Welcome to episode 25 of the Behind the Catholic Counter Podcast. I’m Ian Rutherford, President of Aquinasnandmore.com. I interview Catholic authors, publishers and manufacturers to give you the latest news about great new Catholic books and gifts. You can listen to this and past episodes at aquinasandmore.com/podcast.
This week, I interviewed Brother John McKenzie, a Benedictine monk in Italy about his beautiful new children’s book, The Life of St. Benedict. We’ll have a special on the book that I’ll mention at the end of the show.
There are three book reviews I’ll mention now and put links to in the show notes.
First, the Curt Jester has a review of The Reality of God from St. Benedict Press about how science actually points to a creator.
Second, the Catholic Book Blogger has a very timely review of The Way of the Passion: Forty Stations with Jesus from the Daughters of Saint Paul.
Finally, CatholicMom.com has a review of a gripping conversion story called Loved as I Am.
Also, if you want a little controversy, check out Steven Greydanus’s article about the proper way to read the Chronicles of Narnia. What do you think is the proper way?
Okay, on to the interview.
Ian: Today I am joined by Brother John McKenzie, a monk with the order of Saint Benedict who is living in Norcia the home of Saint Benedict and he’s written a wonderful children’s book called the life of Saint Benedict. Welcome to the show.
John: Thank you Ian again for having me on, I know you’re come from Colorado, Im here in Rome, Thank you for having me.
Ian: This is a wonderful book you’ve written for children, but before we start talking about the book. Can you tell me your vocation story, how did you end up as a monk in Rome after growing up in the U.S.?
John: Yeah, well that’s a good question Ian, as I’ve said before you know I wake up every day and I’ve realize where I’m at and it is a surprise. It’s one of the divine surprises that our Lord creates sometimes for people and I’m just a living witness of that so I’m really glad of that. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan for the most of my life. I went to catholic school there. I ended up moving to Saint Louis, Missouri where I spent about another 8-9 years going to middle school then high school and then I did about 2 years of college and that was, that time in college that I discovered that I had a religious vocation – you know I was planning to get married and all that, but something deeper inside was calling me to something else, you know and it took a while for me to realize that. I had a really good spiritual director who is a Jesuit and he had given me some information about this discernment house in Rome and how it helped him and helped others, and to find their vocation and I took him up on that offer to spend 2 years in Rome discerning. And it was during that time in Rome where living in the center if you want to say of Holy Mother Church, of the Catholic Church, it was there that I discovered even more profoundly my vocation to the monastic way of life versus other types.
Ian: Now, how did you come to that conclusion, because this is a very different life to be leading?
John: You’re right, it’s a very different life but at the same time it’s a lifestyle so, in a way I’ve always been kind of driven towards a certain way of living and I think that religious life or the monastic way of life was what I was really looking for, If you see what I’m saying, so, but why did I do that? Why did I choose the monastic life? I think these are really good question that I do always ask myself and the three things that come up always is scripture: the monastic life tends to be very focused on meditating, reading and understanding the divine word of God and- you know through Lexio Divina, through the prayers of the psalms etc. and so the scriptures are very important, so that’s one. Two would be the liturgy of liturgical life, living a day where it’s being consecrated towards God and then there’s the communal aspect, the community is very important so this calls me to go outside of myself that I- you know, get away from my self-centeredness and things like that, my ego to help or to be with my Brothers, my confreres and so- you know those 3 things really were the focal point or the reasons why I chose monastic life.
And not only that, it’s the stability. You know we make a vow stability of life and we make us the stability of the vow to particular communities so I’m living with these guys for the rest of my life- you know, and that’s a deep call to conversion, too, to step away from myself and to be with others and it’s really helping me actually though I’m still very self-centered.
Ian: So you’re living in Norcia, that’s where Saint Benedict was born, correct?
