Because Monks are Just Soldiers in Awkward Clothes

Three days among the Trappist fathers and brothers of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, convinced me that monastic life is both less weird and more difficult than I had previously imagined. It was like discovering that monks are not space aliens, but are instead an elite unit of Navy Seals. (The photo is Abbot John O’Connor, whose life spanned the Civil War and World War II, 1864–1945.)

I described Spencer and some of my personal experiences on retreat there in a previous post. The first evening at supper in the retreat house, ten retreatants, all men, ate together. I looked around the small dining room and saw a typical distribution of American males, young and old, fat and thin—just guys. Except for the silence, and a lecture on the Gospel of Matthew piped in while we ate, it could have been anywhere. After dinner, we might have headed to a sports bar. I knew we were missing the Steelers-Broncos game on Monday Night Football.

The following morning, we attended Lauds together at 6 a.m. It was our first chance to sit at the rear of the nave in the abbey church, looking past the choir monks toward the main altar (as in the above photo from the abbey Web site). Mass follows Lauds, and during the Benedictus I knew that the priest traveling with me would be going to the sacristy to vest, so that he could concelebrate Mass. Then, as the Benedictus began, not one but eight of my nine fellow retreatants went to vest. All but one of these American guys was a priest! I had had no idea.

If these priests on retreat were just guys, I started thinking that the monks were super-guys. I talked Wednesday morning with one of two friends from Beverly who accompanied me. We shared impressions from two days of sitting at the back of the nave for Lauds, Mass, and Vespers. (For the offices of Vigils and Compline, we sat in side chapels off the main altar.)

I commented on the diversity of the monks. It was another experience of seeing “just guys,” maybe with shorter hair and longer shirts than most, but guys all the same. One could see the age range: everything from just out of school to doddering on a cane. One could see the ethnic and racial mix: an African American priest, several Asian brothers, what looked like a Nordic youth.

I commented to my friend that I suspected the 1947 memoir The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton (left) had led to a huge increase of vocations to monastic life following World War II. He agreed, adding, “And I bet the war had a lot to do with it too.” I immediately thought, Yeah, all those GIs looking for something to do with their lives, but my friend added a different spin. He said, “I bet some of those returning soldiers had some pretty heavy things on their consciences.”

Whether or not this was true, it got me thinking seriously of monks as soldiers. This sense was confirmed by my experience of Vigils, the longest office of the day, lasting usually from 3:30 a.m. sharp (monks are prompt) to about 4:10.

I set my alarm each morning for 2:50 so that I could arrive in the side chapel by 3:00 and say a rosary before the office began. I was the first to arrive in the church, even before the sacristan could be heard shuffling about in sandals, lighting the few lamps used for Vigils, ribboning the lectionaries, and so on. In these twenty minutes before the first brothers began padding almost inaudibly down the stairs from their dormitory into the choir, I realized something about night, about monks, about courage.

God made the night. He separated the darkness from the light, calling the dark times “night.” Night is dark, mysterious, and even in this abbey church before Vigils, a bit terrifying. The silence here in Spencer, in high grazing country fifteen miles from the hum of truck tires on the Mass Pike, is intense. The faint humming sound I hear is some combination of breeze off the abbey walls and the current of my own cardiovascular system. There is something to be sought here, perhaps something to be found, maybe even something to be feared. Yes, it does put “the fear of God” into a man.

Anyone, monk or man, grunt or Navy Seal, who enters this darkness every night and makes it his own personal patrol is moving in a realm most mortals would prefer to sleep through. I don’t wonder that the monks of St. Joseph Abbey pray side by side, virtually shoulder to shoulder, in long uniforms that keep them warm and probably comfort them. This is hard man’s work they are doing. And like the men and women of our armed forces, they are doing it for you and me.

Thanks to St. Martin, Thanks to Fr. Matthew

It’s a surprising path that leads a man from a 4th-century saint to a 21st-century monk and home again, but that’s a summary of my week—on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, beginning Monday evening; home in Beverly on Thursday afternoon, a day ahead of schedule. Of such minor miracles this Catholic life is made.

