“Step Nine” by Brother Benet Tvedten

 

Gray Concrete Column Inside Vintage Building

Abbot George had wanted to send him away for treatment of alcoholism, but Father Benjamin pleaded, “No, no! Don’t do that.” To get the abbot off his back, he said, “I’ll check out Alcoholics Anonymous.”

“Good,” Abbot George sighed, relieved that there hadn’t been more of an argument. Nor had Father Benjamin put up a fuss when asked to relinquish the supply of booze that he kept in his room. “I’ll lock it in the liquor cabinet where it belongs,” the abbot said.

The abbot and the rest of the monks were convinced that Father Benjamin had hit bottom after having driven through a closed garage door twice in one month. The amazing thing was that he had never been arrested for driving under the influence.  He’d always managed to evade the law. Now after having had to replace the two garage doors within a short time, Brother Cyril, who was in charge of abbey vehicles, demanded of the abbot, “Get that man some help or give me a different job.”

For twenty years Father Benjamin had taught English in the high school for boys run by the monks. The students had liked him and they often agreed that he made a dull subject enjoyable.  Some of their parents banded together, however, and got Father Benjamin fired for having their sons read The Catcher in the Rye as a class assignment. “I can’t believe that folks are still getting worked up over that book,” he told Abbot George.

Father Benjamin, because he had been so popular among the students, was named alumni director. One of his duties was to attend stand-ups with the old boys in various places within driving distance from the monastery. All of these gatherings began with a happy hour. Wine was  served at dinner, followed by more drinking throughout the evening. In the beginning, he had been able to drive home sober, but for the past couple of years, his drinking had become increasingly problematic. Abbot George told him several times not to drink too much at these events. There had been a few occasions when the alumni insisted that Father Benjamin stay overnight at a motel or go home with one of them.

Abbot George informed Father Benjamin that A.A. meetings were held in town on Wednesday evenings at the courthouse, and that he could accompany Brother Stanley to them.  “You’ve missed this week’s, but you’ll be prepared to go next week.”

“I was never anything like Stanley. I was never that bad.”

“You both need A.A.  There will be no more discussion.”

Father Benjamin admitted to himself that now and the he’d been tipsy. But he
definitely had not become an old soak like Brother Stanley. Alcohol made Father
Benjamin feel light-hearted, and there was nothing wrong with that. One needed
to be cheerful at alumni gatherings. Alcohol made him more sociable. He couldn’t
think of anything he’d ever done at such events that would have been an
embarrassment for the monastic community.

The abbot had reminded him that operating a vehicle in a state of intoxication
was a criminal act. Father Benjamin replied that he felt badly about wrecking two
garage doors and doing “minimal damage to a car.” He confessed to being “a
little drunk” when this happened. “But I’ve never been arrested because of my
driving.”

“You’ve never been caught,” Abbot George answered.

“I’ve never had an accident.”

“What do you mean by that?” the abbot yelled. “You’ve never had an accident?”

“I mean out on the highway.”

~

“How it works,” the woman said, and proceeded to read from Chapter Five
of a thick book bound with a blue cover. She named twelve steps that lead to
sobriety. The book called this “a simple program.”  Father Benjamin thought the
woman looked vaguely familiar. She said her name was Marge.  “Now, we have
someone new here tonight. Let’s do our introductions,” Marge suggested.
Twenty people, most of them drinking coffee from large paper cups, were
gathered around two long tables that had been shoved together.

Giving their first names and identifying themselves as alcoholics, they waited
for Father Benjamin to introduce himself. He already knew a couple of the people
in the room. Jerry Thompson was an alumnus of the abbey school. Bob Kruger
was the abbey’s lawyer. He’d called himself “a grateful alcoholic.” The other
familiar looking A.A. members may have likewise been parishioners of St. Brigid’s
here in town.   Now and then he was the substitute for their pastor. He did a lot of
parish work throughout the diocese, filling in for priests who were away. This had
conveniently provided him an opportunity to stop at liquor stores on the way
there and back to the monastery. Perhaps Marge appeared to be someone he
should know because he’d met her at one of the parishes.

Unlike the other people at the meeting, Father Benjamin was reluctant to call
himself an alcoholic, but they were waiting for him to introduce himself. At last he
said, “I’m Father Benjamin, and the abbot thinks I’m an alcoholic.”

Everyone laughed. “Yeah, yeah,” one of the men said, “we’ve all said that sort
of thing about ourselves. It was always someone else who thought we were
alcoholic.”

Brother Stanley brought down the house when he said, “I’m Stanley, and the
abbot has no doubts about my being an alkie.”

Marge informed the group that Step Nine would be discussed this evening.
“For the sake of the new member, I’ll repeat that Step Eight has us make a list of
all the people we’ve harmed by our drinking, and now Step Nine is the actual
making of amends to those people.”

One after another, they took turns telling about having apologized for the
hardship and embarrassment they had caused loved ones, and employers, and
other persons for whom they should have shown more respect.

“I was a real pain in the butt for my community,” Brother Stanley said as he
began talking about himself. Father Benjamin could agree with that statement.
He thought sobriety hasn’t changed Stanley one single iota.

“I pass,” Brother Stanley said when he was finished describing his method of
making amends. Again, the rest of them waited for Father Benjamin to whom the
topic had been passed. Finally, he said, “I’m Father Benjamin…”

Brother Stanley interrupted him, “We don’t go by titles here. You’re simply
Benjamin, a common ordinary drunk like the rest of us.”

