A follow-up to “What happened to LaserMonks?”

Bless the internet. I am constantly amazed at the things I see this wonderful network of computers do.

I got a notification that a new comment had been posted on my LaserMonks post, which you can read in full here, and lo and behold – an update of sorts! A commenter going by “faithfjord” shared a news story from a couple years ago from reporter Keith Strange with “The Mount Airy News”. Mt. Airy is a little town in North Carolina with a population of about 10,000. How “faithfjord” found this article… well, now you know why this post opened with me marveling at the power of the internet. Anyway.

The article, which you can see here, details the entrepreneurial endeavors of Vann McCoy, which the article notes he felt the call to serve, moved to Wisconsin, joined a Cistercian monastery, and went by Father Bernard. Guys. This is Father Bernard McCoy, the former CEO of LaserMonks. It’s him. He doesn’t name the company in the article but discusses his previous role both in a business and in the church. It’s him.

He explains what happened. He’s reflective and contemplative. It’s not terribly detailed. He says essentially that running the business and the monastery was a tremendous amount of work shared by too few people. They decided to close up the monastery. It was a crossroads for him and he left on a sabbatical soon after.

Wow. I had my answer. The answer to a great mystery that occupied my idle thoughts from time to time for years. People would comment on my original post and I’d be thinking about them again. (It always got a fair amount of traffic, always people led here by the same question I had. Googling “What happened to LaserMonks?”) Sometimes, the question was prompted by changing my printer ink. Or tasting the jelly I used to order from them with the cartridges. (A really delicious jam called Trappist which does a seedless raspberry that is fantastic, by the by.)

I was telling a friend about this yesterday and they asked if I was satisfied. It’s hard to tie my feelings to satisfaction. I just… I get it. I get being done. I get being in the thick of it and saying, “Enough, it’s over, I can’t do this anymore.” Is there more to the story? Maybe. But… that’s okay. I don’t need more than this.

Reading this article… I saw the pieces of the story of LaserMonks I hadn’t fully considered before. The toll something like that takes on a person. Work, even good work like the kind monks were doing in Sparta, is hard. There’s a human cost when you throw yourself into something so aggressively and fully. It’s not sustainable. You lose yourself along the way. Even if it is for good reasons.

I also feel really relieved. It’s so helpful to see someone who has walked down different paths and had his share of success… but who’s also been so willing to change course. Father – er – Mr. McCoy started out studying physics and astrophysics, shifted to other courses of study, and then became a man of the cloth. Then LaserMonks. And when he moved back to Mt. Airy after his sabbatical, he started up a business making moonshine. MOONSHINE! Is that not great?! They make whiskey and other goods, too. (You can’t take the entrepreneur out of the man, can you?)

I feel like my adult life has taken such a weird course. I didn’t go to college out of high school. I’ve had a bunch of odd jobs, a couple careers, few side ventures, lived in many places… And hey. Now I can proudly mark “some college education” when I fill out surveys. It’s just validating to see someone else with that same sort of path. Seeing someone take the time to figure out their life… and try again with a new thing. Someone who seems successful and happy.

I didn’t expect the LaserMonks story to wrap up in a way that had such a profound effect on me. But considering the subject matter, should I be surprised?

The “Mt. Airy News” article wraps up with a quote from Mr. McCoy saying he hopes he can inspire others to live well. You have, sir. At least this lady. Thanks for your openness and honesty. If I ever find myself in Mt. Airy, I’d like to buy you a drink.

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The Pope Released a Rock Album.

The days when I post things I wrote for my school newspaper, it does feel a little like cheating. And I’m sorry for that. Maybe in the (holy) spirit of the subject of this article, I should repent in someway. …Ehh, I’m not going to do that. My schedule should calm down soon and I’ll have some time to get down some thoughts and really start writing again. Get you guys some new freshness. But I really did love this article. The nice thing about the internet is that I can share a sample of the album with you. Read, enjoy, and rock.

You may have heard a lot about Pope Francis lately. He’s kind of in right now! He recently visited the U.S., and with lots of audiences and photo ops, he has generally been catching everyone’s attention. He’s the star of a recent ad campaign by Twitter. The Pope has emojis. The Pope is trending. He has multiple hashtags. The Pope is cool. But what you may not know is that he’s cashed in on his “pope culture” moment and dropped an album. That’s right. The Pope has an album. I’ll give you a moment.

