The Brother and the Rooster

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It was hard for old Brother Stanislaus to get used to new ways, the new rule, of the religious house in America to which he had been transferred. Every morning he arose at five and went to the chapel for half an hour's meditation. After Mass there were fifteen minutes for thanksgiving and half an hour for spiritual reading. Then before breakfast he had time to milk one of the cows. After breakfast there were fifteen minutes in which to say the Joyful Mysteries, then there were the other cows to milk and put out in the fields, and work in the vegetable and flower gardens until twelve, when there was another half-hour for spiritual reading before dinner. It was good to sit in peace and calm and cool off a bit, and very often Brother Stanislaus napped soundly instead of reading, which was but a venial sin, since it was without due deliberation and full consent of the will.

After dinner there were the Sorrowful Mysteries to be recited, followed by three-quarters of an hour of recreation. The long afternoon was spent in the garden or fields, or in the winter at carpentering or house cleaning. There was always plenty to do.

Supper was at six-thirty and the Glorious Mysteries completed the rosary for the day. Recreation followed, but Brother Stanislaus always used his time to water the garden. There was never enough rain. Evening prayers were at nine and the bell for retiring was rung at nine-thirty.

The Polish brother soon learned to speak English as well as he spoke French or Italian, though never as well as he did his own language.

There were twenty-five novices, five lay brothers and three fathers in the House of Our Lady of the Sea. When the work was heavier than usual the fathers and novices joined in, making hay, cutting lawns and weeding the garden. For the first five years Brother Stanislaus was in America, he worked with the animals and vegetables. There were five cows, two horses, some ducks and chickens. It was hard for him to make friends with the other lay brothers who were much younger than he. But one dear friend Brother Stanislaus had among his charges and that was a young rooster, which he had raised and petted until it grew to know him and used to come and perch on hisshoulder when he called. Every morning when he went to open the door of the chicken coop, it ran out to him, crowing in a friendly manner, strutting before him and showing off its fine feathers.

"God has given us a very fine morning," Brother Stanislaus would say to his little brother, the rooster. "Now if He will only send us a good shower this after­ noon so that I won't have to water the garden tonight, I'll be very happy. My arms ache from carrying those heavy watering cans."

And the rooster crowed lustily as though to say, "Let us praise God at any rate. Whatever He does is very good."

At the end of five years Brother Stanislaus was transferred to the kitchen to work as cook with the help of another brother to do dishes and set the tables. This was a time of hardship for him. He had no great love for food, and he did love the out-of-doors and his animals. There was barely time in the morning to go out and greet his rooster before he had to start breakfast. The huge pot of oatmeal had to boil for an hour and there had to be tea, coffee and chocolate. There was time for Mass and spiritual reading during the meal, but there seemed to be no time for the half -hour of meditation.

Since he believed with Saint Teresa that the devil would shun anyone who was given to this devotion, it upset him to think he had to miss his morning exercise. It was impossible for him to get up earlier than the rising hour of five. He was an old man and very tired at the end of the day. So he had to take to meditation while he waited for the breakfast to cook.

"Good Saint Joseph, don't let my oatmeal burn," he would murmur, every now and then as he paced up and down the kitchen meditating on the Visitation, or the Four Last Things. And Saint Joseph watched over the stove and by seven the oatmeal was done to a turn and not sticking, at that—so that the pan was not hard to wash.

During the long winter it was not so hard to work in the kitchen. The big range heated up the room and it was pleasant to come into the kitchen in the morning from the icy bedrooms and the cold chapel. The singing of the tea kettle, the bubbling of the boiling potatoes and the noisy crackling of the roast in the oven were pleasant accompaniments to the peeling of vegetables and the cleaning off of closet shelves.

The worst thing about the kitchen work was that it was never finished. There was food to be prepared and cooked and the pots and pans to wash, and the kitchen to sweep and mop and the shelves and drawers to clean out and the windows to wash and the fire to keep up. Every minute of Brother Stanislaus's day was taken up. In the winter it was easier because the kitchen was a comfortable place—and because canned goods were used, which made it unnecessary to clean and prepare so many vegetables.

But summer was a time of penance. The long hot days made the stove a torture rather than a comfort.The kitchen was like a furnace with its three windows facing east and no direct draught through. The fresh vegetables to prepare for thirty-five people made the work seem interminable, and when the work of preparing vegetables and fruits for immediate consumption was done, there was the work of canning them.

Life was hard but Brother Stanislaus endured it all cheerfully, smiling at the thought that by his present sufferings he was expiating his sins here on earth instead of in purgatory. He was glad to suffer, happy in his discomfort. And when the orchestra of cicadas made the air ring with their hot tunings, he took his vegetables out on the back porch or sat on the grass under the trees in order that he might the better hear them at their work of praising God. He was happy even in the sound of the buzzing flies. Their hot drone reminded him of Italy.

There was always time, too, for visits with his little brother the rooster. Sometimes a moment before breakfast, another visit to throw the chickens their vegetable peelings. After supper, during recreation time, Brother Stanislaus sat on an old stump under a tree smoking his pipe and conversing with his friend.

