Tall Blue Ladder
- onSeptember 25, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byGong Ji-Young
- Tall Blue Ladder
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2013376pp.
Everyone has memories they can’t erase. Because they are painful. Because they are beautiful. Because they leave behind vivid scars that continue to ache. Like cold, white mushrooms that sprout behind your racing heart whenever you think back on those days.
I lost three people that year. Of course I went on to face other difficulties, and other deaths, and even at times other separations that seemed unbearable, but none left as deep of a mark on me as those losses. Of course, my youth was probably mostly to blame for that. Back then, I was a young Benedictine monk preparing to be ordained as a priest.
The monastic life is difficult to explain, even to other Catholics, regardless of whether you’re a Benedictine, Franciscan, or Carmelite. I guess you could put it in secular terms and say the monks live in a commune where everyone abandons worldly possessions, takes a vow of chastity, and never marries. Someone once referred to monks as “people who leave the world in order to listen to a deeper voice hidden within themselves.” A young Spanish monk in the early twentieth century said we were “people who give up everything in order to gain the most precious thing in the world.”
But can any of these one-line definitions come anywhere near to explaining the life of a human being? I prefer to use a quote from Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who referred without any hesitation to the visionary poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud as “Christians turned inside out.” He also alluded to Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre as ascetics, because they “have looked into the face of death, have plumbed the abyss of man’s nothingness, have probed man’s inauthenticity, and have cried out for his liberation.” I like his analogies best. Explaining one life by comparing it to another seems the most appropriate. Or to put it another way, how could you compare anything to a flowing river unless it’s also something that flows? Like years, hours, life, or wind and clouds.
The first thing you have to address when you talk about the monastic life is, of course, silence. What I have learned from living here is that silence is not simply quiet, not simply the absence of sound. Nor is it the gaps in between sound but rather a state of very active listening. Silence is necessary for perceiving the sounds beyond sound, the senses beyond our senses.
During my early days at the abbey, whenever I was out walking, I would pause to take in the sounds I couldn’t hear over my footfalls. Despite the fact that the bottoms of the sandals I wore back then were rubber and barely made a sound, there were still countless tiny whispers that were concealed by even that small noise: snowflakes slipping from the arms of a pine tree, leafless branches trembling in the wind, squirming insects twisting and turning deep underground, tree roots slowly stretching their thin toes deeper into the earth. Was that slight breeze brushing past my ears the friction generated by the earth as it rotated on its axis? Those moments I experienced back then felt like sly glimpses of the universe, or God, or human life, revealing themselves ever so slightly. Whenever that happened, the sky opened up and something like an indescribable peace cascaded over me.
Up until that year, the monastic life more or less suited me. I grew quite fond of the five daily calls to prayer, and the courses in theology, which I’d continued studying after transferring to the seminary, were difficult but refreshing. I’d also earned the trust of the priors and the monks senior to me. I wanted to plumb the depths of the universe and wrap my mind around the world. I loved the tall bookcases that reached all the way to the high ceiling of the abbey library. There, books containing over two thousand years of the compressed wisdom of Christ’s followers awaited my hands and eyes. I sat in that library every day, determined to read every book in there. In the afternoons, when I tired of reading, I walked the grounds of the abbey. Large trees over fifty years old stood quietly in rows as if to cheer me on.
Some days brought letters from friends who were still living on college campuses, getting drunk, attending cram schools, and studying for standardized exams. I felt like a mountaineer who’d left them all behind in the playground of a national park and set off alone for the highest summit. It was the luxury of one who has been chosen and I, of course, had all the arrogance of one who has chosen himself. Every season, nature showered its sumptuous gifts on me as someone who’d already learned in his early twenties the art of silence. Well, up until that year, that is.
Of course, having grown up in the noisy world outside, the silence of the monastery did not come easily at first. Silence is probably why I remember my first day there so clearly. The abbey was located right behind the train station in Waegwan, less than a five-minute walk away. When I showed up at the entrance to the main building and told them why I was there, the gatekeeper said the abbot had been waiting for me and led me inside. I assumed my grandmother had called them. I’d been visiting the monastery with my grandmother ever since I was young. But it felt very different to actually live there. Settlers always notice things that tourists overlook.
