A Monk, A Vow of Silence and Burning Toast

When I was in graduate school I had the unique opportunity to live with monks for a week in a Mojave Desert Abbey.

I’ll wait while you read that again.

It was an incredible experience and I have many stories but the funniest is the story of the burning toast.

Joshua Tree

The whole abbey was surrounded by Joshua Trees.  I had never seen one except for on a U2 album cover!

At this particular Abbey they have a practice where you spend a good portion of your day in silence.  After the last service of the evening, which I believe was around 9 p.m. there is no more speaking until after breakfast the next morning.  It allows for self-reflection and also a chance to be more aware of what is going on around you.

It also allowed some people in our class to go absolutely mad.  It’s pretty much 12 hours of your day with no talking at all.  No thanking someone when they open a door for you.  No singing in the shower.  No radios or music playing.  They even have someone from the Abbey who goes through in the morning and rings a bell when it’s time to get up (for the first service) so that no one has to use an alarm clock and creates an artificial noise.  Some of my more tech savvy extroverted classmates went bonkers.

Room At The Abbey

This was my little room at the Abbey.  

Honestly I found it very refreshing.  It was easier for me to wind down and go to bed without having a big conversation.  Some components were strange but for the most part I liked it.

The weirdest thing was breakfast.  You couldn’t talk at all during breakfast.  (Actually you didn’t talk during lunch either but that’s another post.)

Think for a moment about what it’s like when you sit at a big long table with lots of people to eat.  Picture a big Thanksgiving.  Generally it’s incredibly noisy- people shouting over each other to be heard, clanging of spoons against bowls and just general noise.  Let’s say that 5 people down from you is Uncle Frank.  And in front of Uncle Frank is the syrup.  If you want it you just yell at Uncle Frank and ask him to pass the syrup.

Now imagine you can’t speak.  But you still want the syrup.  We spent three days figuring out a system.

So the last morning we are at breakfast.  My 20 classmates and I have gotten REALLY good at making eye contact and somehow communicating things like “pass the butter.” (It’s amazing what you can figure out when you can’t talk.)  Each morning there was a cart put out with bread, bagels, butter and jam.  While they served an incredible hot breakfast some people did prefer something simple. Additionally a few of the monks only ate bread and water on certain days and seemed to prefer if they were eating something plain they would like for it to be toasted.

This last morning one of the older monks puts bread in the toaster and walks off.  It has been cooking for about 30 seconds when smoke starts billowing out of the toaster.  It really was ALOT of smoke for two slices of bread.  I open my mouth to shout something and then realize I can’t.  As I was trying to decide if “FIRE” was an acceptable word to shout in a quiet cafeteria the guy sitting across from me (John) sees the same thing. He jumps up, goes over to the toaster, pops the bread up and comes back to his seat.  I smile at him in a “thank you” kind of way and we continue eating our eggs.  In total silence.

After a minute or so the monk comes back to the toaster and is surprised to see his bread has popped up.  Upon examining it he discovers it is not quite toasted yet (I am assuming something lodged INSIDE the toaster was what was actually smoking).  So he pushes the bread back down and walks away again.  30 seconds later smoke begins billowing out again.  John  jumps up, runs over, pops out the toast, blows the smoke away and turns to the look for the monk.  He has totally disappeared so John comes and sits back down.

(By the way this was one of the SLOWEST monks in the abbey.  Yet I swear after he pushed that toast in he RAN out of the room.  It was like he teleported.)

Eventually the monk returns again to the toaster.  As he walks up a look of confusion is all over his face.  John and I are trying so hard not to laugh as he pulls the toast out and stares again at the fact that his bread has popped up and yet it is not toasted.    Finally he seems to accept his fate, takes his slightly warm bread to the table and eats.

John and I never did talk to the monk.  But we shared the story with our classmates as SOON as we could talk!

I believe this story has two morals.  One- you never know when you are being watched.  And two- sometimes when things don’t go the way you think they should it’s for your own protection!

Want to read another story about my adventures?  Check out The Journey To Delaware!

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