The following essay appears in our November 2013 Digital Issue. It is also the 2013 Tiferet Writing Contest winner for non-fiction. Read the rest of Mary’s story and the entire issue by downloading it.
Last summer at New Melleray Abbey I saw a monk who reminded me of my late fiancé, Jim Beaman. It was during Compline, the last canonical hour of the day.
During Compline at New Melleray, four black-and-white-robed monks come out and stand in the middle of the floor; one of them plays the guitar and all four of them sing, in harmony, the 90th psalm. It’s always the same. All of the hours services are, although the psalms they sing at the other services vary according to the day of the week and whether it’s an odd or an even week. But they always sing the 90th psalm during Compline, and it’s always the same monks who sing it and the same monk who plays the guitar, and it always sounds the same although somehow it manages to be fresh and new and startlingly beautiful every single time, those four monks’ voices rising and falling in a strange haunting harmony.
Up until that moment during Compline last summer, I’d never paid much attention to the guitar-playing monk. I’ve been going to New Melleray, a Trappist monastery in Northeast Iowa, once or twice a year since the summer of 1994, when I was struggling with a writing problem and somebody told me it was a good place to get away and think. Most recently I spent two days there with my friend Mary Montanye, who’d come to Iowa City from Ft. Collins, Colorado, to attend a weeklong writing class I taught at our local university.
When I was up there with Mary, I noticed that the monk who plays the guitar during Compline was short and young and cute – at least I imagined he was cute, looking at the back of him from a fairly good distance – and he had close-cropped brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, all of which Jim Beaman had or was. Even more than his appearance, there was something boyish and maybe a little rebellious about him which made me think of Beaman. And even more than that, I remembered as I was sitting there at the back of the chapel, there was something about Jim Beaman that reminded me of that monk, something about Beaman that made you think he could have, if he had managed to live an entirely different life, ended up in some monastery playing the guitar and singing the 90th psalm.
MARY ALLEN is the author of The Rooms of Heaven, published by Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books. She received a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship for work on another book-length memoir, Awake in the Dream House. She also received a Paul Engle/James Michener Fellowship in 1995. She has received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught in the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing MFA program, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. She currently makes a living as a writing coach and lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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