Monastery and City

My school operates on a trimester system, which is generally a nusiance, as it means an aceleration of classes so that the last few weeks are often ridiculously rushed. This can be a good thing for dreadful classes, but is otherwise a pain. It also means the division of our breaks into smaller units dispersed through the school year, including a ‘winter break,’ distinct from the more common Christmas and Spring breaks. This week has been our winter break; (new) classes resume Monday.

Taking advantage of our brief hiatus from university life, a friend of mine and I made the short journey to Convington, LA, to visit St. Joseph’s Abbey (Benedictine), located north of town in pine and live oak woods, which was quite peaceful except for the water-well driller at the abbey’s entrance. Water-well driller aside, we passed the time in much-needed prayer and contemplation; I’ve found that there are few places like a monastery for really focused prayer and general detoxification. Computers, radios, iPods, noise, etc etc, are ever-present hindrances to attempts at finding lack of distraction and peace; I find that when I set out to deliberately avoid such distractions, they find a way of intruding after a while. The monastery provides an atmosphere oriented around remembrance of God and a reduction of distractions and simplification.

St. Joseph’s had a further attraction for me, as it is the burial place of novelist Walker Percy, and was a favorite retreat of his (he spent much of his life and writing career in Covington). The brothers at St. Joseph’s were quite hospitable, and dinner was excellent. We were invited to join the evening services with the brothers in the choir stalls; after Compline we walked back to the abbey and passed one of the brothers walking by chanting one of the hymns to himself out under the crepe myrtles and the gathering clouds in the Louisiana sky. Sublime.

Tuesday morning we arose early- to rain, thunder, and lightning- to drive to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity in one of the east side neighborhoods. Since we had to leave before breakfast, the Guestmaster told us to stop by the dining hall and help ourselves. We did so, as the rain poured down outside; we considered briefly remaining there as the weather was incliment in the extreme. However, after eating breakfast in the truly magnificent dining hall, which was painted by Dom Gregory de Witt; my favorite portion is the painting of St. Benedict presiding over the dining hall’s main doors.

We decided to make the journey across the Causeway to New Orleans, and fortunately the rain ceased. By the time we arrived at the job site the sky was blue- despite the fact the night before had seen a tornado in Chalmette, a few scant miles east of where we were working. Habitat for Humanity has at present some eighty houses under construction in New Orleans, mostly in the eastern part of town, where the flood waters hit hardest. I’ve been to New Orleans numerous times since the storm, but had not really driven through the ‘devastated’ parts of time, other than going to Jazz Fest, which involved navigating partially deserted neighborhoods looking for parking, which was quite an adventure in itself. However, the neighborhood we worked in was far worse; on a given block perhaps two or three houses had inhabitants; whole streets are collections of empty, gutted houses, churches, and schools. On many houses you can make out the water line, five, six feet up. All the houses are marked with spray-painted symbols indicating the day they were searched and what was or wasn’t found.

We ended up working on a partially completed house just east of Almonaster Boulevard. Neither of us are particularly proficient builders, but we can swing a hammer alright. Most of the people who had signed up to work Tuesday were discouraged by the weather and didn’t show up, so we actually had a decent amount of work to do. During lunch we braved the traffic on North Claiborne- including a major intersection with a still non-functioning stop light- and found a fairly new taco shop- all the taco combinations you could want. Discovered that the quesadilla option on the menu meant ‘taco with cheese.’ Place was hopping, with clients that pretty well reflected New Orleans’s new demographics: a larger Latino population, and a huge swell of demolition and construction workers. We returned and worked until about three or so; during our last hour at the job site we were joined by an improbably large contingent of Canadian college students on break who had journeyed down to volunteer. After finishing up work we drove over to downtown and wandered around the French Quarter, which was considerably crowded for a Tuesday afternoon- in anticipation of Mardis Gras next week, I suppose. Went by Faulkner House Books, an incredible little bookstore in the alley between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo; I made mental notes of books I should like to add to my collection one of these days. Fortunately for my rather limited finances I had left my checkbook at home.  

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