Like many Catholic guys, I suppose, I have wondered about the monastic life: would I? could I? (though never) should I? The answer to that third question is, of course, I shouldn’t. I am married. Not gonna happen. Retreats, though, allow a man to dally with monasticism, like reading a good novel over a four-day period, then putting it down and going out to rake the leaves.

I’m sure I will write again before the weekend is up about my experience of Trappist life, viewed from the outside as a visitor to Spencer. But what is burning to be written right now is why I came home 24 hours ahead of schedule.

If I had been blogging Wednesday, instead of under enforced lockdown (no internet service in guest quarters at the abbey), I might have written about St. Martin of Tours. That’s him on the horse in an El Greco painting of his—legendary?—meeting with a beggar. He gave the beggar half of his cloak. Wednesday, November 11, is Martin’s feast day.

There’s enough written about St. Martin elsewhere that I can focus on the things Martin and I have in common. He was the son of a Roman military officer (check, Dad was a WWII veteran) who moved west into Gaul, or present-day France, to follow his father’s career (check, we moved from Minnesota to Connecticut when I was 10 and Dad took a new position). Martin was a convert (check) who favored the life of a hermit (check, or at least Katie thinks sometimes that I want to be a hermit, and perhaps I give her reason). But here’s the thing: Continually through his career as a hermit, then as a bishop, then as what amounted to an international statesman, Martin found himself pulled into the public arena, into engagement with his fellow men, while all the time feeling drawn to a quiet life of contemplation. It is in this tension between retirement and engagement, between the hermit and the man of action, that I recognize Martin of Tours as my brother.

Already by Wednesday, St. Martin’s feast day and only my second full day in Spencer, I was thinking much and fondly of my engaged life in Beverly, my vowed life as husband, father, bread-winner, and lay Catholic.

Then came Father Matthew. Our retreat director has been living on the grounds at Spencer for 58 years, or since the year I was born. I use the phrase “on the grounds” advisedly because St. Joseph’s Abbey has a long history that began in Nova Scotia in 1819. In 1950, the abbey, long since moved to Cumberland, Rhode Island, burnt to a Gothic cinder. By the following summer, just as I was being born 3,000 miles away in Oakland, California, Matthew (then a novice) and others were building new abbey buildings in Spencer, from fieldstone they quarried themselves. The abbey church (above right) and chapter house (triangle, left-center) are the public face of a huge property that today includes four going businesses: Trappist® Preserves, The Holy Rood Guild (manufacturers of high-end vestments), a bookstore, and year-round retreats.

Father Matthew (right) led three conferences, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning—after serving us breakfast in a true gesture of Trappist hospitality. He proposed to teach us a few things about Pope Benedict’s theology, and each morning offered both nuggets of general interest and (for me) personal insights. This is not the place to get overly personal, and some of the insights were deeply so. The upshot of Thursday morning’s conference was that I went afterward to Father Matthew for confession. Again, let’s not get personal; it’s enough to say that for my penance, Father Matthew asked me to sit before the Blessed Sacrament in the small Adoration chapel in the Spencer guest quarters and meditate on a particular matter.

I spent about half an hour in the Adoration chapel. About fifteen minutes in, I shifted my attention from the Blessed Sacrament, beautifully placed inside a silver dove that hovers over the altar, to an icon of Jesus on the right wall of the chapel. I had never really looked at an icon before, I mean looked at one, but as I did so now and continued to meditate on the matter Father Matthew and I had discussed, a clear thought came to me: Go home. Go home now. Swirling lights and ethereal music were conspicuously absent from this experience of looking and thinking. I only knew that it was time to go home. I arranged for my two friends from Beverly to drive home together and made like the Lone Ranger, disappearing before lunch.

After I finish this post (and she completes a Costco run), Katie and I are going out for a movie-and-dinner date. My experience in Spencer was, for me, a minor miracle, without the lights or heavenly choirs. My life in Beverly is the major miracle, and after three-plus days of “monastic” living, I’m engaged again, and married more than ever.

