Allison Vrbova

On Monasteries

I notice Pete’s hands first—arms hanging motionless at his sides, wrists flexed horizontally as if, even though he stands nearly six feet tall, this posture can somehow push the cracked sidewalk back into place. His matted beard frays and splinters along his collarbone. A thick film of dirt cakes from knuckle to wrist. His whole body seems to cave inward—tobacco-stained fingernails curl toward his trousers, oil-slicks of hair curl along his shoulders, his spine curls into a lopsided question mark—as if to show, from the outside, how his mind does the same. Unable to stop in rush hour traffic, I strain my neck over my shoulder as my car passes by. Even as the rain blurs my windshield, I see that he still wears the same frayed jacket and sweat-stained shirt he wore every day during the nearly three years I worked with him. He looks exactly as he did the last time I saw him. He looks like every reason I miss that job and every reason I left.

A year ago, on the day I left my position as Pete’s social worker, I fled the weight of human rubble. I switched to a quieter job, working with families who just needed a little help getting back on their feet. I needed to pause and not be faced every day with another long, hard fall. When I walked out of that building for the last time, I thought I could leave it all behind.

My official role as the social worker in a small, subsidized apartment building was to help my clients, chronically homeless men, remain housed. But to work with the chronically homeless is to work with the wreckage of people’s lives. No job description can possibly match up.

Working in a residential setting has its own pulse. My clients saw me before my morning coffee, bleary eyed and decaffeinated. They passed me on the stairs as I tried to sneak out early on a Friday afternoon. In turn, the burnt grease of their lunch preparations wafted under my office door, much like their lives. Humanity is not easily masked among such ordinary clutter. On more than one occasion, needing to ask a question or deliver a message, I knocked on a client’s door and during a long pause heard the sliding rubber of a tourniquet being hastily untied from an arm.

I was the only caseworker in that ragged building and the only regular staff on site during the daytime. My office sat near the front door of the building. Most of my forty-eight clients were old enough to be my father, a few considerably older, but the tables were turned in our small, mixed-up community. One man, Ricardo, an ex-con who spent a decade in San Quentin, liked to show off the scars where bullets still lodged in his legs. I watched him pass in and out of the building at least half a dozen times each day: drug and alcohol treatment in the morning, followed by confession and then volunteering as a barber at the senior center. He made his first beer run in the early afternoon, and then a second, clumsier one. Each time he passed by, he called out, “Hey Miss Allison.” As the afternoon wore on, the call got louder, more watery.

Another client, a former child soldier from Sudan, sat in my office at least weekly, recounting the day’s events, his arms pin wheeling wildly. “Mees Alleeson,” he said. “You—are da mutha. And we—we are aaall your children.”

I gazed out the window of the bus as it wound upward toward the monastery. Street signs announced Rue de la Vauzelle and Rue de l’Ardillon as the narrow roads forked and twisted back through storybook centuries: a crooked smattering of red-tiled rooftops; farmhouses built from weathered stone; women with weathered faces, hanging laundry on the line. A blended scent wafted through the open windows: livestock; early wildflower blossoms; the salty smell of fresh-baked bread. Leaning forward in my seat, I anxiously adjusted my backpack strap. I had heard a lot about Taize from others who visited before me; it is known to faith communities around the world. Priests and pastors, archbishops and orthodox metropolitans, even Pope John Paul II has knelt in its chapel. People told me it is a magical place where pilgrims join in the life of the monastery, eating, praying, singing and working in a community. For nearly two years, I planned, saved, and dreamed about experiencing it for myself.

Idyllic in location—nestled in the vineyard lined countryside of Burgundy between Macon and Chalon-Sur-Saone—Taize is a community born from the wreckage of war. In 1940, the son of a Protestant minister purchased a house in the village, near the demarcation line, offering shelter to Jews who sought refuge. Others soon joined him—men searching, as he was, for a life that meant more than the ones they left behind. They formed a brotherhood, religious but nondenominational, taking vows of poverty, celibacy and service. When bombs no longer fell and Western Europe stood in ruins, they took in war orphans. German prisoners of war traveled from a nearby internment camp to join in Sunday prayers, singing alongside the children whose childhoods they stole. A gesture of forgiveness. During the Cold War, the Brothers secretly traveled behind the iron curtain, helping those trapped inside its borders. Small factions now live in Senegal, Calcutta and China, working with refugees, prisoners and the desperately poor. They do not prostlytize or preach. They don’t ask for conversion or even expect it. Their charge is to be a presence, a calm center in the midst of so much wreckage, helping when they can, praying when they cannot.