He was alone in the world, very much alone on his pilgrimage. Once in a while he thought of an early boyhood friend of his in the religious house in France. They delighted in holy conversation, and used to vie with each other in making up spiritual bouquets to give to each other and to offer up to God. They loaned each other books—they read nothing but devotional works—which took them months to read and ponder and converse about. They delighted when the work was hard, and when there was not enough work, they spent long hours on their knees, even when their souls were dry and it seemed as though only meaningless words came from their hearts. When it was a struggle to pray, they delighted in prayer the more, because it was an added hardship overcome for the love of God.

But now Brother Stanislaus was all alone in this world and very sad. It seemed to him a mournful thing to be unhappy in a world which was often so beautiful, but he accepted his unhappiness and lack of consolation with resignation.

"'Life is but a night spent in a wretched inn,'" he said with Saint Teresa.

When he was very lonely he tried to dwell on thoughts of heaven and the companionship of the saints he would have there. When he cooked he cooked with loving care, as though for Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare, Saint Anthony and Brother Juniper. He liked to offer his food to the Holy Family, giving Mary a respite from her humble work, and when he had made a nice supper, he used to say, "There, Saint Teresa, it's a wretched inn, I'll agree with you—but here's a nice supper for you to sit down to after your journeyings."

But though he believed and practised in the communion of saints, he did not realize that his little rooster had more reality for him. His rooster became his companion, his treasure and his toy. When it came and perched on his knee, he talked to it as a little girl talks to her pet doll, he handled it lovingly as a bibliophile handles a precious volume; he exulted in the markings and shading of the bird.

Brother Gerard was a younger man than Brother Stanislaus, and had taken his place in the care of the cows, the chickens and the garden. He was a hard­working boy, but often absent-minded and careless, and when one morning Brother  Stanislaus heard one of the fathers tell him to kill some roosters for Sunday dinner, he resolved to be present in the barnyard and help Brother Gerard catch the roosters.

"Be careful of my little friend out there," he called to the other brother as he was scalding out the milk cans in the pantry. "Be sure and let me know when you want to catch them and I'll come and help you."

But Brother Stanislaus spoke such broken English that it was hard for others to understand him, and since Brother Gerard was busily engaged while he worked in saying some extra prayers for a special intention, he scarcely listened.

"He is too holy," Brother Stanislaus muttered to himself over the dish pan. "He is as bad as Brother Juniper."

During the course of the morning he ran out often to the barnyard which was quite far away from the house, but always Brother Gerard was somewhere else, so that he could not see him to remind him again.

By noon, Brother Stanislaus had scorched the beans, burnt the roast and worked himself into a state of grievous irritation against life and Brother Gerard.

It was always hot and messy work, killing chickens, and Brother Gerard wanted to get it done before dinner so that he would not have that task to look forward to during the rest of the day. So while Brother Stanislaus was confined to the kitchen during the last critical half-hour before dinner, the other brother caught his chickens and killed them, saying fifty Hail Marys while he did so, to make the nauseous work easier.

Brother Stanislaus could eat nothing in his fear and uncertainty, and since the rule of silence was observed during meals he could not reassure himself.

Immediately after, ignoring the bell for prayers in the chapel, he made his way to the barnyard. His heavy cassock which he put on just before he left the kitchen, over the denim kitchen apron in his hurry, twined about his legs and impeded his hurried step. He stumbled up the little hill, and slipped on the newly cut grass which cluttered the narrow path, so that he fell to his knees. His heart was constricted and he panted as he hurried along.

When he reached the yard and called, his little brother the rooster did not answer him. He could not have escaped so Brother Stanislaus knew the worst.

Sitting down heavily on the stump of the old tree, he felt the world suddenly very empty about him. Song sparrows were singing in the trees overhead and in the fields the meadow lark trilled her piercingly sweet tune. The cicadas, the bees, the buzzing flies, even the stirring of the leaves sounded unfeelingly gay and hostile to Brother Stanislaus. The sunlight was brazen and the wind jeered among the laughing leaves. His hands trembled as he took out his old pipe, and his heart was bitter and angry within him. His little pet, his tender joyous little rooster, who alone out of all the world had a loving heart for him, was gone. Brother Stanislaus wept.

He sat there for a long time, while the numb feeling turned to anger and the anger turned to remorse. He sat there still longer to say some prayers for the brother whom he had been hating so fiercely. He said them unfeelingly, because he knew he ought to say them, and he prayed for a heart of flesh to take the place of the stone in his breast.

"It is God's will," he kept murmuring, and finally he knew indeed that it was God's will, and was able to get up and go back to his pots and pans in the kitchen.

Two days later as he put his little friend in the pot on the stove for a fricassee, he said to him, "You are all I had, and I am offering you as a present to God. God alone knows what a lonely old man I am."

And that day, in some mysterious fashion, God made himself felt to the old lay brother, and his heart, as he wrestled with pots and pans, was full of joy.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

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In Memory of Ed Willock
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