Lopsang Biltzstein used to be named Karen. She also used to have a daughter. Everything changes; nothing lasts.
The monastery of St. Sebastian was on the third Segovian Hill to the left, Mount Faith, and there was no road up, just a nightmare of a goat path bracketed by brambles that needed to be regularly scythed lest it grow over and disappear back into the ravenous chaparral. Whatever the monks needed, they carried up the mountain. This led to asceticism.
Little Aleppo let the monks alone, and the monks did the same. A lot of people from the neighborhood had made the trip up, spent some time there. A lot of people from the neighborhood didn’t believe in rehab or psychiatry.
When Karen Blitzstein took her vows, she changed her first name to Lopsang.
“You really don’t have to,” Brother Yup said.
“I know,” she said.
“We’re not Buddhists.”
“Pretty sure Lopsang is a boy’s name.”
A monastery is a fortress is a castle is an ancient city is a Roman villa: build some walls and live in them. Turn the world binary. Out There and In Here. Them and Us. You always know what side of a wall you’re on. Build it high enough and time slows; build it thick enough and gravity stumbles. Carve out a piece of the world for yourself and damn the rest.
The Sebastianite brothers were idiosyncretic, which is a fancy word that means you were allowed to believe whatever the hell you wanted. Eremetic, Lavritic, Cenobitic, Skete. Flagellants and Penitentes. Visitandine novitiates, and Chthonian articulates. Wives and millers and knights fresh from pilgrimage. Warrior monks and fat old sybarites heavy with wine. An orphan or two.
A brother stayed awake all night, every night, to say Nocturns at midnight and then wake the rest of monastery well before dawn for Lauds. Breakfast, which was small and did not contain coffee. Six a.m. was Prime, and some worshipped Jesus and others the sun, but all the brothers worshipped, even if they were sisters. Terce and Sext followed at three hour intervals, and then the midday meal which did not contain meat. Dozing off was common during Nones, as was a senior brother hitting sleeping monks with a stick. Vespers is the prayer for the candles, the benediction of the lamp, and when all were lit in the monastery, you could see the faint and whitish glow from all the way down the Main Drag. Children would confuse the light for a star and make wishes, which are like prayers but more honest. Before all the brothers but one went to sleep, they would assemble for Compline.
Sturdy set of walls and a strict routine lets you ignore the world real good.
When they moved into the three-bedroom split-level on the Upside, Karen had noticed that the corner needed a stop sign. The house was on Crater Road, which was very long and straight, and so drivers would pick up speed. Probably didn’t even notice they were doing it. Children chase balls into the street sometimes.
Come to prayers and don’t cause too much trouble. Those were the rules at the monastery of St. Sebastian, and they were followed by some occasionally, and others fervently. The church was laid out east to west, which sat it diagonally within the square of walls. Well, “church.” Too many Muslims, Minoans, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Malanga’i, Hindus, and Sikhs had worshiped there for it to be rightly called a church any longer, even with the giant crucifixes all over the place: the monastery had been built by Christians, but then everyone else moved in.
Courtyard surrounding the church. Buildings in the courtyard: library and workshop on one side, dining hall, kitchen, and storehouse on the other. The cells were built into the walls, two floors worth and all the way around, looking inward and opening onto communal walkways like a cheap seaside motel. Mattress. Table. Chair. Window with no curtain. Door with no lock.
Knock on the door and the St. Sebastianite brothers will refuse you entrance. This is how it works: you need to wait outside for three days. The monastery being in Little Aleppo, however, the rules were more like guidelines: if it was raining, you could come in right away, or if you were hungry, or if you just didn’t want to hang around sitting on concrete steps for three days. You were still responsible for 72 hours spent outside waiting to come in; most of the monks chose to amortize the time over the course of several weeks and would goon around outside for a half-hour at a time. When the weather was especially nice, initiates would burn off an hour or two playing touch football.
Karen’s husband started drinking after the funeral, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t stand the sight of him anymore. She couldn’t stand the sight of herself anymore.
You’ll throw up if you just take pills because your stomach loves you more than your heart does. Combine the pills with a dry cleaner’s bag and rubber bands.
Rent is work. Earn your bed, your rice, your fish and vegetables from the gardens chunked out of the hillside to the south of the monastery. Rent is prayer, which is also work. Prayer is a one-way street. Rent is communion. If you can’t fix yourself, fix your brother. If you’re not worth a prayer, then she certainly is. Or maybe she isn’t, but rent in the monastery of St. Sebastian was also the benefit of doubt. You might be the most fucked-up person behind these walls, but probably not.
The churches on Rose Street were not enough, and neither were the bars on the Main Drag, nor the painful pleasures of the Hotel Synod. Karen tried Christ and she tried needles and she tried strangers and their philosophies, and she had the pills and she had the dry cleaner’s bag right there in her bedroom in the empty house on Crater Road on the Upside. She had not listened to any music since the funeral, at least not intentionally, and it may have been a Thursday but she had stopped keeping track of that sort of thing: dawn breaking over the Segovian Hills, and she left the house without locking it up and walked west; there was a hiking path that went up Mount Faith and spiraled around the cone of the hill, and the shaky goat path to the monastery broke off the trail halfway up the mountain; the footing was crumbly and loose, and she slipped to her hands and knees several times.
When she knocked on the door, she left a bloody print.
Lauds in the pre-dawn morning, and Prime in the light. Terce, then Sext, and Nones is next. Vespers is the prayer for the candles, and Compline before sleep. One of the brothers does not sleep so that he can say Nocturns. Karen had been left down in the valley, and Lopsang Blitzstein existed behind a sturdy set of walls and a strict routine. Nothing changes, and everything lasts in the monastery of St. Sebastian, which is in the Segovian Hills above Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.