The Discalced Carmelite Monastery of Marylake
south of Little Rock, Arkansas
The property at Marylake was 300 or so acres. Most of it was wooded, much of that in pines that had been planted for commercial harvesting. We also farmed about fifty acres, some of it across the road on a piece of property the friars also owned. The farm operation was overseen by Jess Spann, a man in his 70s at the time I was there.
When the Shriners built the country club in 1926, they hired Jess, a young man from the East End community where the country club was located. East End sounds like a fancy name, but it just meant the tiny corner at the eastern end of Bauxite County. Jess was groundskeeper from the beginning and continued to work on the property through the various owners up to and including the Carmelites. He and his first wife had raised their family in a house on the property, and after her death, Jess and his second wife, Jewel, lived in the same house. He was a kind and generous man, a hard worker and a good supervisor and teacher of the mostly clueless postulants [guys in their first months in the monastery] and novices who were turned over to him for three hours each morning as a labor force.
During the planting, growing and harvesting seasons, we worked the farm. I expected to hate it, but it turned out to be very contemplative and enjoyable. We were not supposed to carry on unnecessary conversations during work, but Jess was a Southern Baptist deacon who let us talk as we chose.
When we were not working in the garden, we took care of other things on the grounds. We cleared brush, trimmed the pine trees, mowed the extensive grounds, painted outbuildings and so on. When the weather got too cold to work outside all the time, we moved the painting projects inside, painting the chapel and corridors of the monastery and all the rooms in the guest house.
Saturdays were given over to housecleaning, and we swept and polished the wooden floors to a high shine. I was responsible for cleaning the choir on Saturday, and I was an assistant to the sacristan who took care of the church and its supplies. This was a never-ending job, because candles constantly had to be replaced, candlesticks and followers needed wax scraped, cruets for water and wine needed cleaning and filling, host supplies had to be maintained, vestments had to be taken to be cleaned and kept in order.
Work was constant but not laborious. Everyone worked, including the priests, although many of them had desk jobs, too. Fr. Lawrence not only served as local superior. As a canon lawyer, he worked for the Diocese of Little Rock in the Chancery Office, where he was a judge for annulment cases. About halfway through my time at Marylake, he got a promotion and his work for the diocese kept him away more and more.
Fr. Anthony and Fr. Joseph taught the novitiate classes five days a week. I will say more about that later. They both also did a lot of retreat work, helped out with Mass and confessions in parishes on the weekends, gave classes to the cloistered Carmelite nuns in Little Rock and so on. Old whispery Fr. Evarist was the house treasurer and also worked on weekends in the parishes. This usually meant he caught a bus on the highway around noon on Saturday and came back by bus later Sunday afternoon. Many of the Arkansas parishes did not have a full-time priest, and they relied on the Carmelites and other religious order clergy for weekend services. Fr. Gabriel was our cook, an excellent one, I must say, did a lot of retreat work and was usually out in a parish on the weekend.
Our postulant-novice work day ended before noon, leaving us enough time in summer for a quick shower before the midday meal. We all helped clean up dishes after meals, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher, took out trash and the ordinary things that every household deals with. After a month or so, Richard was put in charge of having the soup ready for supper. This usually just meant opening a large can of soup and putting it on the stove. Since he was going to be a lay brother, he was expected to take on some of the more manual-servant tasks. The older friars still had something of a two-tiered social order in their minds, a remnant of the days when lay brothers were illiterate peasants who did all the manual labor and the priests devoted themselves to prayer, study and sacramental ministry. This system was in the process of collapsing, but it was not completely gone. I am happy to say, and I believe I am being honest, that among the four postulants, there was no difference whatsoever about how we viewed one another. We were all in this together.
The main meal was at noon in the refectory. This had been the banquet hall of the country club. It was a long room with a huge stone fireplace on one side. Large wrought iron chandeliers hung in a row down the center of the room above the tables. The tables had been made by Carmelite brothers back in 1952 and they were plain and beautiful. Originally they would have been arranged in a sort of horseshoe around the room with benches along the walls and everyone facing the middle of the room. Now the tables were pushed together and we all ate at one long table. As postulants and novices, we were told not to always sit in the same place because you could only talk to one or two people that way. We tried to move around, but the reality was that the professed members always sat in the same place, making it hard for us to do much circulating.
The Carmelites, like most older orders, once had the custom of always sitting in order of seniority at table, in chapel and in choir. The habit died hard with the older generation. The younger generation was treated to stories about novices being sent home and the only way the others found out was when his place was empty the next day. You just moved up a slot and carried on.