John: Exactly, let’s not forget Saint Scholastica- you know, his twin sister. Saint Benedict was born around 480 in Norcia. His father was actually from Rome. He ended up moving Saint Benedict, ended up moving to Rome as a young adult, as a young fellow to study grammar. But for most of his childhood he lived in Norcia and I just want to say, I want to emphasize that many people don’t realize just how the monastic life is a childhood influencing Saint Benedict. You see, where I live in Norcia in the surrounding areas, there are many different hermitages where many different monks from Syria lived also. So I think Saint Benedict early on in his childhood would have known about these monks and hermits and probably would have visited them. I should also mention Scholastica as well consecrated her life to God, very early on, as Saint Gregory writes in the Dialogues in the Biography of Saint Benedict. So, you know, the town is a small town. It’s known mainly for its cuisine-really good cuisine, sausage and things like that. But yes, he was born in Norcia, they lived there, Saint Scholastica ended up living a good portion of her consecrated life and then she followed Saint Benedict.
Ian: That’s really interesting I didn’t that there were already monasteries around the area where he was growing up, I though that he was kind of the founder of monasticism or is that just western monasticism?
John: Well we would say- we say founder of western monasticism but it’s not proper in a way- you know. We say that because of Charlemagne’s son Ludovico and Saint Benedict of Anian, who I would say Saint Benedict of Anian is the founder of the Benedictines, the spread of Benedictine Monasticism. He lived in the 9th century along with Louis the Pious. That’s how the rule- the Benedictine rule kind of spread throughout the Western Empire.
The Roman Empire, because they wanted to unify the empire, and by unifying the empire they did it in 2 ways, well 3 ways through military might, through the missal, so that Catholics would use the one Roman missal and the 3rd thing that each monastery would use one particular rule. Before then, that is before this particular law came into being, each monastery would make up its rule, some of it based on the rule Saint Benedict, some of it base on the rule of Saint Columban, some of it base on some other obscure saint or what have you. So yes, Saint Benedict in that sense is the founder of Western Monasticism and the Benedictine Monasticism as we know it today.
Ian: Alright, well let’s take a look at your book that you wrote, how did you come to write this book?
John: You know its really hard for me to say that I’m the author of the book. No, seriously Ian, because Saint Gregory has already done this. You know this is nothing new, the life of Saint Benedict is nothing new and it’s just that I want to direct this towards a certain audience and I think it’s most needed today. And what inspired me was the fact that I had a family once, in our gift shop; I was the manager of our gift shop a couple years ago and they came in looking for a book on the life of Saint Benedict for of their kids and we didn’t have one. Then I thought, this is ridiculous because in the Life of Saint Benedict there’s so much history you can bring out for a children’s book. And I sat down with a good friend of mine and also novice of ours, Mark Brown, who is a really good artist and also really good historian on art so he knows how to fit things in their proper historical time and I said, “You know, we really have to do this book”. And you know I prayed about it. We visited the Benedictine sites. My own house in Norcia, Grosso Subiaco, Monte Casino, of course Rome, and we put it together. I spent some time in the monastery away on my own because most of the time when you’re in your own house you have work all the time and do not have much time to write, you know. So the inspiration came from that. Simply just seeing that the kids, I think needed to know who Saint Benedict is, and I think we’re doing that now.
Ian: Well the illustrations are wonderful in this book and they do evoke Italy with the kind of terracotta coloring throughout and they look like water colors, is that what they are?
John: Well you know Ian I’m sorry you’re going to slip me up but I don’t know exactly, I think they are watercolors actually- you know I have the originals right here in my room, but yeah we wanted colors, we want it because you know seeing some other lives of the saints for kids and as much respect to them and I have many inspirations from reading these lives but at the same time, I notice some of the artwork- you know just didn’t seem like it was, like they were real, like they live and that these, these human beings were colorful, that they had life in them and that their surrounding areas also had colors and which I’m sure they did and that’s what we wanted to bring to the plate so that- you know kids get attracted to this, kids need to know or kids are attracted just as we are to color and beautiful things and that’s I think what Mark was able to do, of course he and I had to work together very closely- you know he spent the whole summer here in Norcia and here in Italy and we really work together about how we wanted to make this look so- you know, I mean we went through some really detailed things that you- perhaps don’t even pick up just by looking at the image but that’s what wanted to focus on to make it lively make it attractive to the young eyes.
