The following is an excerpt of Brother John: A Monk, a Pilgrim and the Purpose of Life, an award-winning true story about the surprising power of generosity – now beautifully illustrated in an all-ages rendering. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Brother John is also what might be termed Mepkin’s foreman. After morning Mass, the monks without regular positions line up in a room off the church for work assignments, and, with several thousand acres full of buildings, machinery, and a farm with 40,000 chickens, there is plenty to do. (As a daily fixture at the grading house, packing and stacking eggs thirty dozen to a box, I could easily skip this ritual. I never do.
Perhaps it is the way Brother John lights up when I reach the front of the line, touches me ever so lightly on the shoulder, and whispers “grading house” that brings me back every morning. Perhaps it is the humility I feel when he thanks me, as if I were doing him a personal favor.) Yet Brother John keeps it all in his head. Replacing every lightbulb that flickers out somewhere is his responsibility. He supervises when possible and delegates where he can, but as he is always shorthanded, he is constantly jumping in himself at some critical spot. Throughout the monastery, the phones ring incessantly, with someone on the line asking, “Is John there?” or, “Have you seen John?” And through it all, his Irish good humor and gentleness never fades or even frays.
Now, after just such a day, four hours after his usual bedtime, and forty years into his monastic hitch, here was Brother John eschewing Boniface’s baking, a glass of cider, and a Christmas break in order to walk me back to my room under a shared umbrella.
When we reached the church, I reassured him several times that I could cut through to my room on the other side, before he relented. But as I opened the door of the church, something made me turn, and I continued to watch his flashlight as he hurried back for another pilgrim until its glow faded into the night. When I reached my room, I guess I wasn’t as sleepy as I thought. I sat on the edge of my bed in the dark for what I can say, with some conviction, was a very long time.
Over the next week, I went about my daily routine at Mepkin as usual, but inside I was deeply troubled. I was obsessed with Brother John. On one hand, he represented everything I had ever longed for, and, on the other, all that I had ever feared. I’d read Christian mystics say that God is both terrible and fascinating, and, for me, Brother John had become both.
Of course, my obsession had nothing to do with the fact that he was a monk and I was not. On the contrary, Brother John was fascinating precisely because I intuited that to live as he did, to have his quiet peace and effortless love, had nothing to do with being a monk and was available to us all.
But Brother John was also terrible because he was a living, breathing witness to my own inadequacies. Like Alkibiades in Plato’s Symposium, speaking of the effect Socrates had on him,
I had only to picture Brother John under his umbrella to feel as if “life is not worth living the way I live it.” I was terrified that if I ever did decide to follow the example of Brother John, I would either fail completely or, at best, be faced with a life of unremitting effort without Brother John’s obvious compensations. I imagined dedicating my life to others, to self-transcendence, without ever finding that inner spark of eternity that so obviously made Brother John’s life the easiest and most natural life I had ever known. Perhaps his peace and effortless love were not available to all, but only to some. Perhaps I just didn’t have what it takes.
And watch this book trailer to learn more about how this remarkable story was brought to life by artist Glenn Harrington, watch this: