Actually, they didn’t call me anything. The monks in the San Benito Monastery in Luján, Argentina are under a vow of silence. Brother Sebastian referred to me as “Dan” every time I needed to ask him a logistical question, but otherwise, the monks and I spent the week together without a word.
A little bit of background: Just as my parents opened a savings account the day I was born to pay for my college, they planned to visit me where I would study abroad, too. Near days after I booked my flight to Argentina, my mother, father, and sister owned round trip tickets to Buenos Aires as well. Since both my sister and mother are on academic schedules, winter break is an excellent time to travel. Their arrival, however, was almost two weeks after Casa ended, so I found myself with some free time. First iteration of my plan: have friends from school fly down to Peru (approximately halfway between us) and meet them there. That did not happen. (They did, in fact, go to Mexico, advising me days before their departure. Thanks anyway, Tim, Tom, and Delaney.) Second iteration of plan: invite one of the girls I met here to travel the country with me. (Appealing, but highly unlikely, and, as Jake later pointed out, quite hilarious considering what actually happened.) Third (and final) iteration of plan: spend a week in silence at a monastery, reflecting on my time in Córdoba and how I’d like my life to look upon my return home. (Wait, what?)
This came at the suggestion of Jen, the psychology expert in the power-professor team/couple that is Jen and Doug of Contemplatives in Action. Doug is the expert when it comes to monastic life (he’s written a book about it), but over the course of their friendship-turn-marriage, the two of them have spent a good amount of time together in monasteries. Over lunch one lazy Saturday at their house, Jen reiterated the impact silence and prayer can have on one’s being, a theme mentioned frequently in our class. Her strongest push to try it: “When’s the next time you’ll have a week away from family and friends, without outstanding responsibilities, to reflect on your life?” Doug wasn’t home to back her up, but her argument needed no further convincing. A failed attempt to stay with the Trappists, an order of monk and Doug’s speciality, led to me contact Padre Hugo, our Vincentian friend, for further help. A few Facebook messages later and all was set. I even had a ride to the monastery – no small thing.
As we made the hour trip from Escobar (Jake and I stayed there before he left), I questioned Hugo, in typical fashion, about the week to come: What did he do? What was his favorite part? The hardest part? Are the rules strict? How’s the food? Etc. After a while he gave me a similar response to what Doug said after a brief explanation of the daily routine for monks (though Doug’s was not in Spanish). “This time is for you, to know yourself. Do what you want with your time. It will be different for everyone.” Before long, I had said goodbye to Hugo and was alone in my room. Brother Sebastian, the hospitality coordinator, showed me around a bit, but quickly left me, in a polite and respectful way, to myself. I dropped my bags, and at 11am on Tuesday, started my week in silence.
The “official” schedule of the monastery is as follows:
5:00am – Vigilias (prayer)
6:15am – Breakfast (optional)
7:10am – Laudes (prayer)
8:00am – Mass
12:20pm – Sexta (prayer)
12:45pm – Lunch (Communal)
3:45pm – Nona (prayer)
4:30pm – Merienda (Argentine tea-time, optional)
6:15pm – Vísperas (prayer)
7:30pm – Dinner (Communal)
8:15pm – Completas
The general idea is 8-8-8: eight hours of sleep, eight hours of prayer, eight hours of work. Despite the apparent strictness of the monastic life, the monks are fairly relaxed about the specifics. A bell calls them to prayer five minutes before it begins, but that rarely happens exactly when it’s “supposed” to. Time, like all things, is relative, and here, it’s fairly easy to forget about it. The prayers went like this: the monks filed into the church and sat facing each other on either sides of the alter. After a brief recitation in Latin, a different set of Psalms were read. The monks took turns chanting Psalms back and forth until, upon conclusion of the Psalm, stood, and recited more things I couldn’t understand. We sat, and after (what appeared to be) the youngest monk read a few lines from a book written by San Benito, the brothers filed out in pairs.