Ian: Well, it’s nice look at these pictures because you get the initial impression of what it’s about but then you look more carefully at it and you see different things in the pictures that your wouldn’t notice at first glance. Like there’s a picture here of Benedict in Subiaco and it looks like there’s something climbing up the rope that he’s, that’s been let down with the basket of food on it. I’m not sure what it is but just these little details that are in the pictures.
John: That’s right, that’s a good point-you know that’s, as Saint Gregory talks about, Saint Romanos’ a monk who actually gave Saint Benedict the habit so yes- you know even in Subiaco there was a monastery just on top of this cave where Saint Benedict was living as a Hermit, there was already a monastery of monks- you know living way before Saint Benedict came. But yes, there was Saint Romanos giving Saint Benedict bread- you know he would send him down pieces of his own bread, of his own meal, so that Saint Benedict could have something to eat so I thought that was something that we wanted to add. Another little that a detail that you see in that picture actually is, you just- it’s so slightly you see a face if you look into the actual cave to your left, you’ll see like a little face and if you go to Subiaco, you have to get the private tour because it’s in the closed off area of Subiaco, you can’t go down there but of course being a monk, having friends that are monks- you know, you get the access right? So we go down there and this monk showed us actually the former friar there in Subiaco showed us this fresco of Christ and, that it came from the time of Saint Benedict. And that’s something that you have to go to the sites and that was another aspect of our work that we wanted to make this book, not only just about Saint Benedict but a work of art too and a work of history. That’s part of what Saint Gregory did when he was composing the life of Saint Benedict along with several other lives of the Saints here in Italy. He wanted to make these people real that they really lived. Okay when you look down at Subiaco now, you can’t even imagine that Saint Benedict living in a cave, I mean it looks so nice- you know you have a lake really by, it like he’s living the nice life.
Ian: It is very picturesque.
John: Yeah very picturesque, but if you go down and you see kind of the interior of the cave and all of its start to make sense.
Ian: So, what would a child have of interest in a monk living in a monastery. it seems almost an alien thing for a child to have an interest in?
John: I understand that Ian, and that’s something that we work with it, that we’ve had oblates- you know we have about 80 Italian oblates and there were two years in a row where we had their kids. They just drop their kids off for a week, and myself and another monk were supposed to take care them. Of course they had an adult chaperon as well but you know they spend about a week with us and it was like towards the middle of the week, when I thought why did they drop their kids off here in our monastery? Because they’re making so much noise, they don’t get it at all but towards the end of their stay, I remember there was a young fellow who- you know had been dealing somethings with his parents and etc. and we had a nice talk and he was able to understand a little bit about himself and by understanding a little bit about himself, he could understand a little bit about God and I think that’s what the monastic life offers, not just the young people but for everyone. You know those are the three precepts of monastic life, know yourself, to conquer yourself so that you can give yourself to God as Saint John Cashen said, and so I think little ones can do that because they receive things simply- you know, in the simple form, very frank, no holding back and that’s something that I think us adults have to learn but my thing is at this point is I want to focus on the kids because we live in a time where, the kids are really threatened with regards to understanding and learning the faith and I want to cultivate in my little small area, once again that sense of faith for young ones because they welcome it and if it’s cultivated at the young age, it can continue on and they don’t need to become monks- you know I’m not here to make a crusade – monks and things like that you know they live their life, they choose as they want. But I hope that’s what they leave out with the same thing as that young fellow that I’m thinking of now that he left off with knowing himself and therefore knowing God and therefore being able to conquer himself.
Ian: Now the Monastic life is a little more quiet than daily life outside of the monastery, what is the day like at your monastery?
