The Ethiopian had been shot and wounded. Terror and chaos ruled in his country, leading him to flee in search of the most precious human right -- life. Now, a year and a half later, the refugee bears his scars. He limps into the monastery dining hall, dragging one side of his body like a sack of potatoes.
He is far from home. The roof above him is that of St. Anselm's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery set on a quiet hilltop in Northeast Washington. With its red brick, leaded windows and 40 acres of buffering grounds, St. Anselm's is a place to come to. To the Roman Catholic monks who operate St. Anselm's, the Ethiopian's presence is to be expected. High among the precepts of the Rule of St. Benedict, which they follow, is hospitality to those in need: "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say, 'I came as a guest and you received me,'" wrote the 6th-century saint who set down what is still the framework of much of Christian monasticism.
A monk brings the Ethiopian food and asks if he needs anything else. His words amount to a stage whisper, given the stony floor, the long wood tables, the rock-hard acoustics of the room. Moments later, the crippled man, struggling to bring spoon to mouth, drops the utensil in a resounding clatter.
An East African government had turned on some of its citizens, torturing, killing them so that its borders hemorrhaged. Here, half a world away, modest repercussion of that sadness registers in a dropped spoon and a refugee doing as he must -- taking refuge. He is not alone. Last year the abbey took in 200 guests -- hypertensive stockbrokers, burned-out journalists, depressed lawyers -- men who called, wanting to check in for a few days of serious contemplation.
Here, more fundamentally, 35 Catholic men have checked in not for days but for lifetimes, to follow St. Benedict, who calls in his rule for a life of prayer and teaching. They feel the sharpness of a three-pronged vow: poverty, celibacy and communal stability. The road to that end, to irrevocable monkhood, takes about five years, ascending through levels of growing commitment in the "formation process." The road, too, winds through a thicket of psychological tests and reviews in a persistent winnowing process. Only 40 percent of those who begin ultimately take final monastic vows. Says Abbot James Wiseman, the abbey's titular head: "In the five and a half years I've been abbot, no one has asked for dispensation from final vows." There is only one source, he adds, that can grant such release: "The Vatican."
Prayer links the round of life at St. Anselm's, prayer the path to God. Five times a day the monks meet in common prayer. The dominat impression is of silent, robed figures orienting and reorienting to the chapel like bees to a hive. Overhead a tolling bell calls them to prayer, breaking ever so gently, a pervading, purposeful quiet.
But St. Anselm's is not like some monasteries, where retreat is deep and silence the rule. St. Benedict's rule stresses education. The monastery runs a private boys' school (enrollment 200) and a summer camp to pay its modest worldly costs. A monk serving as chaplain at Walter Reed Hospital and others teaching at Catholic University also bring in some money, as do donations from guests. St. Anslem's thus lies in an ecclesiastical twilight zone -- a place of walls, a place of windows.
This dual identity, this contratdiction, appears in the person of Brother Maurus Wolf. He came to St. Anselm's in 1924, its first year, an 18-year-old sapling of a youth off an Ohio farm. He bent under the formal regime, taking four classes of Latin a day, laboring under a woodcarving monk who, for a long time, wouldn't let Wolf touch his tools. "He told me I'd never make a woodcarver because my hands perspired too much. He held me down a bit."
Wolf did his carving on the side and ventured out into the city's slums to teach catechism. This was unusual for those cloistered times; he raised some eyebrows. "Back then [the '30s] the blacks were seen as nothing, and so were you if you associated with them." As for his fellow monks, some worried about him, "some kidded me a little."
Wolf was a rare sight in the ghetto. "The only other white men who went in there were the police." He recalls children scattering in his path, running for their mothers' skirts as if "they'd just seen a bear come out of the woods."
Wolf today, the abbey's beekeeper, vegetable grower, man for all seasons, still walks in the ghetto. In the interim he has found time to work with wood. He built the cabinets in which the monks hang their vestments. He carved the choir stalls that cloister them in prayer. If, at age 75, Maurus Wolf has an apology to make it is this: "My speech may not be as refined as some of the fathers [priest-monks]. I've associated with drunks and hobos all my life. They used to have a rule here that said the fathers and brothers weren't really supposed to mix, no unnecessary talk."
The first Christian monks, those of the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., walked into the desert to live ascetic lives. They turned their backs on wretched excess, maybe one day to come face to face with God.