The inside of the abbey was much simpler than the outside. It was very dark and quiet with many long corridors. Posted above the entrance was a placard that read Ora et Labora, a famous Benedictine motto that meant pray and work. Another read, If you love truth, be a lover of silence. “Please turn off your cellphone,” the gatekeeper added, his voice sounding rehearsed. I took my phone out of my pocket and powered it off—the effect was like standing in the middle of downtown right as someone flips off the switch to your auditory nerve. The atmospheric pressure inside my heart changed in an instant, and inexplicable sobs rose up to my weightless vocal cords. Once the curtain of noise had been drawn aside, silence entered.
Silence was a dark mirror that saw all the way through to the marrow of my bones, no matter how many layers of clothing I wore. I was frightened at first glimpse. I’d yearned for that silence while preparing for the monastic life, but I did not foresee its enormous power. I don’t remember if I actually did hesitate and turn to look back, but it felt like I did. The whistle of the train leaving, the same train that had brought me here, sounded like an auditory hallucination. I’d left my brief youth behind on that train when I got off at the station. Noise and hope, joy and nausea, nerves and tears, envy and jealousy . . . I took another step down the long hallway where a gentle darkness had settled. In that gap between the curtains of sound, I caught my first glimpse of my naked soul.
“Why did you become a monk?” “Why this monastery?” Those questions were harder than being asked, “What have you done with your life so far, and what will you do in the future?” Other than the fact that my grandmother was connected to the abbey, it was hard for me to explain why I’d felt that this particular place was where I would live. Maybe that’s why people call it a vocation. From the Latin vocare, to be called or summoned. Someone asks, “Why are you here?” And all you can say is, “Because I was called.” Yes, Lord, I am here.
A man was making his way toward us from the other end of the long hallway that led to the abbot’s quarters. (I didn’t find out until later, but it was Brother Thomas. He was in his seventies at the time. He’d left his hometown in Germany and settled in Korea many years ago, back when our abbey was located in Deokwon, South Hamgyeong Province—in what is now North Korea. Since he was elderly and retired from his duties, no one would have said a word if he’d chosen to rest and do nothing, but instead he passed the time reading and keeping those long hallways mopped clean. Pray and work—if that was the duty of the Benedictine Order, then he was a faithful member up until his dying day.) The image of him pushing a long mop down the hallway that day left a lasting impression on me. The light of the setting sun filtered in through the windows just then, tempering the darkness that pooled in the corridor, and he was like a sacred fish slowly swimming his way through it.
I met his eyes as I walked quickly past. Short for a German, he raised his wrinkled face, which sat on top of his stooped body, and flashed me a smile. I still don’t know why but a tremor ran through me, from the top of my head down to the tips of my toes. For a long time I thought what drew me was the lucidness, or transparency, or perhaps even indifference contained in his gaze, and the simple blessing, or perhaps even a yearning, directed toward a young person that radiated from his smile. During my interview shortly after, when the abbot asked why I wanted to become a monk, I said, “Because I want to live and die like that elderly monk who’s mopping the hallway outside.”
The abbot sipped his tea and regarded me for a moment. The crucifix dangling over his paunch shook. He looked like he was trying to figure out what I meant by that, and then he smiled and said, “Is that so? Well, let’s not be in too much of a hurry to die, shall we?”
I write this from my office at the abbey. The thing about life is that you never really see more than an inch ahead of where you are. I’ve always felt, but even right up until last night I would never have guessed, that I would find myself thinking back on things that happened ten years ago.
After the evening prayer, I was summoned by our abbot, Father Samuel. The abbot who first admitted me into the monastery had retired and went on to serve as the head of a convent near the coast in Masan, and Father Samuel had been elected to take his place.
The Benedictines have a unique way of selecting a new abbot for a monastery. Instead of candidates running for office, names are submitted randomly and whoever among them gets two-thirds of the vote becomes abbot and is responsible for the entire monastery. Some say that the papal conclave originated from this Benedictine tradition. Conclave comes from the Latin cum clāve, which means “with key.” When the cardinals tasked with selecting the next pope are all assembled inside the voting room, the door is locked from the outside. There are no candidates and no campaigning, and even debates are forbidden during the election period. It’s the same with the Benedictines. If no one gets two-thirds of the vote by the fourth round, then it continues on to a fifth and sixth round. Whoever holds the majority vote by then is elected. But if the majority vote is only won during the seventh round, then the successor is called a steward rather than an abbot, and the matter is voted on again after three years. This method for selecting a leader for life may be unusual, but it has its logical side.