John: Oh my gosh! Ian, you mention a really good thing you know, here in Norcia I’m actually now in Rome I’m at San Anselmo which is kind of the headquarters of the Benedictine Order but it’s also a college so- you know my day is, a bit more elastic if you want to say, as a student, and I have some other various works here. But in Norcia, we- if you pick up the rule that’s basically the- what we follow so we have masses in the early morning around 4 am on Sundays and Feast days, as Saint Benedict says, you know you anticipate it sometime because of the longer reading and so we have it at 3:45, so we’re pretty up- we’re up pretty early,
John: And then from 4 am then we have after masses we have a time to pray, Lectio, Meditate on the scriptures or some types of spiritual writing or simply praying in the chapel or in yourself. Then there’s lauds which is at 6 am and then we have the priest offer their masses and then we have the office of prime at 7:45 and then we have a short chapter where the whole community gets together just for daily reading of the rule, and a bit of the martyrology and then at 9:40 we have Terce which is the other hour then we have our Conventual mass which is at 10. 12:45 we have the hour of Sext which is the sixth hour of the day and then the 9th hour at 2:45 and then vespers in the evening and then Compline. I know it sounds like and then, and then, and then…
Ian: It’s a day full of prayer.
John: It’s a day full of liturgical prayer and it should be day for personal prayer too, you have to make the distinction. Also to, we are in the time of our fasting too, so right now we eat at 3 o’clock starting tomorrow which is Ash Wednesday, we’ll be eating at the- 5 5:30 which is also prescribe in the rule that during the Lenten season, the monks postpone dinner until after vespers so we’ll anticipate vespers a bit but we also keep serving fast during a Lenten season and the pre-Lenten season which is, it’s just simply what’s prescribed in the rule, when he says about fasting and that what he do, and it sounds like I’d sounds like all they just- you know these monks are just like angels or something’s, that’s not the case. We do a lot- you know all, in between of all that time there’s so much going on. There’s people to see, people to talk to. There are classes that the younger monks are taking, there’s our brewery, we have a monastic brewery that we operate that the monks operates themselves, making it, producing it, marketing it, all those types of things. We have our kitchen. There’s a monk in the kitchen or couple of monks that are helping in the kitchen. There’s always things going on, I mean from the morning to the evening- you know there’s a lot to do.
Ian: So if somebody wanted to find out about your monastery, where could they look?
John: They can go to our website which is osbnorcia.org.
Ian: Okay now at the beginning of the show, you had mentioned that the pope was coming to visit tomorrow. Now is he coming to your place in Rome?
John: Yes! Yes that’s right he comes once a year, the pope since Paul the VI has come here to Saint Anselmo for the firstst part, the beginning part of the Penitential Rite of Ash Wednesday, so he’ll come and actually I’m one of the cantors so i’ll be pretty close to the pope – you know I might run over and get his autograph but he has his body guards and stuff like that so I don’t want to make a scene tomorrow. but if you see some monk kind of going up and chasing them away that’s me. Then we have nice procession on the Aventet had over to Saint Sabina which is the headquarters for the Dominican and that’s where he imposes the ashes on the College of Cardinals or some member of the College of Cardinals and then there’s the mass, and then we begin Lent. So it’s a blessing to be in the presence of the Holy Father and also participate in his mass. You know as bishop of Rome, here in Rome and is diocese, it’s a blessing when he comes.
Ian: Thank you so much for taking the time this evening for you talked about your new book The Life of Saint Benedict for children, I think it’s wonderful and my kids keep asking me if they can look at the copy if gotten on my desk so, I’m going to turn it over to them now.
John: Okay good, well once again I want to thank you, Ian, I want to thank- you know so much Ignatius Press and Magnificat for helping out on this project.
My kids have loved reading this book and I know yours will too. You can get 20% off when you order at aquinasandmore.com through March 27th.
Thank you for joining me today. For links to the books and websites we discussed today, see the show notes. Please subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and comment on this and past episodes at aquinasandmore.com/podcast.
I am moving the podcast to Monday starting this following week so our next episode is only a few days away. I’ll be talking with Charlie McKinnie about Sophia Institute’s collaboration with NBC on the A.D. miniseries that airs begins on Easter Sunday. We’ll have some great giveaways with that interview as well.
At Aquinasandmore.com we are in the business of strengthening your Faith through the products we sell. I look forward to having you shop with us where good faith is guaranteed. God bless.
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He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.
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