On Retreat

This blog will go quiet now, at least until Friday 11/13, perhaps as long as a week. With two friends from the parish, I am going on retreat at a monastery nearby. I may have some things to say about the experience when I get back. Meanwhile, if you are relatively new to YIM Catholic or just want to click around for a few entertaining minutes, here are some early posts that you might find worthwhile and/or enjoyable:

Or you could just go to this post and follow all the links. It pretty much says it all.

Because This Book Really is Beautiful


My campaign to promote Kristin Lavransdatter as the Great Catholic Novel is gaining momentum, one reader at a time. In an early post, I laid out ten reasons why I find this trilogy by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset (left) so moving. Now comes a letter from a friend—a non-Catholic—confirming the convincing spiritual power of this epic set in 14th-century Norway.

(Warning: The letter reveals the ending of Kristin’s story, but takes away none of the pleasure of reading it.)

Dear Webster,

How often do we finish a book and sit there stunned and sad—that’s it and there is no more. And so it was when I closed the cover on the 1,145-page trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I wanted to read more. That was not to be as Undset had made closure with the life of Kristin. And so must I. She has become my benchmark for what the Nobel Prize in Literature should be.

I went to our local library to find more of Undset and found a copy of the 1935 volume—an earlier and more archaic translation. It has a beautiful sound and I’d probably enjoy reading it but won’t because the font size is difficult for these old eyes, even with glasses. 

The years preceding the Black Death were unknown to me. Oh, I knew of them, but didn’t know details of daily life and priorities. The landscape of Norway became vivid with its deep gorges edged by steep mountains. Kristin’s life was ruled by the world surrounding her. That world was unlike any I’ve ever known but perhaps not far removed from the mountain people of East Tennessee who settled that area in the 1600s. It wasn’t an easy life and yet it wasn’t poverty. I was fascinated by the giving, the largesse, the hospitality extended to all who came to her door. Strangers were fed and given a place to sleep for the night—sharing a bed if need be. 

I was touched by Kristin’s devotion and the presence of faith in her life. It seemed that most everything was accomplished with prayer or bargaining with God. Saying that, I was surprised when she climbed the mountain that last time to take vows to become a nun. Somehow she dealt with the issue of no longer being in control or not needed in the running of the household as a mother-in-law by taking her vows. At first, I was surprised thinking she had run away but then realized this was the natural extension of her life. She had always given and was a natural healer. 

For me, I treasured the beauty of her literature while absorbing a world of faith. Thank you for wanting to share this with me and providing one of those rare moments when a book ends and I didn’t want it to. . . .

If after reading this you are still not ready to invest time in an epic like this, take a look at the fantastic assortment of reader suggestions posted in the past ten days in response to my question, What Catholic fiction has inspired you? The post and the comments are right here. And more suggestions can be found in this follow-up post. These will keep you busy for a while.

For All the Saints: Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

Anyone who has struggled with anger, as I have, could do worse than read about Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French Carmelite remembered on November 8. Can one person experience both fits of rage and a certainty of God’s presence in her own heart? Yes, apparently, and thank the Lord.

Born in 1880, Elizabeth was just younger than Thérèse of Lisieux, who suffered from her own inner demons. Until she was fourteen, Thérèse was a spoiled brat, doted on by her father. Elizabeth lost her father suddenly when she was seven, exacerbating a character trait she already displayed: terrible outbursts of anger. She struggled with this for four years, until her first communion at age eleven. A Carmelite prioress told her that afternoon that her name, Elizabeth, meant the place where God dwells. She entered Carmel at age nineteen and lived only seven more years, dying of Addison’s disease, a painful endocrine condition. Near the end of her life, she began calling herself Laudem Gloriae, “Praise of Glory.” Until her death, she retained the certainty that God was dwelling in her heart. Her final words were, “I am going to light, to love, to life!”

