult. It wasn’t that he never felt the challenges of the monastic life before, but now it was getting more complicated, more real somehow. Doubts about his vocation slipped in from time to time, and try as he did to shake them off, he was too easily haunted by the ramifications. Everything he’d come to believe about himself and his calling started feeling unstable, like a building put up on mud. The creaks of every step he took felt louder lately, more dangerous. His vocation, and the constant work of monastic life were one thing, but the doubts about who he was scared him most of all.
Approaching the others as they entered a small, cave-like room, Cody listened in as Father Peter spoke.
“A room like this was built for total silence and deep meditation. Even among the halls and gardens of a 13th Century monastery, there were still plenty of opportunities for distraction. Monks needed a place they could go to for complete solitude and private prayer. They’d shut that huge wooden door behind them to let others know they wished to be alone, and then they’d spend hours in here praying to God, or just meditating on the mysteries of life. Once they were done, they’d stand up again—because they’d do this either kneeling or completely prostrate on the ground—and then open the door up for the next monk. If someone was waiting outside, they’d never strike up a conversation at this point, simply out of respect for the private place of solemn prayer the brother had just walked out of.”
Cody watched as they all left the little room, but he stayed behind a moment by himself. He wished there was a place like this back at their monastery in Connecticut, a sacred space of silence and prayer where no one would interrupt him for hours. Of course they had a beautiful chapel in their monastery, but the other monks used it all the time, and he was lucky if he got a full half hour in there before someone walked by. When others did come in or even walk past, his mind would immediately jump to silly thoughts about what they were thinking.
What’s Cody doing in there so long? Is he trying to show off by praying more than we do? The thoughts were insane, he knew, but he worried about it all so much, he didn’t end up praying in the chapel very often.
Making any kind of waves in the monastery was a bad idea. He’d learned that lesson early on, and knew it would lead to private meetings with his Novice Master whenever he did anything too different. He’d already been called in for whistling on the stairs, some minor arguments with Brother Lazarus in the laundry room, and even about a small stain on his habit. No matter what the cause for the meeting was, whether warranted or not, he dreaded being summoned to meet with his Novice Master, because it was always the same thing: a finger-wagging judgment, and an occasion to make him feel guilty.
Brother O’Conner, the Novice Master who all the young brothers in the Novitiate answered to, was also a master of passing judgment. Cody guessed he got the job in the first place because he was so good at criticizing people, and figured monasteries must require this kind of person by nature, someone to keep the young monks in line. He understood some of that, but hated it too, and would sometimes even cry when his Novice Master chastised him with a most unholy smile.
He seems to enjoy it all a bit too much, Cody thought. But there was nothing he could do about it either. Brother O’Conner wasn’t the head of the community, but he was a former head, and that combined with his age was enough reason to earn him an emeritus position of permanent respect and obedience, no matter what he ever said or did.
Obedience. That was what it was always about. Cody had taken the sacred Vow of Obedience during his second year with the order, and he’d made a Promise of Obedience as an aspirant monk even before that. A monastic promise was already a significant step, but once he took vows a year later, obedience was a mandate.
No monk could live the religious life without following a strict code, a code passed down from the monks of old, begun not just centuries earlier by men who lived within walls like those in The Cloisters, but by monks who lived even long before them. It was a code begun thousands of years earlier, and whether Cody liked it or not, he had pledged his allegiance for life.
“Cody! Come on!” Henry yelled.
The others were several rooms ahead now, so Henry had backtracked to find Cody, and remind him to keep up. His face said the same thing as always: compassionate frustration.
Henry once joked with him, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, and Cody had once again proven he was. As they left the small stone room together, they didn’t speak. They just rushed to catch up with the other brothers, who they soon found looking at a large rose bush.
Cody looked over, and saw Sebastian had gotten his robe caught on the large thorns of the rose bush, and Victor was helping to free him.
“See, even the plants sense you belong in this special place,” Father Peter said, his arms opened wide.
As they all laughed, the old priest walked past them, and paused as he came to Cody and Henry. “Everything okay with you two?” he asked.
They just nodded with smiles, so he smiled back and headed toward the rest of the garden.
“Father Peter and Brother O’Conner are close friends,” Henry warned, “so even though he’s not the Novice Master, he probably tells Brother O’Conner everything. You’ve gotta be more careful.”
Henry left Cody then and joined the other young brothers, leaving Cody feeling once again alone.
These were the kinds of issues he never thought he’d have in the religious life: peer pressure, cliques, feeling ostracized, and so often judged by everyone else.
So what if I’m different, he thought. Isn’t that a spiritual gift? Finding myself lost in thought and prayer from time to time?
He held back the tears threatening to surface, threatening to come out. He’d become a master of this, keeping all his emotions bottled up inside. It wasn’t just a tactic, either. It was actually part and parcel of their community’s bylaws.
Studere. Non Sentire. Study. Don’t Feel.
And no matter how hard Cody tried to embrace the spiritual confidence he so often felt, he couldn’t shake the feeling he just didn’t fit in with the rest of them. The other young monks all latched onto monastic life so perfectly, it seemed, and they were all brimming with energy all the time.
All Cody ever felt was separate, lonely, and just plain different.