Monasticism for Everyone

Actually, quite a few lay people, like his friend, are into “Monasticism for Everyone” these days. They like the retreats of light diet, contemplative prayer, liturgy, celibacy, and work with the monastics—their life gets a rhythm of action and contemplation. While the nurseryman is back home, he and his prayer group stay in touch with the full time monastics through e-notes and contributions. The show ends by noting that these connections were popularized by an old book called The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.

The phone rings, from its holder clipped on the desk Its mounting has an image of St. Francis in a border of bluebirds and pointy-snouted pigs. The new assistant pastor is telling of a glitch in plans. “Don’t worry, I’ll get there today, it’s just going to take a few more hours than I figured. I was slow rolling out this morning, after the party last night at St. Nguyen’s. I did it though! I renewed my vows for another holy septad.”

“Was it a question?” Carlos asks. Seven years seems like a long time, even though some people renew in the priesthood for twelve at a time, the holy docad.

“Not really,” comes the answer. “Anyway, when I was on my way to the station, the ozalert sounded, and I had to punch open my sun poncho and shuffle along and peer under that thing, so I missed the airbus. But I’ll be along, don’t worry.”

“God bless,” he says, “see ya soon.” He clicks off the phone.

These ozone alerts still happen way too much, he thinks, even though the layer has been gradually recovering the last few decades. In the 2030s there was coastal flooding on all continents, so the insurance companies worldwide quit covering coastal property. Then governments finally got serious about pollution, slowing down both global warming and destruction of the layer. They’re still constantly renegotiating the treaties, though, at the U.N. He remembers coverage of the hearings last year.

He goes back to half watching the dv, with also half an eye on the stuff he’s sorting—tossing some items, putting others into categories.

The Ecclesia network starts a show on an order of nuns in Vietnam called the Sisters of Flowering Sorrow. They were founded in mid-century after that horrible virus epidemic, which struck mainly young people. They’re affiliated with the Mother House of St. Theresa of Calcutta. Their call is greening the memory of the dead.

The narrator recalls that it was a mutant flu, killing hundreds of millions, worst in the dense cities of Asia, though it spread to all parts of the world. It had come from reassortment of genetic materials in a strain of Influenza A, in the same host person with a bird flu virus, leading to antigenic drift in the viral material. It caused massive capillary leakage, and destroyed victims’ lungs. Despite the most rigorous quarantining of patients it swept on, until through further mutation it wore itself away. Like the pandemic virus of 1918 that killed over 30 million people, it didn’t trigger white blood cells to produce an antibody. It was genetically too unprecedented for that. For a year and half researchers world-wide worked frantically, sharing data, till someone had a vaccine–engineered from chimp cells, triggering an antibody.

The Flower sisters collect writings and artifacts of those who died, and include them in their Sunday masses. While most of the victims were Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist, the sisters have no trouble relating many of their sayings to the mass. On Easter Day this year, the people entering their church each got a hat from the collection of artifacts to wear for the service. The celebrants and servers used pieces from the collection. A blue-green ceramic vessel for the chalice, and for the altar, a tablecloth from someone’s house, white with embroidered green and gold leaf patterns. In the praises at the consecration of the gifts, the sisters included a poem by a young woman from Amritsar, about a great tree and its holding of the life of her dead lover. They have so many things in their collection that they’ve built a special hall of artifacts beside their chapter house, for visitors. There’s no admission price. Instead visitors each get a ticket with a name of someone and where the person lived. They’re asked to pronounce it a few times while looking at the artifacts. To support the order, the nuns sell reproductions and editions of the things in their collection, in several languages.

Carlos makes a note on his mini-computer hooked onto the left of his desk, and punches it into a file folder called ‘homilystuff’—these Flowers would be good to mention, on how we need to celebrate people and blessings that were ripped away from our lives and lost. Not just commemorate but celebrate them.

The phone rings again. It’s a nurse in the elder hospice three blocks away. One of his parishioners is in her last moments, it seems. He grabs his duffel bag, ready packed with all the sacrament stuff—the salver, a few hosts blessed on Sunday, oil for the Anointing of the Sick. Somehow it’s easier to be strong for this lady after hearing of the Flowers and the flu victims. At least she had a long life. He pops a cool-it disc on his tongue, tucks on his wide-brim straw sunhat, and heads out into the heat.

“At least I only have to go three blocks,” he thinks, “it’s good that the priests are organized now by these elder-precincts for the hospices. I don’t have to hustle all around the city.” It’s 1020 outside.