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity reminds me of another French religious, also a Carmelite but of the 17th century, who felt the presence of God, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. In One Hundred Great Catholic Books by Don Brophy (a treasure for any convert), the author gives Lawrence’s simple back story:

From the little we know of him, he was born Nicholas Herman to a poor family in the Lorraine region of France. As a young man he served in the Thirty Years War, was taken prisoner once, and later wounded fighting the Swedes. He took a position as a footman to a Parisian banker but lost it for being a clumsy oaf. At loose ends, he became a Carmelite lay brother like his uncle, taking the name Lawrence of the Resurrection. At the Paris Carmel he was put into the kitchen and stayed there for thirty years. If you saw him, you would not think much of him: a large, ungraceful man who walked with a limp, doing menial work.

Like Blessed Elizabeth, Brother Lawrence knew with a certainty the presence of God. In fact, he developed a particular way of talking with and gazing internally upon God. You can read about it at this Web link. “My most usual method,” he said, “is simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God, to whom I often feel united with more happiness and gratification than a baby at its mother’s breast. . . . Indeed . . . I would willingly call this state ‘the breasts of God.’”

Blessed Elizabeth wrote something similar in a letter to a friend shortly before she died:

My beloved Antoinette, I leave you my faith in the presence of God, of the God who is all Love dwelling in our souls. I confide to you: it is this intimacy with Him “within” that has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated Heaven: it is what sustains me today in my suffering.

The clincher for me is Blessed Elizabeth’s temper. I have seen in my own life how anger, which seems to come on in particular seasons of my life like storm cells across my landscape, can harm everything precious to me, both internally and externally. As a husband, as a parent, as a friend, I have sinned in anger. Of course, afterward I feel terrible remorse—along with an emptiness. The good that was in my heart seems to have been swept away with the raging storm winds.

But the promise of Blessed Elizabeth, and it is the promise of the Catholic Church too, is that we can always return home. This applies externally, as we can always return to prayer, to Mass, and especially to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But the experience of Blessed Elizabeth suggests, and certain moments of personal grace suggest to me, that we can always return internally as well, where we will find, quite miraculously, something far better than our mean selves waiting in our hearts.

For Minor Miracles I

I have never seen a dead woman walk or a blind man restored to sight. But I have seen minor miracles. A skeptic would call them coincidences, or nice moments. That’s OK with me. These moments prove nothing, and they are not my faith, any more than ornaments on a Christmas tree are the tree itself or the base on which it stands.

Nevertheless, each of these moments has stemmed directly from my participation in Catholic life—in my parish, in prayer, in fellowship with Catholic friends. As time goes on, I’d like to share a few of these moments, and I hope readers will share theirs.

Thursday evening, Katie and I attended a charity dinner and auction for our parish school. We have never had children in the school, but I have grown fond of it because I teach an after-school CCD class there one day a week.

Before dinner, while Katie was shopping the silent-auction tables, I saw my friends Jolyne and Joe. Jolyne sits behind me at daily Mass and is a lector on weekends. She has a beautiful voice and a smile to match. Joe, her husband, is a cheerful but frail-looking man of about seventy. Recently, Jolyne told me what many friends in the parish already knew, that Joe has suffered from type-1 diabetes for about thirty years. To me, this explained the frailty and made the cheerfulness all the more remarkable.

Joe had never met Katie before—although, as the story unfolds, you’ll see that this hardly mattered. As I got talking with him, with Jolyne by our side, I discovered that Joe had known Katie’s father, Gene McNiff, very well. Gene died in 1960, when Katie was seven. Katie has loving memories of her father, but details of his life are somewhat sketchy to her and she seldom has an opportunity to talk with anyone who can remember him the way Joe did. I was touched by this coincidence and walked over to where Katie was to invite her to come talk with Joe. “He knew your father—really well,” I said. Katie’s face lit up, and I could see that she really wanted to talk with Joe. I led her over, got them introduced, and then left them to talk together.