Anyway, my point is that Father Samuel was the successor to our previous abbot. I’d known him quite well ever since he was a young priest, and he had confided in me over the years. So there was nothing unusual about being summoned by him last night.
When I opened the door to the abbot’s quarters, I sensed there was a special significance to his summoning me this time. He stood with his back to me even though he had to know I was there. Outside the window, the evening fog was settling in.
Judging from the set of his shoulders, it seemed he’d come to some grave and serious decision. You could say he had the body language of someone who isn’t quite sure of whether he’s about to do the right thing. His natural tendency to proceed carefully in all matters often came across as stalling or indecision, and he sometimes used that as a kind of trial by fire to test the patience of the more impetuous monks who resided at the monastery. But something about the way he held himself that day made me pause before jumping to any such conclusions.
“You called for me?” I asked.
He slowly turned around. His eyes—how can I describe them? They were the eyes of a man who’d returned from wandering in a far distant place.
“Ah, yes, Father. Please come in and sit down.”
He looked a little surprised, even caught off guard, as if he’d forgotten having summoned me. He offered me a seat and sat down across from me. He lowered his eyes, his hands clasped as if in prayer. I had no clue what it could be about. He and I had lived together like father and son for the last twenty years. Known for being warm and gentle, albeit impassive, he’d never once displayed this kind of emotional agitation before another person. For all that I knew about him, it wasn’t much.
“Let’s start with the easy task. Well, I don’t know that I can call it easy. There are two tasks: one business and one personal. That’s why I called you here. First . . .”
He paused. Maybe the second, personal item was hindered by the businesslike simplicity of the first.
“I received a call from the abbey in Newton, New Jersey. The United States government is putting together a history of the Korean War, and they want to include testimonials from the Heungnam Evacuation. Brother Marinus’ story will be included, of course, and since our abbey took over those records, they’re asking us to send them any documentation we have. Since you were my assistant at the time, I figure you must have more material and more memories of it than anyone else so I’d like to pass the request onto you.”
“Of course. That won’t be any trouble. The files are still on my computer. And in my head.”
I kept my tone light to try to offset the heavy mood in the room. Newton, New Jersey, and a certain autumn day, flashed through my mind. As if they’d become the backdrop to that chapter of my life.
“Good,” the abbot said with a smile. He cast his eyes down again. His lips parted slowly. There was only one item left now. My shoulders stiffened for no reason.
“I’ve thought and prayed on this over and over. But it seems the best thing to do is to just tell you . . . It’s about So-hee. She . . .”
What words could I possibly use to describe how I felt at that moment? It was like that gently talking face of his had spat out a metal club that bashed me across the cheek. Or like the earth itself had opened up and swallowed the building whole. I knew the abbot was studying my reaction carefully, but I’d lost the strength to try to force my face into a more composed expression. It was an ambush. I was melting in my seat like beeswax, but what had me even more agitated was the fact that simply hearing her name even after all these years could elicit such a reaction from me.
“She’ll be here next week,” he said. “She’s asked permission to see you. As you know, her entire family emigrated to the United States over twenty years ago. I’m the last connection she has in Korea. But she’s not coming all this way to see me—she wants to see you.”
He picked up his tea, which had grown cold, but he didn’t look like he intended to drink it.
“I could tell how hard it was for her to ask me that,” he continued. “After all, she’s a respectable wife and mother now . . . But you’re both adults so you can decide for yourself. If you don’t want to see her, I can arrange for you to be somewhere else next week.”