Worldwide, life expectancy is now 74—in the U.S. and Europe 82. The scientists say it’d be a few years more if the ozone layer were fully recovered, so people didn’t get radiation damage. As he walks, he’s thinking of how long people live. STDs are treatable or preventable, though occasionally new ones crop up, like the old AIDs that lasted so many decades. And most countries have learned pretty good conflict resolution. There are non-governmental organizations, regional military-ecological alliances, and national governments almost totally focused on environmental law enforcement. They all make kind of a counterweight to the multi-national corporations. Although the corporations have defensive paramilitaries at their large production sites, plus computer-spy and security staffs, they push their case mainly with internet and televideo campaigns. Luckily population growth plateaued in 2060, When humanity had doubled again over what it was forty years earlier. It’s now slightly declining. People are glad of that worldwide, although in most countries healthy people have to work till age 72 before getting retirement benefits. Most of the population is still over fifty—has been for years.

His brown arms and slender, almost hairless legs glisten in the heat. The mini-tatoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his left bicep, with its circling border of snow and roses, is almost as shiny in the hot sun as his gold cross earring dangling above it. He got the tatoo when he was sixteen, before he thought of being a priest.

Of course sadly, he muses, the end of population growth needed the ‘help’ of calamities: massive forest fires in south Asia causing soil loss and widespread crop failures; famines in Africa while the Sahara desert spread ever southward; and in the 2020s and 30s, vast epidemics. Besides the mutant flu, there was that tuberculosis, totally immune to antibiotics and killing millions. Finally everyone that had it was put in quarantine-imprisonment until they died. The other epidemic–like earlier Kreuzfeld-Jakob’s or ‘mad cow’ disease–was caused by a rogue prion protein in the brain, coming from organic matter in the water in Latin American slums. It reproduced by turning similar molecules into replicas of itself. It survived even boiling and was unaffected by the immune system or any kind of antibiotic. Its symptoms of encephalitis took years to appear, but then turned brain tissue spongy. It ended only when whole populations of many districts were dead.

Somehow, Carlos reflects, religions and faith survive–or restart–even after mass nightmares. In Jerusalem the holy sites, except the Wailing Wall, are administered now by a commission of Imams, Rabbis, and Christian clergy, while Israel has its main capital buildings in a suburb. Practicing Jews worldwide are of all racial backgrounds, since intermarriage is usual but a few offspring always keep the faith. Tibet, still economically poor, has become the spiritual center of a world Buddhism focused on meditation and non-violent activism for justice. It has incorporated some of the widely admired Hindu and Buddhist scriptures into a canon of writings, studied as a religious poetics, in Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, and English.

Arriving at the hospice door, Carlos rings and an elderly nun opens, in knee-length airy cotton skirt with a print of peace symbols, white scoop-neck sleeveless blouse, and white headband with gray curls tumbling over it onto her forehead. Her face is tanned from gardening, and her eyes kindly.

He spreads his sacramental cloth and gear on the bed by the dying lady’s feet, and asks if she’s awake enough to receive communion. Realizing that she isn’t, he begins the anointing prayers. She’s outlived her son, and the grandchildren are far away. The sister helps, saying the responses. Rosie had been a soil scientist. Had given him her slide collection from travels in Islamic countries—pictures of people and lands. He planned to scan them into his database of images for slide-homilies. Hadn’t got around to it yet. But he’d told her he would.

Islam is the biggest world religion now. Good thing it’s better for women these days, he reflects. Rosie’s pictures show schools for girls, and women’s centers for health care and socializing. In many countries the women wear semi-transparent veils–a great fashion article, much varied in size and color-patterns. In rural areas, Islamic men are very attached to their families, and to local trades and sports. Among the wealthy classes, polygamy and the loves of sister-wives are widespread. Sometimes he tries to explain different cultures to the kids in the parish youth group.

Just as he finishes and is holding Rosie’s hand, her eyes open briefly. She seems to see him, then closes them again. He makes the sign of the cross on her forehead with the scented chrism oil, then sits a minute or so, watching her facial muscles settle into limpness. He places her hands across her stomach. “Goodbye, Rosie,” he thinks. “If you were my mom, I couldn’t have prayed with you any better.” He gets up, puts on his sunhat, and slowly walks back to the parish hall.

As he reaches the peony strip, another tram pings its approach. He checks his watch and thinks, “let me hop this one up to St. Aloysius and catch the spiritgame at 1:00. There’s time enough to clean the office yet.”