The Vinegar Monk

October 16, 2011

This is a test.


This is a test.

Whaddaya mean? What’s a test?

This. That. Everything.


Relax. It’s not like you’re Job, you know.

You mean… this… is a test?

Yes. If it helps, just think of it as practice. For the other ones. The harder ones.


Perhaps if you spent a bit more time on your spiritual development?


In any event, I’ll be in touch.



Autumn had arrived. There were many events that signaled it beyond the changing of the foliage.

I had gotten off the phone with the doc, who got results from another round of tests and wanted to start me on another medication. What is this phase of life that we enter when our bodies start failing us?

Before that, I picked up from the shop our new-but-now-violated car ($1,342 violated) that was the target of an attempted theft. In my own driveway.

Before that, installed a motion sensor light by the driveway as a hopeful deterrent to further episodes (with the dubious side effect of shining into my neighbor’s bedroom window every time a breeze blows the surrounding trees).

But before that too was a weekend in the autumnal glory that is rural upstate New York (a long weekend, both of us playing hooky Monday). It was the occasion of my birthday and our anniversary, so we said what the heck and went. It was wonderful.

And before that was the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the last ever at Waterloo Village in northwest New Jersey (closed due to lack of state funding). It went out with a bang.

And even before that, it was Sidewalk Sale day in Montclair, and we, on our way to a craft fair in a park, stumbled upon it. My wife, an aficionado of such events, was off to the races, so I picked a nice bench on which to wait. Figuring she was good for at least an hour, I strolled over to the church, which was having a rummage sale on its lawn in conjunction with the sidewalk sale, and saw boxes of used books, three for a dollar; how can one go wrong? I thought I could find something to pass the time, and indeed I did, The Best American Essays of 2004. Perfect! I could read some shorter pieces without the kind of commitment I wasn’t ready to give to a novel.

I reclaimed my spot on the bench, flipped through the essays, and spotted an interesting title, “Bullet in my Neck,” noticing that it was by a poet I like, Gerald Stern. It seems that Stern and a female companion, who was driving, got lost leaving Newark airport on the way to a poetry reading and found themselves in the heart of Newark. They were stopped at a light. He looked over at her and saw that beyond her, outside her window, was a young guy with a gun pointed at her, about to squeeze the trigger. The gun misfired, but when he turned his head, he saw the guy outside his window, and his gun did not misfire. The bullet struck him in the neck. They raced off to find help and ended up at the hospital (where a guard tried to stop him from going in the wrong entrance). The bullet was lodged dangerously close to an artery, so the doctors decided it would be best to leave it be (hence the title of the essay). The heart of the essay was the aftermath of this event, the struggle with one’s desire to be understanding of the human conditions that cause such behavior versus the anger over what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-shoot-me-for, as I am now struggling with the milder what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-break-into-my-car-for.

At the Dodge festival several weeks later, I saw on the schedule that none other than the selfsame Gerald Stern was going to be reading. I attended his small-group session (somewhat ironically about poetry and disruption), and when it was over went up to him and told the story of reading his essay (my car not yet having been broken into). He was quite funny for a cantankerous old poet, and ended our brief conversation with, “And you know, the bullet is still  there!”

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

My wife Bernadette, ever the lover of esoteric cooking and food information, saw an article in the NY Times about a Benedictine monk who lived by himself in upstate New York making homemade vinegar (viewed by the outside world as a gourmet item). After it was decided that we would go away for the weekend, she went back to the article, and, Lo and Behold, that very monk’s monastery was in a town not so far from where we were going. We plotted various routes on Mapquest, and we found ourselves driving along country roads near LaGrangeville, NY, looking for the isolated sanctuary of the Vinegar Monk, which most of the locals, having been asked, had never heard of. Finally, in a small roadside convenience store a customer, looking for all the world like a Mountain Man, overheard my query to the clerk and pointed us in the right direction. Several miles later, there it was, a small sign at the entrance of a winding dirt road leading into the woods.