Pope Francis’ album, “Wake Up!” was released November 27. The album contains songs in several languages and though I must admit that I am no linguist, I have an appreciation for many diverse types of music and wanted to dive right in. It’s an album by the Pope, for God’s sake! That said, the album actually struggles for a few different reasons.

The songs themselves can be quite pretty, with catchy orchestration accompanied by many talented vocalists and choirs. What often distracts from that is His Holiness himself. The songs often drop out and the Pope’s Greatest Hits are overlaid on the track. Not any singing, just his words. Any enjoyment you might experience listening to the song is undercut by him interrupting. They’re mostly old recordings from him speaking in public places, so there’s feedback and echo. It’s grating. I do find it a very sweet move that these recordings often include the pontiff’s audience cheering or clapping. That’s legit. Include the crowd who cannot get enough of you on the album. Props.

I will say that I was surprised to hear prog rock blended in with the world music vibe. When I say prog rock, I mean bands like Rush and Pink Floyd. Heavy on the synthesizers, encouraging thoughts of our place in the universe – which I suppose is the sort of thing the Pope’s rock album should do.

Here’s the title track off the album – not as prog rock as some of the tracks, but there is some guitar riffs happening.

When an Atheist Loses A Pet

I’m having a hard time with this one, folks. One of our little fuzzy buddies was put to sleep last week and it sucks. A lot. But he was damn near 8, which is a really excellent run for a guinea pig. Reese was a sweet boy and we took really good care of him. But old age has health complications.

Friends have been wonderful with support and condolences. Well wishes and thoughts of him meeting us over the rainbow bridge.

I can’t tell you how much this support has meant. Truly, we’ve been lucky to have people in our lives who understand. But in my heart I know there’s no rainbow bridge or afterlife for him. It’s not a bad thing. It just is what it is, for me.

I’m an atheist. I don’t feel that there’s a higher power. But I’m perhaps different than some atheists in a few ways. I love when people discuss their religion and I’m actually pretty passive about when someone’s point of view is contrary to my own. I want to learn. I want people to feel comfortable to express their faith. I think that’s a great thing.

The other part is that I’m fully accepting of the idea that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Catholics are right. Maybe it’s some religion we don’t know. Maybe there is no way we could know. In a world of infinite possibilities, I can’t pretend that I know that my answer is right. Just as the faithful feel that there is something there, I feel there’s nothing at all. Feelings are a good guide but aren’t fact.

This makes for difficulty moving through hard times and processing grief. I previously discussed on this blog when my husband and I were living apart. In the middle, we had no answers or timeline. I spoke to another atheist friend about it. “I think this is when people would normally just have faith that everything will work out. We don’t have that luxury. Just hope that everything will be okay.”

Instead of putting things in someone else’s hands, we are left with our own. Our hope everything’s going to be okay.

Mourning my pig is the same. I have no comforting day dreams of where he’s gone. I know exactly where he is. Just writing that… It’s a punch in the gut. I know. And it might be a nice fantasy to think of my pig eating grass and basil in an open and endless field. But it’s just that – a fantasy.

But then my brain goes to memories. Moments we really experienced something. When I know he was happy. When we were happy. These thoughts are so comforting. I know they are real and true.

The time we sat up and watched Breaking Bad for hours while I was recovering from an illness. Playing in the yard. Holidays. The time he wore a sombrero.

reesehattwit

See? Cutie.

I can’t say that my lack of traditional faith makes for better mourning. Mourning is so personal. In fact, I considered not pursuing this at all because it is something people handle personally and it’s not my usual blog fodder. But just as people choose to share their faith with me, I choose to talk about this. This is my truth. Maybe sharing it spurs conversation. Maybe it helps someone else.

Christ is a marshmallow.

My fascination with religion is well documented in this blog. Not growing up with any kind of formal religion, Easter was just another holiday with candy and magic beings sneaking into your home, concluding with a ham. It wasn’t until later that I found out that other popular part of Easter.

