My mom called the minute she heard the news.
“Oh, honey, was that your monastery?”
I’d already heard, and I was as shaken as she was–but I couldn’t help smiling at the notion that the Trappist monastery in Ava, Mo., was “my monastery.”
I had simply found peace there.
Besides, the monastery a 71-year-old man had just invaded, killing two monks and wounding two more, was a Benedictine monastery in Conception, Mo.
As the details flashed through my head, I caught my breath.
“You know, I think it’s Janice’s monastery!”
My friend Janice lives in northwestern Missouri, and on her last trip to St. Louis, she’d spoken at length about the monks she and her husband often visited. She’d urged us to visit them, praising the practical holiness of St. Benedict’s Rule, the serenity of the community, the green beauty of the woods and especially the apple orchards.
The first monk killed was Br. Damian, who tended those orchards.
And Janice couldn’t fathom it.
Recognizing the spirit of that place, she had given it the power to calm her. Just as I had in Ava, and a million others had at monasteries all over the world. We harried modern travelers seek sanctuary in monasteries as urgently as medieval pilgrims sought a safe night’s sleep. We tiptoe inside the stone walls, fumble through the rituals, keep silent like giggling children. We want to leave with a piece of their peace; a sliver of their serenity we can keep in our freezer.
And now, a stranger had blown that peace apart with an assault rifle.
Sensing the larger drama, the media floundered for explanations.
First they felt it incumbent upon them to state, high in their story, that the murders had no apparent connection to “the wave of sexual scandals sweeping the Catholic church.” In the follow-up stories, they felt responsible for suggesting an alternative, so they seized upon another potential lightning rod: the annulment the Roman Catholic church had granted the killer in 1979.
Lloyd Jeffress’ ex-wife told police he’d been angry over their divorce. But that was 43 years ago. And the annulment was his idea; he requested it 20 years later, when he briefly returned to Catholicism, and it was duly granted.
Surely time would have eased the sting of rejection by now, swept away the early failure, inured him even to the probings of robed clerics? Surely he hadn’t been brooding about their questions, for 23 years?
Looking for a sympathy card to send Janice, I sifted through the desk drawer and found, instead, a scrap of paper with an old scribbled quotation:
“Love, not time, heals all wounds.”
Jeffress, by the end, had loved no one. He had cut himself off, almost methodically, from his wife, then their daughter, then his brother. He had lived alone, without friends or lively interests. He had retired from his job at the postal service. He brought a neighbor her mail when she was recovering from knee surgery, but that was the only act of kindness anyone cited.
He went on for years in hollow solitude, his breakfasts and suppers as regular as the monks’ matins and lauds.
To a casual observer, his life might have looked as peaceful as theirs.
But his was a twisted, wrung-out sort of peace: a dry quiet, devoid of conflict because it was devoid of contact. No hopes or desires competed for his attention, because he allowed himself none. Inside his mind, instead of abiding faith, roiled paranoia and chaos.
Only one reporter ignored the near-superstitious search to pinpoint a cause, focusing instead on the handful of people who’d known Jeffress. In their recollections, you could see the fear growing in him, the bleak unthinking darkness settling over him.
But people didn’t want murky explanations of disrupted brain chemistry. They didn’t want to be left contemplating the irrational violence of a troubled soul.
They wanted a grudge, something clear and fiery that had burned inside him and transformed him into an avenging angel they could hate as Lucifer.
They needed to hate him, because he, single-handedly, had destroyed their vicarious peace. He had invaded one of the few places left on earth that offered pure sanctuary, and he had wantonly killed men who had lived their entire adult lives in the disciplined, daily pursuit of God.
I thought about the tiny selfishnesses they would have purged to live in community; the petty arguments they would have bit back into silence. They had each other to contend with, for better or for worse; they had a 1,500-year tradition to follow, and a God who stretched out his hand to them every morning.
In the last month of his life, Jeffress tried to reach for that hand. The Sunday before the murders, he went to the Methodist church service and listened to a sermon about reflecting God’s love.
But his mind couldn’t absorb it.
Monday morning, he drove to the abbey, walked through its open doors, put his finger on the assault rifle’s trigger and aimed at everyone he saw. Then he slipped into their chapel and shot himself in the mouth.
The monks prayed and cried; they sprinkled holy water over the bloodstains and rededicated their abbey, and they went on living.
After the funeral, the press coverage ground to a halt. The reporters just hadn’t found a satisfactory reason to offer their distraught readers.
The monks weren’t even looking for one.
“It is not our work at this moment,” Abbot Gregory Polan told his fellow mourners. He glanced down at the plain pine boxes lined in sawdust, heavy with his brothers’ bodies, waiting to enter the earth. “The work of this monastic community, and those who walk this path with us, is to wait in faith and in prayer for the Lord to unfold to us the meaning of this mystery.”
Wisdom would come, he promised, “and when it comes, we will know it, because it will bring us peace.”
No, I thought, it will bring the rest of us peace.
Theirs never left.
Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
After act of violence, peace is still there.
National Catholic Reporter
July 19, 2002