Marge told him, “We all realize that you’ve got a ways to go yet before you
take Steps Eight and Nine, but, from what you’ve heard us say, do you wish to
comment on Step Nine?”

“I don’t believe there is anyone to whom I owe an apology,” he answered.
“What the hell!” Brother Stanley shouted. “You practically tore down our
garage.  Don’t you think you should apologize for that?”

“You did worse things,” Father Benjamin retorted. “You spat in the abbot’s
face one time when you were drunk”

Jerry Thompson said, “Benjamin, you were the priest at my father’s funeral
last month.”

“Yes, Father Parsons was gone, so the abbey provided a priest.”

“You kept praying for the repose of her soul; not his. And at the cemetery,
you almost toppled into the grave. One of the pallbearers grabbed hold of
your arm. I think my family deserves an apology.”

“I do remember being a bit unsteady, but I was just getting over the flu.”
Jerry Thompson said, “I think you need to apologize to me for that lie.”
Father Benjamin knew it was a lie. He’d been drinking the pastor’s booze all
morning and was fairly looped when he went over to the church for the funeral.

“I apologized to Abbot George for spitting in his face,” Brother Stanley assured everyone.

A woman said, “I think you’re still in a stage of denial, Benjamin. Don’t you
see how powerless you are over alcohol? How unmanageable your life has
become?”

Brother Stanley chimed in again. “It’s time for you to start taking
responsibility for your actions.”

“Stop blaming others,” someone said.

“I’m not putting blame on anyone,” Father Benjamin replied.

Jerry Thompson wanted to go another round with him. “Remember my
brother, Mike?  He also went to your school, a few years ahead of me. He brought home a dirty book you’d given his class to read. That wasn’t a very responsible thing to do.”

“I’ll be damned! Why are you bringing up that?”

“You introduced pornography into a Catholic school,” Brother Stanley charged.

“What do you know about literary things?” Father Benjamin shouted at his confrere.

Marge wrapped her knuckles on the table. “I think we should stop taking Benjamin’s inventory.” She said to him, “If you don’t have anything to say about Step Nine, let’s move on.”

Nothing happened. Brother Stanley poked him. “If you aren’t going to talk,
you’re supposed to say, I pass.”

Father Benjamin asked himself: Why did I ever get into this predicament?
He saw what his life was going to be like from now on. It was going to be pretty
dismal traveling to town and back with Brother Stanley week after week. O
Lord, let me get home this evening, he prayed, without killing Brother Stanley.
Everyone had spoken about Step Nine, and it appeared Marge was going
to close the meeting. But she had something else that needed to be
addressed to Father Benjamin specifically. “We all  know that becoming drunk
often causes us to lose our inhibitions. I think there is another apology you
need to consider making with regard to a wedding at St. Brigid’s in June.”
Father Parsons, who’d been called away unexpectedly, had requested
Abbot George to provide a substitute.

“It was a lovely wedding,” Father Benjamin said. But to tell the truth, these
six months later, he could not recall what either the bride or the groom looked
like.  For that matter, he didn’t remember their names.

“It was my daughter’s wedding,” Marge said. “My husband captured your
improprieties at the reception on his cam recorder. However, I asked him to
erase it. But my family and I would like an apology. Not necessarily now. Later,
as you continue in the program.” Father Benjamin had no idea to what she
was referring, and he was too humiliated to ask.

Then they all stood up and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards everyone,
except Father Benjamin, who was unaware of what was expected, said in
unison, “Keep coming back. It works.

If you work it.”

Brother Stanley volunteered to preside at next Wednesday’s meeting.

“Thanks Stanley,” they said, all together again.

“And,” Brother Stanley added, “Benjamin will make the coffee.”

“Thanks Benjamin.”

On the way to car, Father Benjamin commented, “My, but they drink a lot of
coffee.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Brother Stanley said.

~

All week long he examined his conscience, but Father Benjamin could not
recollect what he had done at the wedding reception.  Marge had suggested
that he should make amends, but for what?

What could he have done that was so upsetting at the wedding
reception?  It was something so bad that it had been erased from her husband’
s cam recorder.  Although Marge had said the group shouldn’t take his
inventory, she herself would indeed have to tell him what he’d done.  The
incident was also erased from his memory.

On Wednesday afternoon, Brother Stanley approached Father Benjamin
and told him, “We’ll have to leave earlier this evening. You’ve got to make the
coffee.  Remember?”

At the meeting when his turn came for an introduction, he said, “I’m
Benjamin, and I’m an alcoholic.” He said that every Wednesday evening for
the next month.

For now that’s who he was. Perhaps the time would come when he could be
able to identify himself in the same manner that Bob Kruger did. Maybe
someday he would be able to say, “I’m Benjamin and I’m a grateful alcoholic.”
He might even be able to ask Marge what his improper behavior have been on
the day of her daughter’s wedding.

 

 

Brother Benet Tvedten has lived at Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota for fifty years. He has three books in print at the present time. All are related to Benedictine monastic life. He has had fiction published in literary magazines and anthologies. A novella, All Manner of Monks, received the Minnesota Voices Project award in 1985 and was published by New Rivers Press. Brother Benet edits his community’s newsletter and participates in 12 Step Retreats that are held at the monastery.

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