Friends did the whole Easter Sunday thing. I hopped (heh) around to a couple different churches for Easter. I think my favorite was a friend’s “New Wave” Catholic church that was in an old movie theater. They had fancy lights and songs with a small band. We’re talking legit production value. They set up the scene: Jesus. Betrayed. Left to die on the cross and then shoved into a cave when- OH NO! TUNE IN NEXT TIME KIDS.

The mass was a two parter. I missed the second day.

But this mass is when I came to really understand the story of Easter. I knew the basics, but was pretty vague on the details. I remember at a couple points during mass turning to my friend and saying, “Really?” Trying to straddle that line of not being disrespectful, but to an outsider… Catholicism is really, really brutal. Even with 90s rock music undertones.

Jump cut to a few days ago. Browsing Pinterest when I come across this:

emptytombroll

What are these, pray tell? These are resurrection rolls AKA empty tomb rolls. When I saw them, I stopped dead in my tracks. I’m no food anthropologist (or a food blogger) but I’d like to think I’m pretty well versed in sweet snacks. I had never heard of these. I am fascinated. Here’s the general idea:

ingredientsmarshmallowbuttered 

The marshmallow is dipped in butter, rolled in cinnamon sugar, and wrapped in dough. Top with more cinnamon sugar and bake. The heat of the oven melts the marshmallow, which is then absorbed by the dough. When they come out they are empty because THE MARSHMALLOW IS CHRIST AND NOW THE TOMB IS EMPTY HAPPY EASTER EVERYONE.

Using baked goods to teach children about religion? The marshmallow is Christ? I just… how? How did someone arrive at this? When did this become a thing? Was someone tired of hot cross buns and looked at a sack of marshmallows and said, “Wait a second…” I have searched and searched but couldn’t find anything about it. Maybe you guys will know more about it than me. I crave answers. Someone call The Kitchen Sisters! (NPR reference.)

If I had been given treats and taught bible stories when I was a kid, would I have taken to a Christian faith? It’s possible! Catholics do have the juice and crackers going on too. Hrm.

And for the record, Christ’s Tomb was delicious.

What happened to LaserMonks?

It’s curious, the life of monks. Religious observation often accompanied with a stoic silence. Leaving your life and worldly possessions behind to live simply and pray. As an outsider, I can’t help but find it all very interesting. I suppose that’s what initially drew me to LaserMonks back in the mid-2000s. To have this peculiar lifestyle collide with the internet seemed contradictory, though not expressly.

I should explain. LaserMonks was an online store where you could buy ink for your printer. It was run by the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, in Sparta, Wisconsin. Most monasteries make food or beer to support the monks who live there and do good things for their communities. But the abbey behind LaserMonks saw a market in supplying ink to people. There’s a great amount of detail about this in the book about their operation, “LaserMonks: The Business Story 900 Years In the Making”. The book was penned by two consultants that came in to assist the monks with the fledgling business that eventually boomed online. They tell the story of their business model, guided by Saint Benedict, who was hospitable above all else, and frame the details of their success. They gave excellent customer service, supported their community, and eventually built on their e-commerce site to sell goods from other monasteries.

But after millions of dollars in revenue and ten years in the business it all suddenly stopped. The website was sold for parts and everything from the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank auctioned off, including the land the abbey sat on. In March of 2012 I got an email from them, explaining the business was under new ownership. Even the brand was given to the highest bidder.

 

What happened? I just find it shocking. One minute they’re filling out orders and taking prayer requests, the next the whole thing is shuttered. It doesn’t make sense.

The book talks so much about how they were committed not only to their customers, but the staff who worked with them. The consultants grew the business, bringing in many Monkhelpers, as they called themselves, to run the call center attached to the monks. These staff members were people within the Sparta community who needed help. Needed stable employment to support their families. The business cared about them deeply, training them to be compassionate and human. Often it is discussed in the book about the long term relationships they were building.

Their profits were doing good, too. They made many donations, supporting people who needed assistance in accordance with their mission. They were making an impact, and often they attributed their popularity to consumers that felt it was important to make a difference while they spend their money.

Granted, the book was not written by the monks. It was written by these consultants in the secular world. But even still, for people who talk so directly and emphatically about the future, investing in long term strategies, investing in PEOPLE… it just doesn’t seem to add up.

I know businesses close all the time. Just because you have the best intentions doesn’t mean you’re invincible to changing economic tides. But to have no explanation, no postmortem, no answers… It just flies in the face of everything the monks held true.