The bus continued upward, finally stopping in front of a courtyard surrounded by a series of simple wood buildings. A handful of other visitors walked along hedge-lined paths and perched on benches overlooking the countryside below. Stepping outside, I caught notes of laughter, bits of Italian, Russian and broken English. Then, the sound of bells. At first, a single chime rang out, pregnant and shapely. Slowly it multiplied, growing into an urgent chorus. Prayer service takes place three times each day; each is marked by this rolling call. Breathing deeply, I headed for the chapel.

In the years since my first visit, I have returned to Taize several times. Those bells call me back again and again. Everyone comes there for his or her own reason. That first March, I came because I was on spring break during my final year of college, eager to see and do everything. If a small slice of harmony existed somewhere, I needed to see it for myself. I was twenty two and ready to change the world. I knew nothing, then, of Pete, or Ricardo, or that ragged little building on First Avenue.


The day I picked Pete up from the psychiatric ward was the first time I met him. It was only my second day at the job. The nurse pointed me to a room at the far end of the hall, where I found him sitting on his heels near the door, freshly showered. I soon learned this was rare—when he arrived at the hospital, the orderlies deloused him three times to clear his matted beard. Clutching a brown paper sack that rattled with pill bottles, he peered at me from the corner of his eye. I crouched down beside him and took a deep breath.

“Are you ready to go home?”

It was the fourth time he’d left home that year.

For Pete, Schizophrenia played the part of the cunning jester, transforming life’s most innocuous events—a pizza delivery flier, a neighbor waving hello, a routine letter from Social Security—into a jagged spiral downward. Ordinary details wove together into an inexplicable logic of conspiracy and fear: the government was out to get him; he couldn’t take it any longer; he had to get out of this town. When he returned, he usually said he’d been visiting friends, but I knew he really spent the days wandering the streets; he had nowhere else to go. This time, the police found him a week after he left, unconscious in the park less than a mile from home. The medics brought him to the emergency room, the triage nurse called the psychiatric nurse, and the judge sent him to ward 5 West B of the county hospital.

“Are you ready to go home, Pete?” I spoke softly, rocking backward on my heels.

“Yeah, mmhhmm. I think so.” He clutched the paper sack tighter but stood up to follow me out of the room.

We made our way through the series of locked doors that guard the ward. When we got to the bus stop next to the hospital, I handed him a ticket, but he shook his head.

“Nhhhm. I’m going to walk. Yeah, mmhhmm. I think I’m going to walk.” He flexed his wrists, bend-splay-bending his fingers.

“Okay, I’ll go with you.”

The hospital sat on top of a large hill nearly two miles from his apartment building. He would have listened if I told him he needed to ride the bus with me instead. I don’t even know why I didn’t. Maybe a part of me knew.

We walked down Cherry Hill in silence—Pete wasn’t much of a talker. With difficulty, I adjusted my stride to his lilting walk until we finally fell into a rhythm as the road leveled out near First Avenue. For twenty blocks, he stopped to peer into every trash can we passed, sometimes taking a minute to inspect the contents of a takeout box that invariably turned out to be rotted. I waited a few feet away. It didn’t disgust me, but I averted my eyes anyway—it seemed like such a private act. We walked silently during the hour and a half it took us to return to the building. No words seemed to matter just then. The only time Pete spoke was to ask a passerby for a match in order to light a discarded cigarette butt he found on the sidewalk. He pinched the flattened end between his thumb and forefinger.

After being out of the hospital for a few months, Pete stopped taking his medication. He refused to see his psychiatrist. He started running away again. The only difference now was that he promised, if he was going to go, to at least say goodbye before he left. He kept that promise, waiting until I returned from a meeting, or a weekend, before turning in his keys. I know that if I hadn’t walked with him down Cherry Hill that day, he never would have made me this promise, a small victory.

