Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


The Wilderness and the Monastery

Last Monday I set off, with my fifteen year-old brother Josh in tow, to go backpack for a few days in North Alabama. We drove up to the trailhead in the Sipsey Wilderness Area of William Bankhead National Forest at 7:00 or so, and hiked down into a fine little valley about an hour from the trailhead, with a stream and small waterfall nearby, and set up camp. We passed the night without incident, although my poor brother didn't sleep much. You see, he slept in a hammock- which was fine, except that he didn't bring a sleeping bag. With only a sheet and light blanket, he got cold in the damp, cool night-time air, and thus laid awake all night while I was comfortably enveloped by my fancy backpacking bag- on the ground, but actually quite comfortable (the trick to sleeping on the ground is to fitting oneself into the countours of the soil- works most of the time). We got up about 8:00 or so, after waiting out a light drizzle (fortunately Josh did have a tarp strung over his hammock).

After breaking camp, we hiked downstream. My plan was to follow a lovely, waterfall-flecked canyon north, camp Tuesday night, then hike back via a ridge-top trail to the east (note that we were at the present hiking off-trail, following streams- my favorite mode of hiking when I can). However, my plan for the week fizzled almost as soon as we got off walking. Josh began complaining of his stomach hurting. Now, that's a nasty thing anyway, but it's a really nasty thing when you are off in the wilds with a twenty pound pack to carry. I asked him if he wanted to go back, and he said no. In retrospect, I should have compelled a retreat then, but I didn't. We hiked a mile or so, and he seemed to be doing well enough. The stream we were following dropped deeper into the folds of the land, until it opened onto a larger creek, which shortly dropped over a lovely waterfall into the main canyon. This was where Josh's condition worsened. We lingered about the falls for a while (long enough for Josh to fall in), then began walking down canyon. We didn't get very far. Still within sight of the falls, Josh dropped against a tree and began throwing up.

To condense this unhappy drama, we traveled a little further down canyon, until coming to a tributary stream that offered a climb up out of the canyon and back to the trail. We were only an hour's walk from the trailhead, but it took much longer. We at last made it back to the car. I had to return down the trail to recover my unfortuante brother's backpack, which we had cached upon reaching the ridge trail. After that, we drove back to Haleyville (the nearest town, and birthplace of 9-1-1 of all things) where I got Josh some anti-nausea medicine at Wal-Mart. I then deliberated my next course of action. Josh did not wish to make the long drive back home, and to be honest, I didn't either. However, I did not want to stay in a hotel all day and night, and I did not feel that Josh should be back out in the woods. Then I recalled that there was a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, an hour or so drive east of where we were. I remembered reading online that they took guests, and had been meaning to visit up their way for a while anyway. However, I couldn't remember where exactly it was, and my Delorme Atlas didn't help me. So we made a trip to the local library. It was a but difficult to find, as it fronts Main Street- but Haleyville has no Main Street right now as it's been ripped up for some reason. We did locate the library eventually, and were given directions to St. Bernard's Abbey.

After an hour of driving horridly windy roads, and my brother groaning pitifully, we arrived at the Abbey. I went in to the gift shop (adjacent to the famed- in North Alabama at least- Ave Maria Grotto), and asked the lady at the counter about getting a room at the Abbey. A little while later I met with the assistant guestmaster and explained my situation. I was a bit nervous, as I was certain of the irregularity of just 'showing up'- not to mention the fact I had a sick brother tagging along, am not Roman Catholic, and was dressed like- well, like someone who just crawled out of the woods. At any rate, since there were only a handful of guests, the monastery had rooms open, and we were each given a room. It was certainly gracious of the Abbey- the normal procedure is to reserve at least a couple weeks in advance. But I was in a fix (albiet not an impossible one) and the Brothers were very gracious.

Presently the Abbey has 28 monks in residence, though several are confined to the Infirmary. For many years St. Bernard's was almost exclusively German (the town of Cullman was settled by German immigrants- which is quite unusual for the Deep South) but is now comprised of men from all over the US. The Abbey was established in Cullman in 1891, and the old monastery building, which I did not get to visit, dates from that era. The current building is a more modern construct, from the 50's I suppose. The Abbey Church is also a fairly recent structure, from the 50's or 60's. As far as modern churches go, it's not too bad. The exterior is very sparse, too sparse for my tastes, but the interior is considerably better. The acoustics were beautiful; Vespers was especially lovely.

Our stay there was very nice- Josh slept through most of it, while I talked with our guestmaster and attended Evening Mass and Vespers (did't make it to Compline; got caught talking with another guest). The food was really good- dinner was Chinese, with honey chicken (which just happens to be one of my favorites), eggrolls, and rice. Josh was still feeling bad, so he missed out. In the morning I went to Matins and breakfast- Josh was feeling better, but didn't feel quite up to breakfast. We left out shortly after breakfast, after expressing our gratitude again. Our guestmaster supplied us with bananas and cookies, and a towel for Josh just in case- which we did not, fortunately, need. Josh was feeling fine when we left, and the drive home was uneventful.

"Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, 'I came as a guest, and you received Me'(Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honor be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims."

Rule of St. Benedict


Blogger Karl Thienes said...

Nice is good that Josh didn't have an appendicitus or something worse....

6:50 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I think the cause of his ailment was as follows (forgot to put this in the main post): while we were camping, he discovered crawfish in the stream nearby, gathered some up (with a flashlight and disposable bowl), then boiled and ate them, despite my protestations. Yeah, that's my brother (he's the hunter-trapper type)... I, of course, never touched the stuff (I'm not a crustacean person anyway; give me higher lifeforms thank you). He ate several. Now, crawfish are nasty enough, but I don't think he boiled them very well (I overheard him say, 'Huh, this one didn't cook very well...') I might add that he has always had a rather weak stomach.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Karl Thienes said...

That was easy. Mystery solved! He sounds like my younger brother....

5:21 PM  

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