Brother Joseph never told anyone that he heard the voice of God when he was fifteen. He wasn’t really sure if something had gone wrong, or if the first visit was just a prelim, and God was waiting for him to do something extraordinary. He really believed, hoped and believed, that the next time God spoke to him, something would be different. Something would change.
So Brother Joseph was living the contemplative life in a California monastery, waiting for God to finish the conversation he had started many years before. “Joseph,” God had said. He’d been lying in bed, staring at his bedroom ceiling. “Joseph,” God said. “Joseph.”
“What?” But that was it.
He was trying, God knows he was trying. But the contemplative life was difficult for him. What was he supposed to contemplate? He had to stomp down hard on his inner butterfly, his desire to fly through the springtime grass, roll through meadows full of wildflowers, enjoy the smell of Big Sur sea air. The other monks treated him like an overeager puppy, entertaining and lovable, but sort of annoying when they were tired.
The Abbott asked him if he would like to find some work, could he please find some work to do. He was offered a job as apprentice beekeeper and market gardener, but Joseph had been thinking a lot about pies. Could he perhaps train himself in pastry? He had once watched the movie Babette’s Feast, and he explained that he imagined his pies helping ease the aches of arthritis that were frequent topics of conversation at dinner. The Abbott agreed to the pastry, but suggested that he read the story, rather than depend on his original impressions of the movie.
Brother Joseph found great joy in his pies, and he made them to taste like the wildflowers, the green grass, the sea air of Big Sur. The other monks began to treat him with a little more respect, but Joseph hardly noticed. Happiness and an idea had taken root in his mind.
He understood that pastry equaled practice. There was no question a certain amount of craft was involved in a fine crust, and craft came from doing it over and over, and paying attention to the results. Certain flavors were easy on the mind, like whipped cream. Sour cream in a pie required concentration, a suspension of judgment, a leap of faith that in the end he found more rewarding than whipped cream. Joseph was happy contemplating these issues. What he came to believe was that when he was happy, his pies tasted better. And he was happy when he wasn’t thinking about that evening when he was fifteen and God had left a big question mark in his mind.
Spring berries, fresh-picked early in the morning; rolling out buttery pastry crust on cold marble, the smell of coffee drifting through the kitchen. Butter and salt, sugar and tiny green leaves of fresh mint. There came an April morning when Brother Joseph, his heart full to bursting with the beauty and happiness of the day and the goodness of his pies, decided to forget about that long-ago conversation. To give it up, and everything it might mean. To live as a pie maker, and forget about his failure, the lost potential he had never understood, to give it up and just make pies.
Two children came into the kitchen, delivering more berries. They came through every year when the fields got ripe, brown boys and girls, already learning that work was important for the family to survive. The girl had bangs cut straight across her eyebrows and berry-stained fingertips. They both stared at the pie cooling on the counter, purple huckleberry juice bubbling up through lattice crust, sparkling with sugar. They didn’t say a word.
“Joseph,” said God. “Joseph, they’re hungry.”
Sarah Black is a fiction writer.