Monastery offers silent refuge for the harried

Samuel G. Freedman / New York Times News Service Published Jul 14, 2012 at 05:00AM

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Fifteen years ago, when he was 35, Lucas Fleming was starting to build a career as a criminal lawyer in the Tampa Bay area. He had recently divorced and was raising his 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, alone. And he felt himself constantly faltering at all of it.

Either he was getting to court late because he had to drop off his daughter at preschool, or he was leaving her in his law office during afternoon meetings with clients, or he was staying up for hours after reading her bedtime stories to prepare the next day’s litigation.

So Fleming arranged for his parents to care for his daughter for a couple of days, and he made an announcement: He was going to spend 48 hours, as much time as he could spare, in a monastery.

“It scared a lot of people,” Fleming recently recalled. “Friends of mine said, ‘Are you going to be a monk? That’s going in pretty deep.’ ”

While he did not, in fact, become a monk, he did begin a personal tradition of annual visits to the monastery run by the Episcopal brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. And if there was an unlikely element to a high-powered lawyer seeking the contemplative climate of a monastery, then there was an equally improbable aspect to this particular monastery.

Saint John the Evangelist is not on a mountaintop, not in a desert sanctuary, not in a medieval stone village, but in that bastion of secular modernity known as Cambridge, home to both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The monastery’s austere complex of guesthouse, church and chapel sits down the street from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the storied redoubt of policy wonks past, present and future.

Precisely, perhaps, because of its geography, the Saint John monastery has fallen into a kind of specialty, that of tending to the souls of people like Fleming — ambitious and intellectual, enmeshed in the material world, yet craving some way of detaching long enough from the cosmopolitan cacophony to hear the whisper of God.

“I feel a real sense of calm, a real sense of distance from my life,” Fleming said of his retreats there. “It slows me down, and it makes me mindful. What I’ve learned from the brothers is how to be present.”

Several of the 15 brothers who inhabit the monastery — accepting its vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, and embracing its extensive if not absolute silence — had prior lives in the worldly hurly-burly. One had been a social worker, another a museum curator, a third a musician.

“People are drowning in words and drowning in information,” said Brother Geoffrey Tristram, 58, the superior of the monastery’s order, who used to lead a congregation as a priest. “Words are bombarding us from every side — to buy things, to believe things, to subscribe to things. We are trying to build a place to be still and silent. So many voices around us are shouting. God tends not to shout.”

Paradoxically, the Saint John society selected Cambridge as the location for its monastery early in the last century partly because of the college town’s large working-class population, which the brothers were committed to serving as a form of religious idealism. When the monastery was built in the mid-1920s, a railroad switching yard, not the Kennedy School, operated up the block.

The order’s commitment to social justice has not disappeared — several brothers assist a local Episcopal minister in her outreach to and advocacy for the homeless, for example — but the development of Cambridge into an overwhelmingly affluent hub of scholarship, culture and science has inevitably attracted a particular sort of retreat participant.

Those visitors pay about $100 a night to stay in a spotless, spartan room, worship in as many as five services each day, dine on healthy meals and maintain long periods of ruminative quiet, sometimes broken by confessional meetings with a monk.

“On the whole, there’s not a lot of chitchat,” said Brother Kevin Hackett, 56, who has been at the monastery since 1997.

Over the years since his first visit, Fleming has introduced 20 friends, including some who were initially skeptics, to the monastery. He even worked with the monks to develop a workshop for lawyers on listening skills, which has been given annually since 2009.

“When you work with people in the criminal defense world, you are providing counseling in some sense,” Fleming said. “They want someone to hear them, listen to them, not judge them, be that rock in the storm. And I’ve always been fascinated at how well the brothers listen.”

More personally, Fleming resolved to run his law firm on the principle of limits. The office opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. The time before and after belongs to his family, and his daughter, Sarah, now a college student, still lives with him. He meditates for 20 minutes each day, attends church every Sunday and spends several days every few months at some monastic community. His law practice, far from suffering, has grown.

“It tells you what you can accomplish, and what you can learn,” he said, “if you can see beyond what I call the blackness of the monastery and the monks.”