My unlikely journey to brotherhood
Image: The Benedictine community processes into church to celebrate the feast day of Saint Meinrad on January 21, 2015. Saint Meinrad was a Benedictine monk of the ninth century after whom the Indiana monastery is named.
Six years ago, I never would have expected to be wearing the Benedictine habit, and yet here I am, wearing a black dress and praying five times a day in the middle of nowhere (a.k.a., rural Indiana).
Growing up, I spent very little time in church; it just wasn’t a big part of my life. Sure, I spent some time with the youth group at a local Methodist church, but that was mostly a social opportunity for me. It wasn’t until my “super-senior” year of college that I really became invested in an active faith life.
Most of my college friends had graduated, including my then-girlfriend, and it was at this time that I experienced an intense loneliness, which I began to remedy by reading Holy Scripture. Coincidentally, it was also at this time that I had my first glimpse into the monastic life.
In the fall of 2006, The Learning Channel (TLC) began airing a documentary titled The Monastery, which followed the daily lives of the monks of Christ in the Desert. I was so enthralled by these monks’ lives, and the simplicity with which they lived, that I went to the local bookstore and bought a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict.
As I read through the Holy Rule for the first time, I was amazed at the amount of detail with which Saint Benedict described his guidelines for monastic living, even down to the proper amount of daily food and drink! Realizing that these monks were Catholic, combined with the fact that my then-girlfriend was Catholic, I thought perhaps I would follow suit and become Catholic as well.
Conversion to Catholicism
Shortly after graduating from college and landing a job as a software developer in Dayton, Ohio, I sought out a parish church in which to cultivate my newfound interest. I can honestly say it was a somewhat willy-nilly decision at the time, but as I progressed through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), I began to increasingly identify with the Catholic faith.
The community at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Centerville, Ohio, was exceptionally welcoming and hospitable during the entire RCIA process. The Benedictine spirit of hospitality was (and still is!) certainly alive there at my home parish.
Once I was received into the church and confirmed in 2008 at the age of 24, my then-girlfriend and I parted ways. It had become difficult to maintain the relationship because I was in Dayton and she was in West Virginia at medical school. To this day, I am deeply grateful to her for sharing her faith with me even though I wanted nothing to do with it at first.
Even during RCIA, I thought perhaps I had a call to religious life, but I wasn’t sure what exactly I should do about it, if anything. At the suggestion of my spiritual director, I made my first retreat to Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery in rural southern Indiana, in 2009.
I will never forget the experience of praying Vespers with the monks for the first time! Up to that point, I had been praying the Liturgy of the Hours completely solo, but when I prayed with the monks, it was like the Divine Office suddenly came to life. I was hooked. I had to make another trip back.
Community life of prayer
I guess you could say I became a regular at the monastery. I visited several times over the years and finally began the formal process of applying in 2011. Having visited with other religious communities (Franciscans, Marianists), monastic life seemed to be the best fit for me.
I knew I wanted to live in a community, and particularly a community ordered to a structured life of prayer. I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a priest, and non-ordained religious life as a monk had a certain appeal to me. (Other men who are drawn to communal life, prayer, and ministry pursue brotherhood in different types of communities. Not all Catholic brothers are monks, that is, men who live a monastic vocation.)
I think God speaks to us through our wants and wishes, and as I realized over several visits to Saint Meinrad, I wanted and wished to become a monk. And by the grace of God, I became one!
After a three-month candidacy and a year-long novitiate, I took my temporary vows in August 2013, which will last for three years. Following this trial period, the monastic community may invite me to make solemn vows, which is a lifelong commitment to the vows of obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic life, which includes celibacy and poverty.
One of the most common questions I get asked as a monk is: “What do you do all day? Do you pray all day?” While prayer is, indeed, a big part of our life, it is certainly not all we do each day. Our life is marked by a balance of prayer and work, study and leisure. We pray together as a community five times a day in the archabbey church, and we have morning and afternoon work periods.
As a part-time philosophy student, my mornings are reserved for class and study, while in the afternoons I work as the media coordinator in the vocations office. It is a busy life; balancing prayer and work can certainly be difficult at times, but it is a balance that all of us are called to as Christians.
An interior journey
Michael Casey, in his book An Unexciting Life, writes, “Exterior dullness is a condition for inner excitement.” As monastics, we intentionally live a highly structured and “boring” life (by today’s standards) so that something within us has to change. We cannot expect the things around us to change. We cannot expect to change the exteriors of our way of life. We must be what changes.
What is candidacy?
Candidacy, also called postulancy, is a period of time during which the candidate, or postulant, lives with a religious community in order to explore its way of life more deeply. Candidacy generally lasts one to three years (although for the author it lasted three months). Being a candidate is part of a process of discernment about whether religious life and a particular community is suitable for both the person and the community.
What is the novitiate?
Novitiate is the next step in joining a religious community after candidacy. The person typically takes part in studies, ministry, and community living.
This is the wisdom behind the Benedictine vow of stability—namely, that I bind myself to this monastery, to these people, and I do not expect them to change, but I must be the one who does. We renounce exterior freedoms in order to pursue an interior freedom.
By staying stationary, we work to “clean the inside of the cup,” as Christ calls us to do. And so, monastic living becomes primarily an interior journey, a journey that we make alone with God, but also together with our brother monks, who are on their own interior journeys.
My venture into monasticism was quite unexpected, to say the least. I once thought that by now I would be married with children, yet God has presented me with an interior journey that is undoubtedly as full of joys and hardships as married life.
My hope is that I will be given the grace to make it through the rough patches and not cling too tightly to the periods of smooth sailing, but come to a comfortable and consistent happy medium.
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