My friends and I had really only stopped at the monastery on a lark. We figured that we'd see how cheese was made and perhaps secretly snicker at men who had willingly chosen a life of celibacy.
The three of us were driving cross-country, heading toward what potentially might prove to be a fun and nostalgic weekend get-together with old college friends in California. But while passing through pastoral surroundings, we saw the monastery from the road and, having seen the billboard for "artesian monastic cheese" twenty minutes or so before, we decided to make a pit stop.
We were greeted at the front gate by a small group of men in robes that looked like they were made out of brown burlap potato sacks. We snuck each other amused looks, delighted that our stop seemed likely to produce funny and colorful stories with which to regale our old friends when we reached our destination.
We made the small required donation, and then Brother Leonard, one of the less somber looking monks, led us on a tour of the grounds.
He took us through each step of the process the brothers used to make their cheese -- from milking, heat treatment, culture and coagulation, separating the curds from the whey, cooking, draining, and finally pressing. I concluded the tour knowing far more about cheese than I had ever wanted to.
At each stage of the cheese-making process, gloomy monks in itchy-looking robes worked cheerlessly. They didn't even look up from their tasks when Brother Leonard led us through their work areas.
After observing how they made the cheese, Brother Leonard brought us out into an open courtyard and asked us to seat ourselves at a long wooden bench. Here, we would taste their fabled cheese.
Luke whispered to me, "Hey, Marc, I bet it tastes like unwashed feet."
"Shhh!" I responded under my breath.
"I've got five dollars on dirty dishwater." John chimed in.
I rolled my eyes at them both. They never knew when to quit. However, I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much of the cheese either. If I'd been a betting man, my money would have been on a sharp flavor of rotten milk.
A hunched over monk with a grey complexion entered the courtyard with a tray and proceeded to serve each of us a plate of the cheese with unleavened crackers.
The crackers were tasteless, but the cheese turned out to be wonderfully creamy and flavorful. It was surprisingly good -- remarkably good.
As we enthusiastically finished eating, Luke asked Brother Leonard how long he had been with the order.
"Unlike most of my brothers, I have only been with the order for a few years." he replied.
Then the brother told us his personal story of how he had come to join the order.
" I joined the brotherhood after my dear wife died tragically in a car accident. We had been married for only a little over a year, and were so deeply in love." he lamented, still clearly overcome with grief when he thought of her.
"She was pregnant with our child. We were overjoyed. But our family was not to be. She lost control of her car while on the highway not far from here. Her lower body was horribly mangled in the crash. She was already dead when the brothers found her."
"The brothers found the accident?" Luke asked.
"Yes. They were so kind as to contact me themselves. I was utterly bereft." Brother Leonard paused, choking back emotion.
"When I arrived to collect her, they saw the state that I was in -- I was beside myself with despair. I loved her so completely; without her, my world had suddenly come to an end." "I was not been a religious man, but the brothers still took me in. The order embraced me, caring for me in my time of need, and patiently taught me the tenets of their faith."
Brother Leonard painted a far more compassionate picture of his fellow monks than I would have imagined of them. To me, they seemed lifeless, joyless, and positively cardboard-like.
"They even offered to inter Myra's body here on the grounds." Brother Leonard added.
"She's buried here at the monastery?" John inquired.
"Yes. Here in this very courtyard."
Brother Leonard gestured to the cement slab upon which sat the bench at which we were seated.
Startled, all three of us squirmed a bit upon receiving this information.
Looking down, I could see that the name "Myra Callaway" was inscribed on a small, simple stone plaque that rested within the cement near my feet. However, I noticed something else as well.
Brother Leonard resumed his scripted tour speech, telling us the history of the monastery. I didn't listen. I was preoccupied. My eyes were drawn to the cement slab beneath us. I couldn't help noticing that the cement was uneven and badly cracked. There was a large break in the concrete where the cement had shifted, and beneath it lay a deep crevice. Within that fissure, exposed bones were visible. It was the skeletal remains of his wife.
I said nothing. Should I say something? It was appalling. The brothers hadn't even given her a coffin. They had buried her unceremoniously under a slab of concrete, and then they hadn't even seen fit to maintain that concrete.
Reaching the conclusion of the tour, we were funneled into the gift shop. It primarily contained wheels of cheese of all sizes and postcards of the monastery. While my buddies snickered over cheese-shaped key chains, my thoughts remained elsewhere.
I couldn't stop thinking of the woman's corpse or of the man to whom she had been dear, unaware that she lay exposed.
Brother Leonard passed outside the one of the windows as my friends were making their purchases. I briskly asked them to wait and slipped out to speak with him.
"Thank you for your concern," he said with a gentle smile, "but I'm sure that you are mistaken. The brothers have cared for my beloved's remains with great compassion, as if she were one of their order."
"I'm sorry, Brother, but I'm sure that I saw her remains."
He remained disbelieving.
"Please, let me show you what I saw."
He capitulated, no doubt in order to put my ridiculous claim to rest, and we walked back to the courtyard together.
"I'm sure your faith has brought you solace, but this can't be sanitary." I said as we approached his wife's make-shift grave. "We're all breathing particles of your beloved. She's sitting exposed to the open air."
I gestured to the gap in which her bones lay. Brother Leonard went quiet; he was clearly shocked by what he saw.
As I looked down, I noticed that her skull was caved in while her leg bones appeared intact. That didn't line up with how he had said that she died. It was strange and suspicious, but I didn't point it out. I didn't want to rub salt in the wound. He was taking her being exposed to the elements pretty hard already.
Shaking slightly, Brother Leonard stood in silence for several minutes.
When he spoke, his voice quivered.
"Thank you for informing me of this. I think I need some time away from the order. I have very little; perhaps a suitcase worth of material possessions to my name. Would you allow me to ride with you?"
His eyes were moist.
"Of course." I said quietly.
"Give me just a few minutes. I will meet you at the gift shop in ten minutes."
I nodded, and he excused himself.
But as I made my way back to my friends in the gift shop, I was approached by a very tall, grim-looking monk. He placed a hand the size of a ham heavily on my shoulder, and commanded me to stop and speak with him.
"You do not understand the importance of cheese." he said cryptically.
As he towered over me, I nodded as if this made some sort of sense.
"Brother Leonard is instrumental to our order." he continued. "He is a master cheese-maker. Acquiring his expertise has been the brotherhood's salvation."
I nodded vaguely.
"Get in your car and go. Now. While you can."
His grip on my shoulder tightened until it was crippling, and then he released me.
Rejoining my friends, we left the monastery immediately, more soberly resuming our road trip.