Later monks, those of the Middle Ages, walked into castles and closed the doors, driven not only by faith but by an instinct for self-preservation.
These twin strains surface at St. Anselm's Monks who speak of simplicity, reflection, who walk in quiet shade, do so with keys jangling from their belts. Doors are unlocked ahead of their path and relocked behind them, securing their multichambered life.
Yes, says Abbot Wiseman with a sigh, "We don't live simply and purely on this property. We live in a violent society." He is asked, then, how one treads the fine line between Christian ideal and simple survival. "Our primary responsibility is to our calling as monks. We are humble enough to know there's a lot in the world we can't set right." But he adds, "People seek out monasteries rather than monks seek them. We get a lot of beautiful letters from people who have visited, telling us what a difference we've made in their lives. I know we can make a difference simply by being ourselves."
Out in the sun, with the wind wafting through the pines, Father Christopher Wyvill echoes the abbot: "We provide a place for other men to get away, to withdraw awhile for their own reflection, to see if they're living up to Christian and Catholic ideals."
"Some professional people: bankers, lawyers, writers, crooks."
Crooks? A few years ago a man came and stayed a week, claiming to have just endured divorce. He left, leaving a sizeable donation. A week later the FBI called the monastery: The man was wanted on suspicion of embezzling $100,000 from a bank. "Well," recalls Brother Isaac Borocz, "that was the man, and that was the money." Soon afterwards the erstwhile visitor turned himself in, saying that his week at the abbey had moved him to come clean.
Another face. Father Christopher peers into the past. "I remember a fellow from the Army. This was during the Vietnam War, and he decided to become a conscientious objector. He was harassed by the other men in his platoon. He came here for refuge, stayed a week and left." Father Christopher pauses, shrugs. "I haven't heard from him since."
Guests come and go, lives touching down and lifting off this hilltop, then vanishing again back into the world. Monks stay. They live a life of curious suspension. They live in worldly bondage to this place. They live in hope of spiritual flight.
Father Edmund Henkels looks at his penniless, cloistered life and says, "It's liberating. There are very few secular worries here.That releases you to spend your time pursuing essence." Somewhere deep in dependence lie the seeds of freedom.
Says Father John Farrelly, "Here you experience the cost of commitment." Farrelly found that in his early religious years ambivalence stalked him. The solitude of monkhood intrigued him, as did the joys of married life. He chose the first and found himself "moved deeply" by the people around him "who would commit themselves so deeply. I got beyond that inevitable ambivalence."
Farrelly found the power of prayer, and so lost his selfish self. Now looking back, this is what he sees: "So many people have lost the roots of their own human beings. The vast number of people in our country identify with rather superficial elements of their beings. They are not even aware of themselves." St. Anselm's, he says, is a place for discovery. "A place like this constantly calls on us to get in touch with our deep selves."
In a spartan guest room the crippled Ethiopian tries to sleep and thus forget his pain. Soon he must leave to make way for other guests and other refugees. His name is Negussie Tedla, age 29. Morning light fills the room, rounding its hard edges and Tedla's fine, high cheekbones. If the meek shall inherit the earth, Tedla one day will be king.
He fled Ethiopia with his brother to the Suden, bribing militiamen as they went, ultimately crossing the border by hired car. Today, some 1 million Ethiopians have gone into exile, with about 40 percent of those living in the Sudan. Some Sudanese are doing a good business running a taxi service of sorts. They drive out to the border and pick up straggling Ethiopians.
Tedla speaks in fractured English glued together with Mussolini's African legacy -- Italian. Only the prominences of his story appear, but that is enough.
His mother remains in Ethiopia. Letters take up to six months -- if they get through at all. Will he return to his country? "Never." Fear clouds his face, then just as suddenly clears. "I stay here, America, America." He savors the word, smiling broadly.
Why here? "Freedom. Liberta. America."
Tedla is recuperating. His hands have stopped shaking, and his legs, dangling like sticks off the bed, are getting stronger. He gestures shamefully toward them as if they are not attached to his body, "Molto malo, molto malo." Now he smiles, "Better now. St. Anselm's very good." The day before, a monk, Father Daniel Kirk, had taken him to a nearby hospital for physical therapy.
Where in the rest of his family? His father? "Dead." The smile turns to deep frown. The conversation falters and soon ends. Then comes awareness that Tedla will soon be out on the street to fend for himself in free America.