A few minutes later, Jolyne found me at the silent-auction tables. Her face was lit up with joy. “This is a miracle,” she said, using the term as loosely as I have in the heading of this post. Then she explained to me what I had not known: About two years ago, as a result of frequent fluctuations in his body chemistry, Joe’s short-term memory suddenly shut down, all at once. From that time on, he could not remember anything recent, although he retained a clear memory of long-past events. As Jolyne and I both looked across the room to where Katie and Joe were still happily talking, nodding energetically to each other, Jolyne said, “It is usually hard for Joe at events like this, not having short-term memory. This is so good for him to have this chance to tell Katie about her Dad.”

From Katie’s smile, I could see that it was good for her too.

Because I Can Always Come Back

In “The Death of a Hired Man,” one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost famously wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / they have to take you in.” You can bet Frost wasn’t thinking of the Catholic Church, but he could have been. We are all prodigals, and a loving parent is always waiting at the door.

The poem is a conversation between a farmer and his wife about a hired man, Silas, who has worked for them on and off through the years and has just shown up on their doorstep uninvited. He is asleep in a back bedroom as the couple talks. The wife tells her husband that Silas has come home to die.

I thought of this early Friday morning while stewing in a private matter that periodically gives me some pain. Does it matter what it is? Each of us is, from time to time, and some more often than not, in pain. (Frost looks like he’s in some pain here, doesn’t he?) The pain is often, though not always, self-inflicted. Whether you’re talking about a troubled relationship, a physical illness, financial trouble, an addiction, loneliness that comes from really being alone or just thinking one is—life itself can be pretty miserable.

The door of the Catholic Church is always open, figuratively and often literally, and it offers not just pain relief (spiritual Advil) but something positive to take the place of the pain—something that the pain may be telling us we’re lacking all the time.

There are many things about my church that invite me back again, that tell me the door is always open every time I slip up, every time I fall, every time the pain returns.

The porchlight over the rectory door alongside St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly is always on, 24/7/365. Knowing Father Barnes as I do, you’re probably going to have to knock pretty hard at 3 a.m. to get an answer (he’s still young enough to be a deep sleeper), but I’m willing to bet you could wake him up and the door would open unto you.

Father has taken to sitting on the front steps of the rectory of a morning or, when the summer weather is nice, on a bench in the rectory garden in the high afternoon. His German shorthaired pointer, Finbar, has made a hash of the garden in the past year, even eating the mouse off the statue of St. Martin de Porres, so admittedly the garden in 2009 hasn’t been what it was in 2008. But it’s great to see Father sitting there, and several times I’ve sat down on the steps beside him or hopped the fence to talk with him in the garden about something on my mind.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, is another open door. It’s something that is not that well understood, even among some Catholics, I suspect, but in my eighteen months in the Church I have found great joy, great relief—grace is not too strong a word—in going to confession.

Since I joined the parish, I think the most important thing Father Barnes has done is to open an Adoration chapel in the lower church. In the old days, when five priests lived in the rectory and there were ten masses a weekend, masses would be celebrated here, in what is effectively the basement, and simultaneously in our beautiful main church. Now the lower church is used for men’s group, for other social functions and meetings, and, since July 2008, for Eucharistic Adoration. From 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. the chapel is open, and the sixty hour-long slots are meted out to volunteers. Ferde and I each are signed up for five hours a week. (I signed up for one hour originally, saw Ferde had signed up for five, and decided I could do no less.) Those of us who commit to at least one regular hour make it possible for anyone to drop in whenever the Spirit moves them. This is very important, and I pray that more parishioners will make the commitment to at least one hour a week. You never know when the hired man is going to come home.

The rosary is, for me, another symbol of a door that is always open. Its circular string of beads is a never-ending return to what else but the cross? I usually carry my rosary in my right front pants pocket, whether I’ve said the rosary already or not that day. Its light pressure against my thigh is a constant reminder of the graces that await me the next time I pray.