A sidenote on the sitting in seniority thing. In the old Constitutions, the regulations that controlled Carmelite life prior to Vatican II, there is a detailed outline of the order in which people sit at table, choir and chapel and the order in which they walk in procession. It actually begins by quoting the evangelical precept found in Luke 14:
“When Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Having recounted this admonition, the Constitutions went on to say that this was an admirable thing and no doubt it was always spiritually desirable. “However, for the greater order of the house of God, the following precedence will be followed…” You gotta love that! Essentially they decided that God meant well, but if the Lord had really understood the way things should be in God’s own house, the Lord would do things another way. They did not invent this maneuver. The hierarchy had been doing it for years and it remains alive and well today among the higher clergy, although largely ignored and obsolete among Carmelites and most modern religious communities of men and women.
We ate well at the monastery, because most of the vegetables we ate were grown in our own garden. I never knew how good corn could taste until I tasted corn that had been picked and shuck and thrown into boiling water within ten or fifteen minutes of the picking. And fresh spinach! Spinach I hated, like most kids, but then I had only eaten the canned slime. The real thing was great raw and steamed. Our salads were mostly tomatoes and sliced onions and olives. Much of our bread had been baked by the nuns in town, and we ate fresh fruit more often than we ate cakes or pies. Our main meal being at midday, the typical European plan, meant that we ate a light meal in the evening before settling down. We burned more calories that way. Add in the manual labor I was doing for three hours in the morning, the long walks two or three times a day and the healthier food, I lost 40 pounds during my first year. Which meant I got down to the weight I should have been all along. I did not starve or feel hungry. It was just a healthier lifestyle.
After lunch, weather permitting, we went for a walk for about a half hour. We chatted about classes, filled one another in on what we had done with our lives up to that point and became friends. Teresa was very big on friendship in the community. She liked the communities to be small enough that everyone knew everyone, and that they not be large enough for cliques to form. This did not preclude dislikes and tensions, of course. Examples of that later.
After our stroll, we all returned to our rooms to nap or read. Postulants and novices were encouraged to do a bit of exercise before classes began, mainly so that we would be awake during class.
Fr. Joseph and Fr. Anthony taught most of our classes, which we had five days a week. Joseph taught history of the Order, scripture and whatever else struck his fancy. Anthony taught us spirituality with an emphasis on the most important writings by the Discalced Carmelite saints. I learned a great deal from each of these men, but Anthony was clearly the better teacher. Joseph was hampered by having an eidetic memory and being unable to censor anything he knew when discussing any topic. I heard that he once nearly failed a course in Rome, not because he did not know the material, but because he wrote such long detailed answers that he never completed any exams.
To cite one example: Joe would be teaching a class on the letters of St. Paul, and would come across the word salvation. He would then tell us what the word was in the original Greek. Then he would start giving a Greek lesson for the next half hour. I had studied Greek and could survive this. My classmates’ eyes just glazed over. And this sort of thing happened with great regularity. Once on a vocation weekend when Joe was supposed to give a forty-five minute talk on the general history of religious life, he started with Buddha in the sixth century B.C. Forty-five minutes later, we had made it to the sixth century A.D. and had fourteen centuries to go.
Anthony, on the other hand, was a great teacher and an excellent preacher. I benefited from his classes as a postulant, novice and professed student – a period of seven years – and I attribute my own skill as a teacher and preacher with my daily exposure to him. He did it as naturally as breathing. I often encouraged him to write, but he thought his only gift was speaking. He finally did write one booklet on prayer, the book I mentioned above. It was as clear as anything and sold well, but he told me he found it hard to do.
After class, if we wished, we could join the professed community to watch the national news before Evening Prayer. The only news on at that hour was the ABC Evening News, so that is what we watched. Harry Reasoner and Howard K. Smith told us what had happened during the day and we went upstairs afterward to pray about it.
The only real newsworthy thing I remember from that time was the death of Lyndon Johnson. That breaking news happened after most of us had left for the chapel, and old Fr. Evarist was the only one to hear it. During the petitions at Evening Prayer, he prayed for the “repose of the soul of former President Andrew Johnson.” Since Andrew Johnson had been the president who followed Abraham Lincoln, everyone looked confused. I thought maybe it was the anniversary of Andrew Johnson’s death, but we got it straightened out after prayer was over.
The petitions at Mass and at Evening Prayer could sometimes become a forum for personal agendas. During the trial of Angela Davis, or so I was told, a novice had prayed “For Angela Davis, that she may get a fair and just trial.” One of the conservative Spanish priests shot back with, “For Angela Davis, that she may get what’s coming to her.” In Washington, DC, one eccentric older woman who prayed loudly for the strangest things was once rebuked when a brother prayed, “For the elderly who are losing their minds, let us pray to the Lord.” She was not losing her mind as is clear from her immediate response: “For those struggling with alcoholism, let us pray to the Lord.” The brother, who had been in recovery for decades, had the good humor to laugh.
After Evening Prayer, the second period of Mental Prayer followed. We gathered for a brief community act of devotion to Mary at the end of the hour of prayer and then headed for supper. Supper was followed by an hour of recreation, which included optional television, and then Night Prayer and Grand Silence and another day was over.