My initial frustration with my lack of understanding subsided when I realized the meditative capacity of chants. My mind still wandered, but I enjoyed the beautiful music every time I went. I did not attend every prayer. I went to two or three a day. For the most part, I listened to my body for its desired schedule: when to wake, sleep, read, write, stretch, meditate, play music, etc. But one bodily cue I chose to ignore was hunger.
I made this decision after the first meal where I observed, in silence, a foreign concept in regards to food: grateful yet efficient dining. Our time together around the table lasted about as long as it takes one to finish his food. It didn’t feel rushed, though. There were three courses: salad, entree, and desert. The salads often contained the leftovers from the day before, and desert was almost always fruit. What they prepared was unsurprisingly simple yet magically flavorful. The onions and tomatoes were absolutely the best I’ve ever eaten. The roasted chicken is a contender for my favorite cuisine consumed whilst in Argentina. Everything, naturally grown and harvested, tasted as it should. The only thing I thought might inhibit my enjoyment of it was overindulgent portions. I limited them to where I assumed I’d be satiated in a half hour. I ate for the day, not the meal. Without ready access to other food, I viewed this as a sort of body cleanse (which I’ll certainly need again after some time back in the States). I don’t know if it did anything, but I felt good. My role after each meal was to help the Jedis dry dishes. Okay, this wasn’t Star Wars, but they wore robes all the time (and had light sabers??????!!!!!! Just kidding). They did, however, swiftly and silently remove the dry dishes moments after I put them on the counter behind me which surprised me every time.
One day after lunch Brother Sebastian approached me and told me I would have a meeting with Father Jorge later that day. Apparently it’s a typical part of any monastic visit. Somewhat apprehensive given the, well, Spanish nature of the meeting, I reluctantly agreed. Father Jorge, a man who resembles Steve Jobs in his later years, caught up with me after Nona, the 3:45 prayer, on Saturday to ask me about how my time here was treating me. I explained to him my rational for my visit to this monastery. After a long, intensive semester, I wanted to write and reflect about the experience. He shared a book with me he felt was similar to our mission to accompany, and stressed its Catholic author wouldn’t take away from the message. He quickly diffused any religious connotation of the various stories, quotes, and ideas he mentioned in recognition it turns many young people off. He relaxed a bit when I later told him the Casa program is Jesuit.
I asked him about his life, the life of the brothers. He told me his mother died when he was nine, and subsequently went into the naval academy to help support his family. The social work of a priest appealed to him, but quickly realized after he entered the seminary he wasn’t cut out for priesthood coupled with military men. Not wanting to abandon either career without honor, he remembered the time he spent as a teenager at the monastery close to his home. He was twenty-six when he first entered San Benito’s, and now he’s fifty-seven. He claims it feels like yesterday, though; the life here is that fulfilling. Jorge works with the terminally sick, which paired with his own mother’s premature death, gives him deep appreciation for life. “My father sent me to buy her a soda; within hours of my return, she was dead. That sort of thing makes you realize the time you have is a gift. You must enjoy it.”
I asked Jorge about ways to bring my experience home. His response was simple: “Your actions will speak much louder than words. You can say all you want, but if you live the same life you led before you came to Argentina, do your words, or your experience, mean anything?” That got me. He continued: “We live in a time where money seems to hold immense value. Kids in both of our countries are bored and empty when they’re surrounded by toys. And that’s just the beginning! It seems now you recognize there’s more to it than that.” Even still, he called me out as he highlighted the issues with marketing. (Marketing is one of those words that doesn’t have a translation from English; imagine it said with a Argentinean accent, and that’s it.) I agreed, but claimed I have yet to figure out how to make the simple life look sexy. He emphasized that I did indeed witness the monks’ way of life, and not to forget what truly makes a person happy. One of few conversations of the week ended with a hug and a reinvigorated desire to live out what I learned in Argentina rather than just tell stories about it.
