A number of months ago, my sister and I made a snap decision to visit a monastery in the boonies. Unfortunately, we planned in haste (you might remember Tolkien’s quote, “Short cuts make long delays”, thus, upon arrival, we found all the camping grounds full. And so the majority of our camp spots ended up being on forestry roads.
Now, for those who value silence, this can be preferable; however, certain unavoidable activities had to be, well, planned decently. Needless to say, we weren’t as “fresh” as we had desired to be upon meeting our good monks! Despite our anxieties, something lovely happened that made us re-think the fear many conservative churches have concerning the flesh.
It all happened when my sister was embraced by a stern-looking monk.
If you don’t mind, let me back up. The trip was a snap decision for a few reasons. A professor friend was presenting some lectures to the monks, but also I wanted to just get away because of a bad case of heartbreak. I figured a good seven-day road trip, including a drive along the Oregon coastline, with my sister luxuriantly indulging me in boo-hoo music, would be ideal. (It’s not that many people with whom I can trust myself to enjoy listening to Ray Charles sing “Born to Lose” or “It’s Crying Time Again.”)
Because neither I nor my sister had much experience with monks (other than in a historical context or with some of their writings), we were a little tense. The first time we were led through the silent sanctuary and into the coves in the back that made for classrooms, I was, as you can imagine, keenly aware of any difference that might distinguish me and otherwise draw attention. (Even the steps of my feet in rubber heels seemed pestiferously loud.) After getting settled into the slightly uncomfortable chair (being six three makes nearly all chairs somewhat unfriendly) and hiding behind my notebook and small-nibbed pen, I became immersed in the words and ideas and questions. So far so good.
Upon concluding his lecture, our professor friend and his wife asked if we might wish to partake in the Mass that was being held in fifteen minutes.
Instant blood pressure spike.
You know how sometimes, suddenly, you become grievously aware of every little wrinkle in your shirt? Your nose suddenly catches wafting hints of nearly expired deodorant, and even your shoes, as if in angst, begin to leak telltale whiffs of stale airs? Then, after stressfully wiping a brow, your hand comes away with an oily residue, at which point you wish you had taken the time to use soap to wash your face that morning?
That was me.
And the only thing that gave me comfort was knowing my similarly traited sister was feeling exactly the same. A gigantic second passed as we looked at each other, then at our friend, and then, with a forced, pumped-up enthusiasm, answered, “Absolutely.”
After mixing up my signs and failing to properly repeat the liturgy—you know, the ones where the regulars are so familiar that they get to look around at the visitors? Specifically the new ones who don’t know when to say what?—I was, shall we say, not at peace.
And so, after the liturgy was done and the homily delivered, the very monkish-looking men rose to make their procession to the sanctuary, where the host was to be delivered to the congregants.
After more increased blood pressure and palm sweating while waiting in line to receive the Eucharist, it was time for everybody to share the peace. (In my protestant church this is my least favorite activity. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I dislike people greeting me; it’s just that many times it seems forced, and fake, and small-talk can be abysmally energy sucking.)
But here is where the title comes in. I hugged a monk too, but for dude embracing dude, everything was good. In my parents’ prairie church, dude embracing dudette most certainly is not.
In fact, if you ever get to be a greeter or music person or whatever, that rule is made very clear. If you come from this tradition—and it’s pretty big—you will know of the sideways-only-shoulders-touching weird hug that members of the opposite sex give each other, if they ever get that far.
I get that, and it has its place. Precautions are usually created for some reason or other.
After the Mass concluded and my sister and I were about halfway to the car, we started talking at the same time: “Was that totally awesome for you?” And we both giddily babbled on about how we actually felt peace when the peace was shared. After a long conversation, we figured out just what might have added to the truly convivial and real feeling of acceptance. Part of it was the way the people and monks interacted with each other. It wasn’t just the full-body contact, but that was most assuredly some of it. My sister recounted how when she saw the previously serious-looking monk approach her, and she didn’t know quite how to approach him, he, all warmth, said, “Don’t be scared; here we give hugs.”
I wonder if all the precautions we take in church protocol limit not just how we approach each other, but how we approach God as well. When I read about breaking bread—better known as communion—in the Bible, it seems it’s so much more of a communal, familial, and down-to-earth get-together. I mean, it’s a meal shared—with wine—and not some kind of induction into the Skull and Bones secret society.
But when some well-meaning folks turn it all starchy and ironed and proper and prim, then we approach communion—and God—with a sense of absolute seriousness. I guess there is good in that; God should be addressed seriously. But I wonder if it might lack that warmth of familiarity, that expectancy of a full embrace by someone who doesn’t give a hoot about differences. We could be going to meet our elder brother (Jesus) who embraces us instead of a potentate who towers different than us and in whose presence we must pay very special attention to difference.