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One Thousand Steps

Updated on December 30, 2009

The steps to the monastery seem to be leading only one way, up and to, not down and from, there is no exit from this institution that purports to be a celebration of the divine, yet has so many similarities with a diabolic nest. Wonder we, did they send us to the right camp to begin with? Was this a ploy, a dirty joke at our expense? Coming here seemed the so much more attractive offering compared with incarceration, but as days pass a lingering doubt has turned into certain knowledge that this is the ultimate penalty. Abuse at a prison is to be expected, and that both of the physical and psychological kind, but nothing will prepare a man – a young man especially – for the horrors of religious madness.

How to keep track of time was a daring and challenging proposition. The notebooks we brought were confiscated upon arrival, as were our clothes to be exchanged for robes. No words were said, the large and burly man who gave us the supplies seemed in no mood for answering any questions, in fact the encounter was so unpleasant that we’d rather keep it short. We discussed how to keep count, and agreed that rather than finding some secret locale in which to chalk it down, we’d keep the number in our heads. Every day, we’d be sure to find a moment to talk privately, and then we’d say the number of days spent as well as the number of days remaining. As things turned out, we were deprived on most days of any such opportunity, but at night before we fell asleep no one could prevent us from sticking our heads together and whisper for a few seconds, before the brother who served as watchman had time to react. “Today is already day nine, only 356 more days remain, we shall be free,” I would whisper. Then we would both repeat it in the same fashion.

“Never were we less inclined to accept all that they said and then take this for granted. We were certainly hopeful that some particles of truth could find their way through some loopholes, but which ones wasn’t for certain. Remember, always, the atonement that has come to us before as a savior into the unknown. It is not merely senseless to roam around in the dark, but pointless and careless as well. Nay, say we, go with the ultimate sources of truth, that path is safe and well-guarded.”

These lectures are commonplace, we have listened to them countless times since arriving at the monastery high above the valley. Thousands of steps one must climb to even get there, lest one has permission and comes in from the woods. We had not permission and found it safer to leave our horses temporarily behind. Haven’t’ seen them since, we have asked and been told that they are safe in the stables for our use whenever we should need them. Can’t imagine when this might be, here all that we need is provided for, which is very little. Spartan is the chosen lifestyle, rewards are said to come later on in the afterlife, and the very confidence of being on the right track is said to carry its own rich rewards. We are the humble prodigies, even the more square fathers find us agreeable and accommodating, but deep inside we are burning with resentment and skepticism. This we can not easily share even amongst ourselves, apart from a few stolen glances here and there, we are always accompanied by someone and left to sleep in rooms with several others.

Candles by the door in tall stakes burn all night. The flames flicker inaudibly, emitting the finest layer of black smoke. Long is the night, yet so short by our standards, we are called upon to wake at four, then there is prayer and porridge for breakfast.

If spirituality is supposed to come from within, then certainly our despair should suffice. Everyone around us seem so well-adjusted, so at peace, and I am wondering whether their feelings were ever similar to ours. They came here voluntarily, but what drove them this way must be a different story for each person. What drove us here was a sanction. We could either spend a year in prison or a year among the brothers, so said the eclistic judge upon passing sentence upon us.

Well, from this traumatic episode we have not yet recovered, and now we are being funneled into another set of episodes too bizarre to easily digest. He who lives slow will have the chance to digest much, he who speeds through life must improvise and learn to live with the feeling of disorientation. Could be life is low at the monastery, but too us it is frightening and fluid. Each day represents unexpected encounters with people and phenomena the existence of which are entirely alien to our minds. Grown men are lying face down on the cold stone floor, absorbed in prayer, some sulking like madmen. Then they appear at lunch to swallow a large bowl of soup without any other expression on their face than mere greed for food. One monk takes a daily whipping, he is bony and thin, I wouldn’t give him a fortnight in which to live, except those who know him well say that he is well on the road to recovery. The man is starving himself for some unforgivable sin, they say, and the lashes on his flesh are helping him prevent committing suicide while his brothers seek to help him reconnect with God.

“Lord, please forgive us and have mercy upon us ‘cause we have sinned,” my friend Bolesto and I whisper in synchrony every night before we sleep. “We have made ourselves impure by stealing from the schoolmaster who kindly took us in after we were caught stealing from our parents.” This we say with conviction, although our religious beliefs are shallow in comparison with the deep devotion of the people surrounding us. All we want is that our Lord will liberate us from our past, that we may one morning awake not in this cold cellar amongst dozens of sleeping monks but out in the open field, where our horses will be waiting for us, anxious to bring us back home.

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