Sunday Mass—even better daily Mass—is an open door to every hired man looking for home. I experience it this way; it is usually the best hour of my day, an hour I generally do not want to end. Of course, for there to be Mass, even greater sacrifices are needed than the hour here and there from fifty or sixty parishioners needed to keep our Adoration chapel open. Men by the tens of thousands have to give their entire lives to the priesthood. And they do.

I have met many “hired men” in my eighteen months at St. Mary’s. Three striking examples come to mind. There is “Jake,” a man who lives alone and seems quite disturbed. But every Sunday at Mass I see him lighting votive candles before the altar of the Blessed Mother. “Benny,” one of my favorite fellow worshipers at morning mass, seems to be pretty heavily medicated for what he calls ADHD. (It seems to me that he might be suffering from something a bit more serious.) Benny always greets me with a smile on the front steps of church, where he finishes a cigarette after Mass before going back inside to pray alone. “Hal” is a guy I run into at Adoration periodically. Hal, a smart professional, has been out of work for a year in this awful economy; I can see that he is in a lot of pain over this; and still he comes to Adoration one hour a week.

Jake, Benny, and Hal—Webster too—all hired men, all looking to come home.

Robert Frost was not a Catholic. In a mock résumé of his religious career, he called himself “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.” But I have always been touched by “The Death of a Hired Man” in particular and find it quite a religious poem.

Warren, as the farmer is named in the poem, has lost patience with Silas and thinks that Silas’s brother ought to be the one to take him in. It is Warren who says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

Warren’s wife counters, “I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

This to me is grace: something given that I probably don’t even deserve. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the father who greets the child come home. In Frost’s poem, it is the mother. The name of the farmer’s wife is Mary.

For All the Saints: Charles Borromeo

Wednesday we celebrate the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo. I know little about this 16th-century Italian saint. His mother was a Medici. His uncle was the Pope. He jump-started the Council of Trent. That’s about it. What matters to me most about St. Charles is a fraternity of priests founded in 1985, born of an invitation from Pope John Paul II and closely associated with the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation. They call themselves the Fraternity of St. Charles (Borromeo). You can visit their Web site here. There is probably no more beautiful introduction to the Fraternity than this Web page about their missions to Siberia and elsewhere.

Communion and Liberation (CL) is one of the reasons I am a Catholic. Like many things good about Catholicism, I learned about CL through Ferde. Don’t ask me why Ferde became my Virgil, my own personal guide to hell, purgatory, and paradise. One day in early 2008, before I was an “official” Catholic, I think, Ferde invited me to the meeting of a local group (a “School of Community”) of CL, at the rectory, headed by Father Barnes. I went. I stayed.

What is CL? I am still figuring that out. You’ll find no lectures about it here for now. The essence of it, for me, is a certain effort to see one’s life clearly and in a new way, with faith as the point of departure, within the fellowship of a community. I suggest visiting the CL Web site. Like St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts, I am truly happy to take part in it.

Because This is My Church II

There are many things I love about my church, St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts. This is one of them: the way the setting sun gleams on the red brick façade.

I apologize: My photographic skills are rudimentary, not to mention my camera (iPhone). But coming out of Adoration late this afternoon, I stopped to look at my church and this is a hint of what I saw.

Finished in 1908, this building replaced a wooden structure that had burned down after serving the parish for some 30 years. Now 101 years old herself, St. Mary stands at the center of our town, the true beating heart of the community. Facing west, toward Ward 3, home of the Italian Americans who helped build her and still worship here, St. Mary has been the spiritual home of generations of Catholics in Beverly.

And now it is mine.

For All the Saints: Martin de Porres II

We got a good laugh today from Father Barnes in his homily. He talked of Martin de Porres often being shown with a dog, cat, mouse, and bird at his feet. Mentioned in my previous post, this symbolism suggests the Peruvian saint’s peaceful nature.

In fact, our pastor went on, there is a statue of St. Martin in our rectory garden. The mouse, however, is missing. “My dog ate the mouse,” said Father Barnes. “Which tells you that I still have some way to go.”


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