I thought if he came to me before leaving, I could convince him to stay, but this never worked. Every time he disappeared, I was sure that this time he wouldn’t return; I had failed him. The police and doctors said there was nothing they could do unless he broke the law or made his way to the hospital. For days or weeks at a time, I couldn’t seem to get enough air in my lungs. Wasn’t I supposed to protect him? On the first of the month, fifth of the month, tenth, he would be on the brink of losing his apartment, because he hadn’t picked up his social security check to pay the rent. Invariably, just when I thought it was too late, I found him crossing the street somewhere on the other side of town, sunburned or rain soaked, exhausted, his balding head red and peeling from the sun.

“Do you want to come home, Pete?”

In this work, success becomes compressed—a pinprick, barely visible. It is the overdoses, the jail sentences, the evictions that collect, leaching, as they do, their acid-bright sting. How quickly each day comes to seem like a series of compounding defeats. In the three years I spent working in that building, nearly two dozen of my clients fell back into homelessness. Many more were only one drinking binge or arrest warrant away. These men were not made homeless by one lost job or one misstep. They were not single mothers with rent raised a few dollars too high or fathers who couldn’t make ends meet with a disability check. They were never the homeless who we look to in order to feel the lopsided weight of our own lives, teetering always so close to the edge. These men were not teetering, had not been teetering for a long time. These men make us realize we know nothing about despair. This small apartment, this chance at a different life, comes at the bottom of a very long fall. For them, the line between the streets and a home is porous and hastily patched.

During that first year, Pete and I spent hours together on various errands around town—at the Department of Licensing, convincing the clerk to let this motley man get a new identification card even though he had lost every paper proving his identity; at the Social Security office, gathering forms to renew his apartment subsidy—anything to simplify his life in the hope that he wouldn’t launch into a tailspin every time he got a letter in the mail. After a year, and many missteps, he switched to a new payee who agreed to send his rent checks directly to his landlord. With this, inexplicably, he stopped running away. But nothing else changed. Despite everything I tried, I never convinced him to take a shower or change his clothes. To this day, the walls of his apartment are stained grey with tobacco smoke. The tenants in his building tried to petition for his eviction. He still refuses to take his medication or see his psychiatrist, and he likely never will, unless he ends up in the hospital again. He spends his days wandering the streets for hours, grinding gaping holes into the soles of his shoes. Pinpricks, barely visible.

Once, in Vienna, I followed a nun down a narrow, cobbled street, tiptoeing behind her for blocks until she reached the door to her convent and slipped inside. I was raised Protestant, so my image of those who enter the religious order is not colored by Catholic school days but shrouded in mystique. A stray lock of auburn hair sprang loose from the crown of her habit, just above her temple, so I followed her. I followed her because the black toe of her saddle shoe bore scuff marks. As she passed me, I breathed the damp-morning smell of stone worn smooth.

Or, standing in the courtyard of another convent, a tourist attraction now, I squeezed my eyes shut-open, shut-open. There—just there, see!—the hem of a habit brushing against a stone wall. The hollow sound of footsteps on a brisk October morning. Or this: after I left Pete and the others, I worked briefly at a homeless shelter that was remodeled from an old convent. Sometimes, on the late shift, I stopped in the hallway to imagine a young nun, a postulant not yet pledged, kneeling in her upstairs room, her hands folded, an icon of the Virgin Mary nailed above her bed in a simple frame.

As a child, I rode Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyworld. Four nuns sat in the car ahead of us in full habit. There was a Catholic convention at the Marriot and Disney suddenly found religion. Four capes ballooned as we swished along the rails, just missing a plastic-rock overhang. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.

Years ago, a group of Belgian nuns took up residence in a village near Taize to help the Brothers run their kitchen and infirmary. They remain there today, a steady presence at the monastery. One Sister in particular stays with me after all these years, like a relic. I saw her only once, as she passed me on the path early one morning. To say she looked peaceful is trite, and it doesn’t account for what I saw. Rather, I will say she looked…still. Mortar fire makes war orphans—and men marry themselves to the crack pipe every day—but despite it all, she stood unmoved. Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to live in such stillness, where the world expands and compresses in the same pocket of space, where time lines up as the wind whips past and the before-and-after is all just now. I have to believe in this still, unmoving center. I have to believe, because one day I sat for over an hour with a man who was kicked out of the Methadone clinic, that magic place where a daily dose of potion stops a lifetime of heroin use dead in its tracks. Rusty drew his third dirty UA in as many months, so the clinic told him not to come back. There were no beds in Medical Detox. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go anyway, but he hadn’t expected this—pounding fists against the wall until they were bloody, begging for help from a girl young enough to be his daughter.

