Something about longevity

Something about longevity

I’ve long admired the joyful endurance that, over time, creates a deep furrow of cultivated character and glorifying goodness.

The blokes from The Big Table spent last weekend at New Norcia: eating, praying, talking, playing pool, walking, and worshiping together. At one point I recalled one of the monastery’s monks, Dom Paulino Gutierrez. I’d been wandering through cemetery earlier that morning and happened upon the simple metal cross that marked his life.

Dom Paulino died in 2010, a few months shy of his 100th birthday. He’d travelled to New Norcia from Spain in August 1928 as an eighteen-year-old. He’d be the last of the Spanish monks at the monastery. Not the end of a legacy, but the end of a direct lineage to its foundations.

I knew Dom Paulino as a cheery red-faced Spaniard. In some ways, he was true to the monk stereotype. My lasting memory is of the frequent meals I enjoyed with the monks and regularly standing solemly behind my chair as the monks filed into the dining room behind me. Invariably, the sound of footsteps would cease before a steady clack-clack, clack-clack sound could be heard. It was Dom Paulino, ambling down the courtyard to find his seat, by the door, second table to the left. (The crutches were the result of breaking an already lame leg in 1991.)

In the current era where those monks to have taken their vows at New Norcia would barely fill a cricket team and vows are made primarily for lives of quiet contemplation, Dom Paulino seems an oddity. Beginning his time in the community as a ‘lay brother’, and resourced with practical skills and a thirst for hard work, Dom Paulino got busy. He thrived in a town that was bursting at the seams with men, women, and children. Colleges of kids, convents of nuns, and monasteries of men filled the town. They all needed to be fed, watered and nourished for the work and prayer that filled their days.

Dom Paulino was the community’s baker, milling the flour and baking 180 loaves each day—daily bread for the community. He didn’t decide after a couple of months that he was no longer interested in this ‘breadmaking thing’, he kept at his furrow. It was his work, his service, and his consecration to God.

For 51 years, he baked. It was his reasonable service within the community. While he would become renown for his age and longevity, there was nothing to suggest any sense of fame or spotlight was ever near him. Over his life as the Baker of New Norcia, Dom Paulino would bake over a million loaves—just one batch at a time, one day at a time.

It wasn’t all he did. Dom Paulino also mended people’s soles. I’m sure he would have regarded the deeper soul-mending as the domain of others and best left to the Master, but he fixed shoes. For many, many decades. When industry produced longer lasting soles, Dom Paulino didn’t change vocation; he just served differently. He began tending the olive grove, harvesting and pickling their fruit, or crushing them for oil. That was another thirty years.

He would attribute his long years to ‘good bread, good wine, and good olive oil’. While the wine never fitted directly into his job description, I can vouch that he gave it a pretty good run each lunch time.

As a result of Vatican II, the lay brother made his solemn confession and became a monk in 1974, 46 years after arriving at the monastery.

Eugene Petersen’s book, ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ paints a rich picture of steadiness and pilgrimmage that produces the fruit of faithfulness. Sure, some are called to seasonal work, like day labourers in a vineyard, but it’s those who tend and prune the vines, taste its fruit, and appreciate its produce in times of drought and bounty, that also enjoy the deep work and sweet wine that is the yield of the vineyard year on year.

Dom Paulino got that. I envied the simplicity of his days, yet I had far deeper respect for the faithfulness of his decades.

Perhaps things changed over the 82 years that Dom Paulino filed into that long wood-clad dining room, but in the decade that overlapped my retreats to New Norcia and his life, I often found myself imagining him limping or clack-clacking to lunch and dinner over all those 82 years. Slowly going about his business – eating the bread he had made, or the olives he had crushed into oil. 60,000 meals in roughly the same seat. It’s probably someone’s idea of torture, but it’s a beautiful picture of longevity for me.

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