Memories of a Monk
The last time I saw the monk was late August, 2016. He was on his death bed with a sentence of about three months yet to live. Pancreatic cancer would claim another life. His skin was as yellow as Donald Trumps hair and he was visibly frail. I've not met too many people on their death bed, but he certainly didn't act the stereorypical dying soul. There was no gloom and doom, rather he was giddy with excitement and wonder about what was next. While I'm sure pain meds were doing their job, there was a geniune intrigue behind that immortal smile of his.
I took his hand while he asked, as always, how the princesses were. A young catholic priest stood on the other side of the bed. Whether standing by for last rites, or simply on assignment by the diocese to monitor the ailing monk I wasn't sure. I looked up at him and asked if fr. Greg had ever told him the answer to life, the universe, and everything. He didn't reply so I followed up, 'He told me many years ago, but told me not to tell.'
I had only partially lied to the priest. The monk never said anything about keeping it a secret.
I first met Father Greg, a trappist monk, sometime in the mid 1980's. I was a college student at the University of Utah and he resided at a monastery in Huntsville, Utah. The monastery, nestled in the Wasatch mountain range, was about an hour drive north and east out of Salt Lake City. The drive leading up to the main housing lined with mature cottonwood trees. At the end of the road there were no cathedrals or ancient structures, rather the residence consisted of several quonset huts bordering farm land. It was a very peaceful setting that I had never known existed in my 15 or so prior years of living in Utah.
I was a faithful mormon at the time, having been raised as such. It was also a time of exploring my own mind, negotiating the 'truths' I'd been raised with that seemed to contradict a few new ideas that I'd been introduced to. I know what you're thinking... consulting a catholic monk about mormonism? Seems a little crazy, and I might agree with your assessment if said monk had been sequestered in a world of chants and catholic piety. However, father Greg was not your typical monk, and his reconciliation of science and spirit was fascinating. He had studied psychology in Zurich at the Jung Institute and undergone psychoanalysis with Aniela jaffe (C.G. Jungs personal assistant) and became one of two certified Jungian analysts in the United States at the time.
For about a year I would take a weekly drive to Huntsville to visit father Greg to talk about a wide range of subjects. Most topics that I considered 'deep' and 'profound' he would just smile and let me talk, and strangely I would answer my own questions eventually. In turn he would tell me anecdotes and discoveries he'd made in his passion for and study of the Song of Songs and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
Then one day he told me the answer to life, the universe, and everything. And, 'no' it wasn't 42. He let me talk myself in the usual circles, finally conceding my entire philosophy of life in a pathetic whine -- I said, "So we're born, grow up, reproduce, and die... that's it?" He got that wise smile of his and replied, "That's it!"
Something mysterious happened to me at that instant. His answer, "That's it" didn't strike me as you might think it would. It wasn't a let-down nor did it leave me with a void of desperation. Instead I was filled with awe at the simple beauty of life and the world. From that moment forward I was graced with the lens to view the simple struggles and elements of life as a manifestion of god. Not the judgmental God of scripture and outdated myth, but rather the god of Spinoza, Einstein... and Santos.
I moved out of Utah after graduation and lost contact with the monk for a few years. Fate would later bring us both to Arizona. An employer moved me to Phoenix and fr. Greg founded his humble hermitage in Flagstaff. We never resumed our regular meetings, but we continued to visit from time to time.
On November 8th of this year (2016) I had a dream where fr. Greg visited with me one last time. He was very excited for what was next, but he wanted me to know that he had one regret from his years as a mortal. He regretted not writing more and said that his immortality would be based on the words he left behind. He died on November 9th.