His thin, red hair floated in mad wisps as he laid his head flat on my desk and then whipped it upright again. “I don’t know if I can do this.” Head up, down. “I just can’t do this. I can’t.” Up, down. The potion is also a poison, see. It wrenched and writhed, literally, from his bones. (Do they tell you, when you sign up for the program, that Methadone withdrawal is ten times more painful, and more dangerous, than detoxing from heroin?) I sat with him as he gulped down mad laughs. He wondered aloud how he would get through the next week without walking to the corner of Third and Pike, where the dealers wait.

I have to believe in a still, unmoving center, because when Rusty left my office suddenly that day, he turned east toward Third Avenue. I knew exactly where he was going.

I must say here, because it needs to be said again and again, that not every chronically homeless man finds comfort in a heroin needle, or sees the inside of a jail cell or psychiatric ward. I knew a few, like Billy, who never drank, smoked crack or did time, but who became homeless when work grew slim and he couldn’t pay the rent. Finally work picked up, but he couldn’t find a new apartment because of bad credit and low wages, so he moved into our building. Within a year, he landed a better job and moved to a bigger place. Some of the men I worked with did continue upward. They never returned to the streets or succumbed to a stagnant haze. But chronic homelessness is sustained by systems designed, however unwittingly, to keep stereotypes a reality—public housing, pay-day lenders, disability checks that provide just enough for booze but not enough for rehabilitation. And the men I knew who did manage to stay in housing? Not all were better off. Not by much, anyway. A place to live gives a man back some of his pride. It safeguards him from the very real dangers of life on the streets. But years of homelessness can create a panic much like that brought on from combat. Too often, the glare of glossy paint on four white walls only magnifies all that is already lost.

I met Frank on the day he moved into his apartment. Waiting in the office for him to arrive, the building manager and I heard a clunk-thump, clunk-thump growing steadily louder. A man appeared in the doorway.

“Oo-ey, that’s a-lot-a stairs.”

He wore a three-piece suit and a felt bowler hat; a cane hung from the crook of his elbow. Frank owned three canes, which he constantly misplaced, and an assortment of suit jackets purchased from “associates” on the street. Each morning on his way out the door, he paused on the stair landing, straightening his spine before pulling a comb out of his shirt pocket for one last pat-and-smooth, running first his comb and then his hand along a black and grey pouf of hair.

He had a wife and a daughter, once, but that life disappeared long ago, burned up in the ice-blue flame of a crack pipe. He walked off the street after twenty-five years under a bridge. He was sixty, couldn’t read and had been drunk since he was fifteen. “I robbed three banks and never got caught,” he liked to tell me, “but man, I did two years in Walla Walla for somethin’ I didn’t do. Shit, life’s funny that way.” Somehow, he managed to get sober the last year he lived on the street. His enthusiasm was childlike, even if his steps were slow—he wanted to learn to read and thought maybe he would get a cat for company. Even though he waited on a list for two years before getting his apartment, it still took him another month to start sleeping inside. One day, I heard a knock on my office door.

“Afternoon, Miss Allison.”

“Hi, Frank.”

He held up a plastic grocery bag. “I went and bought me some milk an’ eggs, seeing as I have a refrigerator now, and all.”

“That’s great.”

“I been thinkin’. I might make me an omelet for breakfast.” His eyes turned up at the corners.

I chose my words carefully. “Does that mean you’re thinking of staying in your apartment tonight?”

“I think so,” he said. “I think I’ll give it a try. I got some orange juice, too.”

After sleeping in his apartment every night for two weeks, he walked down the hall to my office, waving a dustpan. He beamed, and limped, too, because in his haste he forgot his cane.

“I swept my floor, Miss Allison. Man, I haven’t done that in twenty years.”