That revitalization wanted to manifest itself immediately, though. Five days in silence coupled with an excitement to see my parents energized me to break my routine. Sunday, the day I intended to try and go to all the prayers (at Doug’s recommendation), began early with a 5am prayer. But after the 10:30 mass, I had had enough. Lunch was an asado, typical for a Sunday in Argentina. I knew I had two choices after that large quantity of meat: sleep, or something active. I chose the latter. I played guitar outside for a few hours, but as sleep started to penetrate my conscious, I decided to take a walk. I started where I went before, on the monastery grounds, but eventually found the end of the property and crossed it. I left with the intent to find the Santeria (the monk’s store with homemade goods), which was a few kilometers away. That never happened.
I walked around the beautify countryside two hours north of Buenos Aires for a while. I had some great thoughts, and when they slowed, calm moments in nature as well. Dinner approached as the sun set, and subsequently thought my extraterrestrial adventure would end as I headed toward the monastery. But I saw a sign on my return. And I saw cows. I had to check out the cows. I hopped the fence and set my sights on the heard of cows. I got nearer and noted the smell. The road turned toward a house, and I followed it. I saw hundreds of adult cows contained behind a fence, and about 50 calves tied to poles in front of the house. A young man fed them food and brought them milk to drink in the hot heat. (I laughed as I thought about the association test/joke in psychology that goes: “What do you eat soup with?” and the response “A spoon.” This is repeated five or so times before this question is posed: “What do cows drink?” with a predictable answer of “Milk.” Supposedly this is funny because cows drink water and produce milk. Now I know the truth, at least with calfs.) I began the conversation accordingly.
Guy: “Hola Muchacho.” He was not surprised to see me.
Me: “Is that milk?”
Me: “Oh… Can I help you with something?” That I learned from Jake. Good move.
Guy: “You want to help ME? Okay…”
We chatted as I helped him feed the two-month-old calves. He was shirtless and barefoot. I quickly found out he was 20, from Entre Rios, came here for work, and prefers the country to the city. His name was Carlos.
The farm on which Carlos works borders the monastery (he gave me a ride home on his tractor), but he’d never been there. It was difficult to explain a) what it was and b) what I was doing there. Once I realized how differently he spoke than others I’d encountered, I determined I’d let him talk for most of our conversation. So I learned a lot about him. He milks the cows everyday of the year when there’s no rain. It takes about 10 minutes to milk each cow. The yield is around 7,000L a day, or 1,850 gallons (for us metrically-challenged folk). But this work was fairly new to him since he’d only been there about two months. His workday ended not long after I showed up, so eventually we took the tractor back to Carlos’ place. It turns out he lived with a friend in the same building as the Santeria, but just like the monastery, he had never been there. We made tereré, Paraguayan style (mate with iced water, not juice) and chatted outside. We covered the basics: family, school, work, etc. The ladies were mentioned. That part of the conversation was aided visually by our walk to get ingredients for dinner. It wasn’t until after we returned that I realized he assumed I would join him for dinner. But as we watched the sun disappear behind the trees, I felt a growing need to return to my brothers at San Benito’s. Both Carlos and I were bummed I couldn’t stay. He invited me back for Christmas, but I had to decline. We accepted that time to probably be the only moment we would ever spend together, but friended each other on Facebook, of course. A tractor-ride across the fields and I was back in silence. At least for the next twelve hours.
By and large, my almost week was revitalizing. The presence of the monks was profound, albeit that our actual time together was small. Summer walks in their large, green gardens made the entire time worth it with the knowledge Chicago winter was fast approaching. I played a fair amount of guitar, read a book, met Carlos, and wrote this, among other entries about my experience in Argentina. Most of the revelations I encountered in silence will undoubtedly manifest in time rather than in this moment, but I look forward to writing about them soon. To some extent, the point of this post is to explain to everyone, myself included, why I chose a monastery over Iguatzu, La Salta, or Ushuaia. If you decide to read my profundities in the Conclusion to Casa post, I believe you’ll see I’m quite happy with my choice.