Missing the Message

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Reading some of the emails Winging It incites you’d think it must be the filthiest book ever written. Men in bed with men; women with women; each with the other and every kind of perversion practised on the page. I even had someone demanding to know what kind of filth (he meant me) would take the public’s image of a virginal film star and show the nymphomaniac that insiders always knew was there. But that’s not Winging It at all. This is Winging It:

We had visitors sometimes. One of my jobs was to welcome them at the gate and take them to the Master, and then show them around after he had talked to them, and sometimes they wanted to know why I wasn’t dressed as a monk. The answer was as simple as it was obvious: because I wasn’t one. I was a lay brother.

Monasteries were all over England at one time, before Henry VIII got rid of them, but that was long before the English colonies began and I suppose you could wonder why this one was in California. Don’t. There are more things in California, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

I could see disappointment sometimes on the faces of the visitors. They’d have liked us to have green fields and cattle and sheep so that we could be self-sufficient and sell prime organic beef and make sheep’s milk cheese the way the monks in Wensleydale did. A California monastery isn’t like that. Wensleydale isn’t Wensleydale any more, either; the milk comes from cows now and the cheese is actually made in Swaledale.

We did have chickens and they laid lovely eggs. We also had a market garden and a hectare of glass and we didn’t go short of vegetables and salads. The tomatoes were a delight. Commercial growers give theirs lots of water because tomatoes are sold by weight and they want them to grow big and fat. If you want taste, let the toms go thirsty. Not enough to split the skins but enough to build up the concentration of salts in the fruit. The salts are what give a tomato its flavour.

We also had lots of fruit bushes, from which the monks distilled liqueurs that we sold at fancy prices. More money came in from a big print shop and a bakery that made more bread than we could eat ourselves and sold the rest along with the surplus from the garden. You should have tasted our Sourdough Rye.

When I went there in 1985 there were twenty-five monks and three lay brothers but mine was the first new face in fifteen years and, at forty-two, I was twenty years younger than the next youngest. There weren’t any new recruits after me. Monks die just like any other old men and we were down to ten monks, with me as the only lay brother. The Master said he would keep the place going as long as he could. The land would sell for a lot of money and the Master said he would raise a mortgage and invest the money so that we could bring in paid help. I rang Bennie and told him to send the Master a million dollars without telling him who the money was from. That ended financial worries for a while and the workers were hired. I was The Gardener—Capital T, Capital G—but I had four people to help me and all four went home at night. It was the same in the bakery and the print shop; only the distillery was still reserved for monks alone. All of the help was male. We did allow women visitors, as long as they covered their heads and dressed modestly.

I went there so that I would be able to meditate and pray without the distractions the world outside the walls presented. I won’t say I went there to find God because I was told a year or so before I arrived that you don’t find God—He finds you—and my experience says that’s right. His hand is always outstretched towards you; all you have to do is reach out and take it.

I ignored that outstretched hand for the first forty years of my life.

A man goes through everything Jimmy Carlton goes through and at the end of it all he finds God. You’d think that was at least worth noticing. Wouldn’t you?

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