Around this same time, he also decided that, in order to become a “citizen,” he needed to own a cell phone, so he ordered a prepaid phone in the mail. When it arrived, he came to me for help understanding the command screen.

“You’re good with this techno-logical stuff right?” He folded his six-foot, two hundred-fifty pound frame into a chair, holding the phone outstretched toward me. It was princess-pink with sparkles.

“‘Cuz it keeps trying to get me on the internet” he said. “But all’s I want to do is make a phone call.”

I looked down at the phone, raising my eyebrows while trying my best to keep a straight face.

“I know. I know.” He shook his head. “I dunno what happened. I asked for a silver one.”

“You could probably take it back and exchange it.”

“Nah,” he said. “Too much trouble. I can make it work for me.” He sat up straight, his voice lowering an octave. “But nobody better give me crap about it.”

One day, six months after he moved in, I saw him crossing Pike Street in a stained t-shirt and bedroom slippers, his hair uncombed. The next morning, he didn’t stop to say hello as he passed by my office. Finally, after a week, I sat him down to tell him I thought he was using again. He lowered his head and stayed quiet for awhile. He smelled like day-old urine. I waited, expecting him to deny it.

“Tell the truth, I’m glad you noticed.” He stared at his slipper, tracing it in figure-eights on the carpet. “I don’t wanna do this again. I don’t want to go this way.”

He entered treatment a week later. Six months after he got out, he began using again and went back to treatment. He went a third time four months later. Each time, his sobriety stuck for awhile but eventually faded. The last time I saw him, he was sitting on the doorstep of a jewelry store on a Sunday morning. I’d left my job a few months before. He said he didn’t know how long he had been sitting there or the last time he ate a decent meal. He was sure his doctor was trying to kill him, so he’d stopped taking his insulin. I sat down next to him.

“I’ve started hustlin’ again,” he said. His cheekbones were sunken. He was so thin. “And I’m usin’.”

“I know, Frank.”

When I left Frank, Pete and all the others, I thought if I went somewhere less heavy, less messy, less too-much-all-at-once, then maybe I could breathe again. But after a year away, my skin still stretches so thin. I am still so full. They tell me I cannot help a person who doesn’t want to help himself, but is it ever so simple? What happens when that person is so far gone that he is miles from the surface? We can protest and pray for cease fires, but bombs still fall; they always have.

* * *

As I approached the chapel at Taize, the bells grew louder, more insistent, calling me in. With both hands, I heaved open the solid-wood door. Cool, dark and quiet, the chapel startled my skin with the contrast. A soft light drenched the spacious chamber. At the altar, swaths of red and orange fabric draped floor to ceiling, lit by hundreds of candles. I lowered myself to the floor near the back of the room, too aware of my body, stiff and straight-backed as I thumbed aimlessly through the pages of a prayer book. I crossed and uncrossed my ankles. The service was not set to begin for another twenty minutes, but a hundred people already sat, knelt, bent their heads or clasped their hands. No one spoke. The bells swung slower, slower, then still. Silence. From somewhere near the front, a single voice rang out, u-bi ca-ri-tas et a-a-mor, then was joined, one by one, u-bi ca-ri-tas, until everyone in the chapel sang. De-us i-bi est. As the prayer unfurled around me, my mind slowed to a low hum, ubi caritas, my lungs filled as I joined in the chorus, et amor. I closed my eyes, letting my face bathe in the orange light. Folding my upper body toward the carpet, I reached as far as I could until my outstretched hands pressed flat against the chapel floor, my forehead resting between them. Prostrate. Unmoved.

Ubi caritas Deus ibi est.

At Taize, each day is anchored in routine and punctuated by the rhythm of bells and prayer, bells and singing. A meal and then work, prayers, singing, silence, each song sung again and again. Each week becomes Holy Week, each Friday a cross is laid down, Saturday a vigil of light and anticipation, Sunday rebirth. This one day, this one year, my history, our history. A man in rags, a man in chains, a bomb or a candle or a vineyard. We do what we can. When we cannot do, we pray, we witness, we are still. We do not move away but into, and it is here that we find the small, quiet center. We are present, again and again.

Allison Vrbova received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review and The Fourth River. She lives with her husband and daughter near Seattle.