Once upon a time, there were three college professors, John Senior, Franklyn Nelick and Dennis Quinn, who started a classics program at the University of Kansas. The program, called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, was meant to install the truth of Truth and Beauty in the students. It wasn't a Catholic program but the themes were Catholic by their nature. Somehow this program survived several years in the midst of the chaos of the early 70's.
As students progressed through the program a surprisingly large number of them converted to Catholicism. Several of them traveled to Fontgombault, France to visit the Benedictine monastery there. Several of those joined and years later founded a Benedictine monastery in Clear Creek, OK. The monastery was founded by eleven monks in 1999. Today there are about 36 monks and priests and the monastery will become its own independent Abbey next year.
Due to the large number of conversions, the University of Kansas was convinced that the professors must somehow be proselytizing the students and killed the Pearson Program in 1979 but not before the program produced dozens of converts, many of whom went on to become priests, monks and nuns. One, James Conley, is the auxiliary bishop of Denver.
Benedict having now left the schools resolved to betake himself to the desert… (*)
Several months ago my dad suggested doing a weekend retreat at Our Lady of the Assumption Monastery in Clear Creek, OK. He had invited several other men to join us but as we headed out a day late because of a snow storm, it was just the two of us who actually made the twelve-hour trip.
Clear Creek is not in a desert but it is about as far off the beaten path as you can get and still be driving on a road. From the map you can see that nothing is anywhere close to this place. In fact, the closest labeled location on Google Maps is “Lost City”. Once we left the interstate we quickly found ourselves on narrow, unmarked (or marked differently than our directions) dirt roads. Oh, and almost no cell phone coverage. At one point, the gravel road actually went through a stream. Fortunately, there was a large metal net upstream from us that would have prevented logs, cars and other things from sweeping us away. Through divine providence we managed to get to the monastery in time for vespers on Saturday evening. The sign that greeted us before we descended into the valley where the monastery was nestled was a little disconcerting and reminded me of the “hot brakes fail” signs that you see next to the road on Pikes Peak.
The monastery is currently under construction. The dorms, gatehouse and crypt for the church have been completed. They have also constructed a temporary cloister and some extra cells while they raise funds for the next phase of construction. Since the church isn't complete, all services are held in the crypt. The crypt is a spartan structure with concrete floors and walls. The heat has not been turned on for the winter so at night and in the morning you can see your breath. I asked one of the monks if the heat was working yet in the building and was told “We like to keep a monastic atmosphere here. We don't turn on the heat until we absolutely have to.” Sometimes I just shouldn't open my mouth.
Therefore, let us consider how it becometh us to behave in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice. (*)
When we arrived no one was around so we went to the crypt where vespers was just starting. The silence was deeper than I have heard in a long time. Alcoves with altars lined the nave and a wrought iron communion rail crowned it. The floor of the whole crypt was covered in dark red tile which was covered by rectangular rugse in the center of the sanctuary.
The monks sat in choir in traditional wooden stalls. The monks in front sat on chairs while those in back leaned against their seats. “Sat” is actually kind of relative since they spent a lot of time kneeling on the floor and making profound bows during prayer.
The high altar was at the end of the choir but the tabernacle sat on its own altar at the very back of the sanctuary.
The ceiling, which hasn't been installed and I hope is only temporary, is going to be made from those horrid acoustic tiles. That certainly won't help the wonderful echo that the monks' chant produces now.
In the dim light as we walked in I noticed that the back rows had an assortment of sisters from various religious orders. In the front pew sat two Benedictine sisters in full habit. Scattered around the rest of the nave were visitors and some families with lots of small children.
Vespers was chanted entirely in Latin. Fortunately, the monastery provides books for the Divine Office so the congregation can – sort of – follow along. Even during prayer it seemed quite since the monks were the only ones chanting.
Although human nature is of itself drawn to feel compassion for these life-periods, namely, old age and childhood, still, let the decree of the Rule make provision also for them. (*)
After Vespers I realized that all the various sisters (except the Benedictines up front)s were a little short for sisters and that they were mixed in with several short male saints. It was the weekend of All Saints and the local families had brought their children dressed as saints.
It turns out that over a dozen families abandoned civilization to come live near the monastery. I'm not sure what they do for work if they aren't making a daily drive to Tulsa. The bishop of Tulsa has given them permission to find land for a parish. I guess it's going to be a parish without a town since there is only pasture land for miles around.
The guest house on the property used to be the original owners home. Before the monks built their current dormitory the lodge served as their refectory. The lived in a converted (Equestrianism) horse barn.
The caretaker of the guest property used to be Pentecostal. A few years ago he decided to become Catholic and brought his whole family along. Then they moved to nowhere Oklahoma to take care of a monastery. Talk about a change! They just bought a school bus which they use to bring the family to the monastery for Mass and Divine Office. The bus is also for field trips for the homeschooling families in the area.
These families drive out to the monastery for Mass and also participate in the daily prayer life of the monks. I can't imagine doing that with our family but it would be nice to live somewhere where it's possible.
After vespers we met the guest master – John Malkovich. Actually, his name is Fr. Rork Bethel but he looks just like John Malkovich only without the evil creepiness that the actor always portrays in his movies. Fr. Rork is the most senior (by tenure) of the monks at the monastery. He was part of the Pearson Program, went to France, became a Benedictine priest and came back to help start the monastery.
Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords, that they may be always ready; but let them not have knives at their sides whilst they sleep, lest perchance the sleeping be wounded in their dreams… (*)
Fr. Bethel showed us to our rooms – spartan affairs with a bed, desk, sink, shower and wardrobe. I got to be a little more monastic than the rest – my room didn't have a shower so I had to go down a floor to use one. The communal restroom is at the end of the hall. The walls were made of cinder blocks giving me fond memories of dorm life at the University of Dallas.