After driving up the narrow road which was punctuated by small religious statuary on posts, we arrived at a farmhouse in a somewhat overgrown yard with dogs barking and chickens and cats running about, suspiciously eying these intruders of their bucolic world. The farmhouse (which had crosses on it; it must be the place) had no public looking “entrance,”  so we found ourselves standing around wondering what to do next when we heard tapping coming from one of the upstairs windows.

Moments later, Brother Victor-Antoine D’Avila-Latourrette appeared, bald headed and wearing a cassock and sandals, one’s very image of a monk. He invited us in, and we sat in his dark and rather musty parlor. He was genuinely hospitable in spite of being busy (“Please excuse me; I was making pesto sauce for the Christmas Festival”). He told us, in his slight French accent,  all about his vinegar making (using a twelfth-century recipe from France), the writing of the Times article, the interns from nearby Vassar who sporadically worked on the farm with him (and from where the writer of the Times article came), how he ended up being alone at the monastery, and what life was like on a small farm in upstate New York. He showed us his chapel, a simple but elegant stone-walled room off the back of the farmhouse, and then came the vinegar.

He had an assortment of bottles, some white, some red, several in “fancy” Christmas bottles (“Oh, they’re so hard to come by”). Bernadette was ready to buy, but he insisted that first we smell (Wow!!) and then taste using a teaspoon from his kitchen. And indeed this was special stuff, each handcrafted batch having its own distinct personality described with obvious love by Brother Victor. On a table were some old and dusty cookbooks which Bernadette discovered were written by him, a 1966 graduate of Columbia University. She bought one of them, too, with peasant recipes from France interspersed with homey religious quotes. Two of my favorites: “For a small reward a man will hurry away on a long journey, while for eternal life many will hardly take a single step.” (Thoms A Kempis) and “Three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes, anxiety over tomorrow’s problems, and ingratitude for today’s blessings.” (William Arthur Ward). One book, which I was tempted to get, was entitled Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.

At that point, Brother Victor, almost apologetically for what he seemed to consider his lapse of social grace, asked what our names were, and when he heard “Bernadette,” he became nothing short of ecstatic. It turns out that he was born not far from Lourdes, and his grandfather knew THE Bernadette. He ushered us back into the chapel to show us the special shrine he had for Saint Bernadette as well as other very old religious icons including an eleventh century statue of Mary. We then went outside to view the Grotto of Bernadette in front of the farmhouse, followed by a tour of his little farm (“Oh, I’m so glad I came out here with you; I left the water running in the hose for the sheep!”). He showed us the vegetable garden and the herb garden, all the while telling us stories of the difficulties of running the farm on his own and trying to make vinegar as well as keep up his religious life. He had been selling vinegar through the nearby Millbrook Winery, but it got to be too much. Once a prominent restauranteur from California had found out about him and wanted to fly him out (“But I’ve never been to California, I told him. I’m a monk; I don’t get out much”).

We finally bid him adieu and drove off in wonderment over the unexpected and magical interlude we had just experienced. Miles from New Jersey. Light years from Newark. The next two days were filled with walks through the beautiful autumn woods, drives past pastures with mellow cows and meandering stone walls, my upcoming rendezvous with medical consternation still days away.

Yes. The three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes (attempted car thefts, bullets in the neck), anxiety over tomorrow’s problems (the ever-increasing medications and the encroaching old age it symbolizes), and ingratitude for today’s blessings (Bernadette’s mysterious and ceaseless love, the golden leaves blowing about).

Ah, the connectivity of Life.


One comment

  1. What an adventure! I am picking up the threads of communication that I have let fall over the past year and a half. Personal trials followed by tribulations have kept me quiet and focused on my navel. I think that phase is over and I promise to be do better as a friend and communicator.

    Off line, would you like to tell me more about the medications and their effects? Respecting your privacy, I won’t pry.

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