March 01, 2013

The Bindery and a monk

I haven't been in college in over twenty years (um, yikes!). I loved my college experience, and I truly believe that it, along with the foundation my mother and father gave me, helped to make me a caring, loving person. I learned, I am learning, so much from that experience all those 20 years ago.

It's funny because while I remember with great fondness the friends and buddies I made, I most clearly remember some of the one off experiences that I had with individual monks, students or experiences.

One of my favorites involves a small monk named Brother Pius and another monk named Father Adian. Both had their, shall we say quirks. Brother Pius was tiny, wiry man, in his late 60s/early 70s who had spent most of his adult and even teen life at the monastery. It was all he had know. He wore small wire frame glasses and his monks robes hung from his bony shoulders like a sweater from a wire hanger.

He worked in the library's book bindery managed by Father Adian. The monastery had a large number of old text books, books, literary pieces, whose bindings would decay and the glue and or strings and wires holding them together had failed due to age, time, humidity, mistreatment. Brother Pius would take the old books, cut off the old bindings, rebind the books using a ancient, heavy press and repress the pages together with glue, cardboard and lots of cajoling.

I was a freshman, and part of the way I payed for my education and time at the seminary was to perform a work study. Father Joel, my admissions officer, told me on my first day that the only job he had was in the library, working for Father Adian. I was of course ecstatic, because I was a book worm, terribly nerdy, and couldn't image a better place to work than in the library.

On my first day I met Father Adian. Adian took his monastery and vows with great seriousness and aplomb. He did not speak except when absolutely necessary, never, ever smiled, and wore a strange Amish beard because he some sort of scar above his lip that prevented his mustache from growing. I don't think that he was especially tall, but thinking back and remembering him today, he towered over me. He always kept his hand neatly folded in the robes of his monastic garb. He at first assigned me to placing books back in the stacks, but after about an hour I wasn't able to understand the monastic dewy decimal system. He upon finding me only a 1/3 of the way through placing books away told me very simply, "Follow me." I set the book I was failing to place back on the cart in the narrow dark library stack and followed him

Now you may not understand this, but where he took me was a wonder. It was a part of the library that was off limits to students, and was actually in the inner sanctum of the monastery, a place near the cloistered life of those monks who were our teachers, mentors, guardians. He walked down the quite halls, smelling faintly of books and incense, and into a small crowded room occupied by the enormous book press, and the rather tiny Brother Pius.

"Pius, this young man will assist you in binding." Adian turned and floated out of the room with nary another sound, flittering almost like a cloud.

"I'm Brother Pius!" He extended his calloused hand to shake mine.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, I'm Thomas Burkett (I still wanted to be called Thomas in those days, it only happens with my mother to this day).

"Well let's get to work!" Pius then cackled, and I learned from working with him that he loved to laugh, and he laughed at everything he did. Pius loved his book binder, and I rarely had the chance to press the glue into the bindings, but I so fondly remember watching Pius thrust his 100 pound frame on top of the binding machine, and with all his might press the binder into the pages of history, art, science, theology, fact and fiction with such joy and power that I am sure the earth's core felt it.

I was given a rare insight into what made that experience so unique. For Pius and I weren't doing work that terribly important, for the very valuable books to be rebound were done professionally, we bound the books that the monastery didn't want to replace but weren't especially valuable (though at the time Pius rebound my bible and then I thought it was valuable). What made the experience so moving for me was working with someone who had no judgment, qualms, about his work. He loved what he did, he laughed at what he did not to make fun, but because it brought him joy. Sure, playing with a huge pressing-book binding machine is fun for most any man, especially since it contained a huge blade to trim the pages evenly, but that's not what made him laugh. His joy at life made him laugh. His love of his brothers, the students, the monastery itself made him laugh.

My last memory of Brother Pius is this. One day we had to take all the page trimmings to the monastery's dump, a ravine they had dug on the back of their property where they burned most of their trash (non toxic). Pius came into the bindery that day with a rifle in his hand. I stepped back at the gleam in his eye. "We're going to the dump!" He exclaimed.

"Okay Brother." A rifle?

"Grab those bags and follow me!" He spun quick as a jack out the door. I followed him and he lead me down to the monastery's garage. We came up to an old Ford truck (old as in it was built in the 1930's). He threw the bags into the back, the rifle onto the floor of the truck, cranked the engine and fired it up. "Let's go!"

As we bumped along the dirt road leading to the dump I asked, "Brother, what's the rifle for?"

He sat hunched over the wheel, a smile creeping on his lips, "Well at the dump there are rats the size of dogs and I don't want to bitten by a rat!" His eyes fixed on the road ahead of us, his hands grasping the wheel. he suddenly turned to me and exclaimed with a cackle, "We're going to shoot some rats."

The little truck bounced along the road jolting us on the old leather bond spring seats, and the last memory I have of him is his laugh at the look of terror on my face.

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