The floor below mine had a library with a collection of Catholic classics that had all been custom hard bound by a generous donor. I picked up a couple of books to read during the weekend as I guessed, correctly, that there would be plenty of time to read.
…We believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient at all meals; so that he who perchance cannot eat of one, may make his meal of the other. (*)
Dinner at the monastery is served at 7:30. Since this was our first meal there we had the honor of having our hands washed by the abbot, Abbot Forgeot. Abbot Forgeot was visiting the monastery for three weeks from France, I suppose to preside at the solemn professions of two new monks on All Saints Day. Clear Creek Monastery won't be its own independent abbey until next year so the abbot of Fontgombault is still head of the monastery until then.
When we were introduced the abbot said that he had heard of us from our pastor. Fr. Stephan Dupre, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Colorado Springs, is a third-order Benedictine attached to Fontgombault and warned the abbot that we would be coming.
Only men are allowed to eat with the monks in their refectory. Women have to tough it out at the lodge preparing their own meals. The lodge is a grand log structure that the original owner built to live in.
Before lunch and dinner everyone stands at his places and waits for the abbot to lead grace. Grace is chanted in Latin and involves at least two profound bows. Even after you sit down you still don't start eating because a passage from the Bible is read before each meal. They are currently reading from Leviticus.
The monks eat from metal bowls and cups and don't get as much as the guests did. Dinner was served family style and consisted of a cheese soup and an omelet covered in ketchup. The omelet was clearly Divine humor since I frequently kid my wife and kids about putting ketchup on eggs. They also served homemade whole wheat bread, water and lemonade (probably Country Time) with every meal. Dessert consisted of Oreos, custard and coffee.
No one speaks during the meals except to quietly ask for food to be passed. My dad and I saw the quiet and calm at meals from different perspectives. He thought that the meals were rushed. Since I'm usually helping my wife serve food to eight kids I found meals to be extraordinarily peaceful, laid back and reflective. I think we should let my parents take care of all the kids more often so my dad will appreciate the meals more next time we go. 😉
Reading must not be wanting at the table of the brethren when they are eating…Let the deepest silence be maintained that no whispering or voice be heard except that of the reader alone…The brethren, however, will not read or sing in order, but only those who edify their hearers. (*)
When the reading began after we started eating my first thought was of the Holy Handgrenade and I almost started laughing. Fortunately, I'm a father with lots of noisy children and not a monk. The reader didn't sound anything like the monk reading the Holy Book of Armaments but listening to the chanting of “The Manner of Excommunication“, I couldn't get it out of my head.
Father Bethel told us later that a passage from the Bible is read at every lunch and dinner and they should finish the Bible in about 10 years. A brief section from the Rule of St. Benedict is also read before lunch and dinner. At lunch they are currently reading the Cleaving of Christendom by William Carrol and during dinner they are reading the Life of Charles de Focault. On feast days they read from other texts. On All Saints Day they read from a treatise on monastic life as martyrdom.
When I say that a monk “read” during the meals, I really mean that he chanted the reading. Very little of liturgy and prayer is spoken. Almost everything is chanted and considering the complexity of some of the chants, the monks are quite good.
At the end of the meal everyone stood and the abbot led a thanksgiving. When all of us guests filed out of the refectory Fr. Bethel took us to a small meeting room to let us know what the schedule was going to be for All Souls Day and also to answer questions we had about the monastery. Apart from my dad and me, all the other guests were there to visit relatives who were monks or, like the four young guys from South Dakota, dropping off a brother and friend who was entering the monastery.
All, therefore, having assembled in one place, let them say Complin, and after going out from Complin, let there be no more permission from that time on for anyone to say anything. (*) Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse… (*)
After dinner we were free until Compline at nine. Compline officially ends the day, after which everyone goes to bed and doesn't speak until Matins the following morning. They also lock the doors after Compline so if you happen to go outside it will be a long night sitting on the porch.
Since no one really does much talking at the monastery, I was glad I had picked up a couple of books. I spent my free time reading Lord of the World, an apocalypse by Msgr. Hugh Benson and The Crisis of Civilization by Hilaire Belloc. Lord of the World is a quick read but one of the best end of the world stories I have read. The Crisis of Civilization is a survey of Catholic history that focuses on the destruction of Christendom following the High Middle Ages and the collapse of the world into Communism and Socialism. Belloc also makes the point that the more powerful a Capitalist government gets and the more consolidated the businesses in a Capitalist society get, the easier it is to fall into Socialism. This was a warning written back in the '30s. Hmmmm….
While I was reading I found several sheets of blank paper in the desk and did something I haven't done in years – I hand wrote a letter to my wife. It's amazing how much you can say when you aren't artificially constrained by Twitter and the brevity of email. I decided to write a letter partly because we had been listening to David McCullough's 1776 on the way to Oklahoma and I was struck by the importance of letters in learning history. Many of the letters that were written were quality prose, even from regular men in the army. If email and Twitter had existed back then, apart from completely changing the outcome of the war (America would have lost), we would have a much poorer record of the feelings and thoughts of those who fought.
Let the brethren sleep singly, each in a separate bed. Let them receive the bedding befitting their mode of life, according to the direction of their Abbot. (*)
Let's see… individual room, check. Bedding: one sheet, one pillow, one thin blanket and one extra fleece throw that doesn't really cover the bed, check. One heater that, if I had remembered the silly question I had asked earlier, I wouldn't have bothered to turn on, check. Three cold nights in a row, check.
Fortunately, the monks serve coffee with breakfast so the four hours of sleep I got bundled in everything except my snow coat didn't bother me at all.
Part two to follow.