So, all we’re left with is to wonder why. Could something salacious or scandalous have happened? I dreamed up a hundred stories in my mind about how it all could have gone down. I even snooped around and emailed a journalist who wrote one of the only articles I could find talking about the demise of the monastery. In the article text, he more or less shrugs his shoulders and moves on.

I did email him about this. Told him that simply accepting “them’s the breaks” didn’t ring true to me. He didn’t reply. To be fair, I did tell him he could dismiss me as “some nosy lady from the internet”.

Maybe someday I can find out what really happened. I’m not sure if a sense of entitlement is a sin of some flavor, but I bought from LaserMonks for the right reasons. I liked these people and the idea that they wanted to help others. That you could straddle the realm of philanthropy with business and make the whole thing click. If I had to look at the whole situation, I suppose I’d have to come to the conclusion I was wrong. I just want to know how.

Musings about religion from a Church.

My fascination with religion started at an early age. We never had religion in our family. The closest we would ever get to a discussion about religion would be one day in my teens when I asked my mother what we were. “Catholic, of course.” she answered, like she was confirming what day of the week it was. This was troubling to me, as my understanding of Catholicism was that at the bare minimum one needed to be baptized. None of us had been. We didn’t have a church. We never even said grace or prayed. “Look, Lauren, we’re Catholic, okay?”

By virtue of my friends I was able to shop around different religions. Episcopalians. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jewish. Catholic (real ones, not like us). Christians. Pagans. I always tagged along to different services, but nothing ever absorbed. I was always an outsider to it, observing. It was never coming from a place of skepticism… I just thought they were stories. Stories that helped people make sense of life.

This may stem from my earliest encounter with religion. This time of year always makes me think of it. I was in kindergarten and our teacher Mrs. Ritchey had asked us to bring in our favorite Halloween books to read for story time. I had one called The Three Little Witches.

The Three Little Witches was a simple story. The plot was the three witches wanted to make a stew. They flew around looking for ingredients, located them, and made the soup in a cauldron with a touch of magic (for flavor). Simple story. Not quite Halloween, but my teacher didn’t mind.

In the days leading up to Halloween she’d pick a book and read it to the class. I’d sit near my best friend at the time, tiny blond girl. I don’t remember tiny blond girl’s name, but we were good friends… until my book was read aloud.

You see, tiny blond girl’s mother decided to come to class that day. And tiny blond girl’s mother threw a fit when she heard the story of witches and their witchcraft. Shortly after it began, she shrieked about “this filth”. She grabbed the book and demanded to know who brought it. I raised my hand. Soon she was carting me off to the principal’s office with tiny blond girl and my book. I can’t recall where the teacher was, maybe behind us? But I was in tears. I could not understand what was wrong.

Tiny blond girl’s mother yelled at the principal. She talked about witchcraft and said I was a wicked child, bringing books about devil worship to school. I bawled. I can still remember her pointing her finger at me as I sat in my chair and felt small and confused. Tiny blond girl was crying too. She wouldn’t look at me. Her mother had hold of her hand and wouldn’t let her go. She shook the book with her free hand. I don’t remember a lot from being that young, but these images are still vivid in my mind.

The principal agreed with Mrs. Ritchey and really didn’t see the harm in the book. The mother hissed about how we were godless and how her daughter wouldn’t attend school to learn about devil worshiping and witches and magic.

My mother was called and I was picked up from school. I never got my book back. And I lost my friend, too. My mother explained that their family was very religious and I couldn’t talk to that girl anymore. I would remember seeing her for awhile after the incident, but we’d never really spoken again.

As I would reflect on the incident later, I can understand why she was angry. I understood that the book conflicted with her beliefs. But why yell at me? Why the ire directed at a child, innocent and uneducated like so many people in religious texts, who have so much to learn? It was fascinating to see someone so encapsulated by their faith that they bordered on fanaticism.

So I have taken the perspective to be an observer over these years, not falling into any particular category myself. Funny coincidence, for someone who took the last name of Church. I find myself not drawn into to any particular flavor of religion. I just don’t feel that strongly about it, and frankly, I can’t commit because I can’t say definitively that I know the truth to the mysteries of the universe. I might be wrong… and I’m 100% okay with that.