“All right,” I said and stood up from my chair. I wasn’t actually sure if the words all right made it out of my mouth, nor was I sure what was right about it, but I left it at that and turned to go. Shame washed over me and turned my ears red. How long had the abbot known about us? For the past ten years I hadn’t breathed a word of what happened between her and me to anyone. I’d thought that was the only way I could bear it. That I could endure as long as I bound my crazed soul and buried my young flesh beneath this black monk’s habit. But now—now, when those feelings were supposed to be long gone and even my memories had grown fuzzy—as I realized the abbot—her uncle and my prior—might have known about it from the start, I was transported back to ten years in the past, to my twenty-nine-year-old self who’d squirmed with mortification at the feeling of being mocked by God and man alike.
In truth, it didn’t matter whether I saw her or not. I forced myself to imagine her telling me she had cancer. Not even so much as a weak laugh came out of me. Who was it that said that if you want to find your weakness, all you have to do is find the one thing you can’t laugh at?
I was about to open the door when he stopped me.
“I think she’s dying,” he said.
A wave of guilt and mortification at myself for having just pictured her telling me she had cancer washed over me along with the shock of hearing that. I wanted to take it back, but it was too late.
“That’s why I was so hesitant, but now I’ve told you . . . All I wish is for you to be free.”
I glanced back at him for a moment. It sounded like he was holding back tears. His tone seemed to be implying, You’re not the only one who gets sad. I swallowed the words before I could ask, So? What’s the difference between seeing her and going to New Jersey?
Unable to bear the idea of returning to my quarters, I stepped outside and walked slowly around the grounds. The fog softened the edges of the buildings and filled the entire abbey with a sacred energy. I passed the red brick building that housed the novice monks and headed toward an inconspicuous corner where a sixty-year-old ginkgo tree stood. Back when I was a novice myself, whenever I missed home or simply felt sad for no reason, I would lean against that tree, or wrap my arms around it, or fall asleep underneath it. Sometimes I even climbed up into its branches.
Off in the distance was Nakdong River, and closer to us were the train tracks. I thought about books I’d read as a child, like The Giving Tree or Hope for the Flowers. Back then I would devour anything printed on a page. On the backs of those books was an address: #369, Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province. The name of the city was completely unfamiliar to me, having been born and raised in Seoul. Did the young me have any premonition that it would one day become my address?
Back in those days as a novice, the first thing to rouse me from sleep was not the 5:00 a.m. monastery bell but the sound of the 4:40 a.m. train pulling into the station. That fuzzy twenty-minute gap between the two, when I would sometimes drift back to sleep and sometimes sit up from sleep, were hard both physically and mentally. It was probably also when I most seriously debated whether I could truly spend the rest of my life there—that is, when that 5:00 a.m. bell would wake me again from my restless half-sleep.
Everything at the abbey began and ended with the ringing of the bell. Provided we hadn’t been excused for some special reason, we gathered five times a day to pray. As a matter of fact, some prospects ended up leaving the abbey because it was too challenging to rise at dawn every day and busy oneself with prayer. As for me, I didn’t hate the sound of that bell because the schedule was too rigorous. In fact, you might even say I loved it. The pealing of the bell echoed out of the tower that stood tall against the blue-gray sky at dawn. Whenever I pulled my black hood over my head to ward off the morning cold and looked up at the tower, I felt like the ladder that Jacob had witnessed, the one and only passage to eternity, was sliding down to Earth in time with that bell. A ladder that could not be felt or held onto and that could not stay but was nevertheless definitely there.
There were times when I grew sick of that bell and wanted to leave. Once, I ran to the station but the train had already left. As I was leaving the empty platform and returning to the abbey, a five-minute walk that on that day felt like an eternity, the bell rang out. The sound was like a heavy iron bar scraping across my heart, which felt as parched as the bottom of a dried-out well. Instead of tears, a groan escaped from between my clenched teeth. I cursed the sound of that bell. That day, and for a long time after.
There was also a time when I thought I wanted to see her again to ask questions. I prayed to God to allow me to see her. But even those questions have long since vanished. The young monk who’d grown dizzy at the sight of the train door opening and the fluttering hem of her soft skirt brushing the tops of her shoes was now a gray-haired middle-aged priest. When I said my goodbyes to her, became ordained as planned, packed my bags, and left for the airport to study abroad in Rome, I boarded that train. When I got my degree in Rome and returned, I alighted from that train. And then, as well, the bell rang.
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell