Rowan Atkinson on marriage and the presence of “The Holy Goat”
It’s been a while since my last “retreat” at the monastery. The last time I was here, I was on deadline to finish the manuscript for my first book Grace Sticks. So I holed myself up in one of these rooms with a cheap bottle of red wine I had snuck in, and over the course of several days furiously wrote and re-wrote more “shitty first drafts,” (one of Anne Lamott’s many helpful prescriptions to wannabe writers), in a last-ditch effort to spare myself the anticipated shame of my editor’s first reaction.
That was more than two years ago now, which apparently is long enough to forget the lingo of this place …
Relearning the Meaning of Things …
“Are you going to the office?,” the bearded Cistercian brother who checked me in asked in a gravelly voice.
After discovering my room key was not in the small pile of keys for late-arriving guests, and nervously double-checking my iCalendar to confirm I had the right day of arrival, I had called him a bit sheepishly at the “emergency number” on the door to the now-boarded-up room that housed more of those awkward, clunky keys. He had appeared within minutes, offering words of reassurance that Patty, the woman who answered phones and had taken down my reservation during daytime hours, had told him I was coming.
His question had taken me by surprise.
“Uh, is there an office here?,” I asked, imagining some little room with fluorescent lights, computers and a fax machine, overseen by a librarian-like monk in shy, gruff tones.
“Oh, no, it’s just that some retreatants like to attend the services in the chapel,” the monk said, kindly overlooking my Amelia Bedelia moment. (One saving grace at this juncture was that he had been prepared for some cluelessness about how things work around here by the admission that I was once a Presbyterian pastor.)
We exchanged a few more words — about the pope, about “weird Presbyterian theology” like “double predestination,” and about AA, recovery and the writing life.
Still, I left that exchange with the realization that when I’m here I often become a female version of Mr. Bean, one reason being how easy it is to forget the appropriate religious lingo. (Just think Mr. Bean as nervous wedding officiant in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”)
… And the Promise and Peril of Silence and Solitude
The other reason is the self-imposed silence here, which takes some getting used to.
It’s not that I don’t love the silence or seek it out and find restoration from its embrace — I do — but something about it also makes me feel a bit silly and uncomfortable, like an eighth grader who just got braces and who knows those new metal laces across her teeth are good for her but isn’t so sure about wearing them just yet.
For example, in the absence of a “hello” or “good morning,” acknowledging the presence of another visitor here seems to call for some form of additional compensation. In the form of a bigger smile maybe, or the more exaggerated nod of a head.
And during mealtimes in the silent company of others, I’m careful to avoid squirting honey on my bread. Some poor guy made that mistake at breakfast this morning and sounded like he was passing gas.
The geese on the pond last night sounded better as they honked their goodbyes and made off in formation: one big “V” that broke off into two smaller “v’s,” and eventually a dotted line on the horizon. I was almost alone then, excepting one lone duck and a stray cat on an adjacent picnic table, and something about this fragile enclosure of solitude and the delicate beauty of a stillness I had grown so unaccustomed to — had almost forgotten existed, in the relentless movement of life’s many distractions, as noisy as they are meaningless —made the tears rush to my eyes.
Last night, as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep, my demons momentarily came out (as they are inclined to do when there are no sounds or distractions). They scampered about mischievously, throwing spitballs, but this time only briefly, before I managed to stuff them in some drawer.
By then I was drifting off to sleep, having read these words from Psalm 130:7: “Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and him is full redemption.”
This morning I’m savoring some final moments of silence before I make the drive home. This time though, when I put my key in the ignition, I won’t immediately turn the radio to NPR or 94.1. I’ll want to prolong the silence, and I’ll be thinking about how to spend more time at “the office.”