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Ora et Labora, my new identity by Thomas Rc

Warning: This story is covers a religious topic, which can be sensitive for some people.

It was my last day of school. Much to my family's dismay, I had yet to choose what I would do in the future. Most of my classmates were planning to continue their studies at university, but my indecision suggested that perhaps that path wasn't right for me.

I come from a devout Catholic family. We pray daily, attend Mass every Sunday, and the priest even knows our names! What struck me as odd were his actions. Whenever he saw me in church, he would stare intently at me. I would try to divert my gaze to the sculpture of a saint's face or the stained glass windows, which, as the sun set, illuminated my wavy red hair with a fiery glow, making me feel almost like Joan of Arc when her hair shone with the flames of the stake. Yet again, his fierce, inquisitive eyes fixed on me, this time in the communion line. I couldn't escape this time, so I looked him in the eye, and he simply said my name: "Thomas." My body trembled as if the ground had opened beneath my feet... That voice... My name... What could it mean?

This scenario repeated itself a few more times, and with each visit to the church, it was all I could think about. I sought some sign of intention in his expression, but there was nothing. Every time he repeated "Thomas," I grew more frustrated, but now everything makes sense.

It was the middle of summer, and we hadn't even gone to the beach yet. At the end of the day, I would unbutton my shirt and gaze at my pale, lily-white chest, dreaming that one day the sun might tan it slightly, making it as attractive as those of my classmates.

One day at dinner, my parents announced that we were finally going on vacation. I celebrated inwardly like never before; I have always loved seeing the sea and walking on the sand. I asked, "When?" and my father replied, "Tomorrow." So I said that I would pack my bags in the morning, but to my surprise, my father corrected me: "No. We leave at dawn. Pack now!" I left my dinner half-eaten (a lot of rice and some meat remained on the plate) and ran to my room to quickly prepare my things. I entered the room and, before turning on the light, something struck me: my mother hadn't spoken today, and from her eyes, it seemed she was keeping a secret. Would she not come with us on vacation? Probably just false assumptions. I turned on the switch and packed everything. When I finished, my parents were already at my room door with their luggage.

My mother's eyes were tearful. She was about to say something, but my father spoke first, as if to prevent her from speaking: "Let's go."

We put the bags in the trunk and set off. The streets of my neighborhood had become labyrinthine and mysterious in the darkness. "It's 2:38 AM; we're already late!" my father said authoritatively. I began to wonder what could possibly necessitate such an early departure. Initially, I thought it was to travel without the scorching summer heat, but that didn't explain the "lateness" my father mentioned.

We entered the highway and followed our usual route, but to my surprise, after a few kilometers, we exited onto a narrow, winding road. I asked, "Is this to avoid the highway tolls?" but no one answered. The road climbed a mountain, and around us were tall, lush pine trees, likely centuries old. We reached a plateau, which was covered with a dense forest. I finally understood: we were going to watch the sunrise from this spot, which would undoubtedly be spectacular. To my astonishment, my father took the bags from the trunk and asked me to follow him. For some reason, my mother stayed in the car. Something was wrong. My father walked toward the forest, and I followed without asking any questions.

Eventually, the trees cleared, and we saw an ancient building, probably from the 17th or 18th century. My father finally explained: "This is the Monastery of Saint Benedict, where many of your ancestors lived." I thought it was interesting to visit these ruins, and I assumed they were ruins because I didn't see any lights on.

We reached the entrance, and my father said, "Welcome." I entered, and immediately a figure behind me closed an iron gate. When I turned back, my father had already disappeared into the shadows.

Looking ahead, there he was, the priest. He was dressed differently, in a long black habit, unlike his usual vestments or the clothes he wore around town.

For the last time, he said, "Thomas." And this time, it was much worse than all the others. I felt betrayed by him and my family, deceived, and I just wanted to scream! He spoke again: "I understand your frustration, but you have nothing to fear. I was once in your place too."

"Come with me," he said, and I couldn't refuse. I knew there was no escaping. He led me to an open courtyard, where, on the upper floor of what served as walls, there were a series of identical rooms. He then said, "The novice Anthony will accompany you to your cell to put on your habit, and then you must return here."

A slightly older boy, dressed all in white with a hood covering his head, accompanied me. I entered my cell, and there were identical robes. I knew what I had to do. I tried to turn on the light switch, but it was obvious that such an old building had no electricity. Anthony lit a candle, and when I looked at him, the light reflected in his eyes. It wasn't a look like the priest's; it was a look that showed inner peace, calm, and a connection with God. At that moment, I wanted to be like him, so I put on the habit. I realized then that he and I were in the same situation, but we couldn't say anything because we were being listened to by the monks in the neighboring rooms. We couldn't even touch each other, not even to shake hands, because we were being watched by the priest, who waited impatiently below. I felt a chill from not being able to touch him, as if a similar candle burned inside me and suddenly went out. While I thought about this, he extinguished the candle in the room and left. I followed him, this time without anyone ordering me.

I returned to where I had been and approached the priest, who was now sitting by a fountain in the center of the garden. He then said, "Now that you have your habit, there is only one thing left," pointing to Anthony's hood. He removed it, revealing a textbook painting of tonsure. His expression became even more peaceful, and I turned to the priest and nodded. He took from a box a pair of scissors, a bowl, a razor, and a candle with matches, which he handed to Anthony to light. Anthony held the candle, and I knew what to do. I knelt with my head bowed to the fountain, where a few tufts of hair could be seen at the bottom. The priest clapped and said, "Very well!" He placed the bowl on my head like a hat. Anthony brought the candle closer, and I felt his breath on my skin, the closest contact we had had so far. The priest took the scissors and began cutting my hair violently. When he finished, he removed the bowl and made the sign of the cross over my head with his arm. He then took the razor and traced the bottom of the bowl on my head, making a smaller circle. He shaved the central part of my head, as he had always dreamed in those moments when he looked at or called me, during service. The fountain filled with more and more red hair until he finally stopped. Before I could touch my head, the priest dipped his finger in the fountain and made the sign of the cross in the center of my head: now it was just bare skin. I looked at the fountain and saw my reflection, just like Anthony. Our identities had been erased, and now we were finally free of sins. The priest then said, "From now on, you will be called Matthew, Brother Matthew, and you will be a novice in our monastery until you prove yourself worthy of truly becoming one of us."

Even my name was erased. Now nothing from the past mattered; only the uncertain future awaited me.

Anthony finally spoke to me and said, "Pleased to meet you, Brother Matthew." I blushed and responded, "Pleased to meet you, Brother Anthony."

The three of us moved toward the monastery chapel, where various monks were gathering, looking at me with curiosity as they entered.

At 6 AM, Lauds began, the first prayer of the day. The priest proclaimed, "Ora et Labora," and we all responded, "Ora et Labora," which means pray and work.

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