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Many young people looking at the way a cloistered Cistercian monk or nun lives: renunciation of your possessions, obedience, fasting, manual labor, celibacy, seven prayer services a day plus mass . . . might wonder how a person decides what time is the right time to enter a monastery. “Could any time be the right time?”, they might ask.
When the time arrives to enter a monastery, it is because you have been invited by the good God who, by outward signs, and an inner peace has assured you He will provide the graces needed to live this life faithfully and happily. Even so, it can be an interesting and even dramatic human experience to move from our contemporary culture in the U.S. today, to a monastic cloister. Anthony is completing that passage now and it has been a bit of a wild ride.
Like others who grew up in a Protestant community of faith, and decided as adults to be fully united with the Catholic Church, Anthony was surprised by the concrete reality of the very complex church that welcomed him. American Catholics are “all over the map” regarding questions of the role of authority in the church, the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, the celebration of the liturgy, and morality in general. Anthony is a serious student of history, theology, and spirituality. He is well-read in the literature of the church fathers, eastern and western monastic spiritual masters, and the best spiritual writing of representatives of other religions. He embraced the Catholic faith for two reasons: because, after years exploring Buddhist prayer practices, he came to understand that, with regard to particular dark dimensions of himself and his past, the only real “salvation” was complete identification with Jesus, God become flesh, who became sin, that we might become like God. No other religion offers this vision of salvation and it's the one he craved with all his soul.
Becoming a Catholic was the best decision he ever made in his life. But this only increased Anthony's surprise, pain, and confusion when he encountered Catholics who spoke derisively, even contemptuously of the Pope and bishops, and who ridiculed time-honored Catholic practices and beliefs, and seemed always angry. His attraction to monastic literature moved him to explore the possibility of entering a monastery and, in the Spring of 2008, he lived at New Melleray Abbey for two months. He was “in awe” of the place and the monks and conceived the idea of spending the rest of his life as a monk.
But, he had some debts to pay off, his mother was frantic at the idea of him becoming a monk, and he struggled with a persistent desire to do religious education with young people, something he knew he would be good at. In the Summer he left the monastery and took a job teaching religion at an affluent parish in a large mid-western city. He soon became respected as a leader in the parish, maybe largely because the pastor was going through a personal crisis. He was a good man but disillusioned with the church, and withdrawing more and more from people around him. Anthony, struggled valiantly for a while, but deep questions about what he was observing in his parish were fostering in him a pervasive feeling of disgust. He was becoming as angry as the disillusioned Catholics he had criticized.
Spiritual reading had always been a basic source of nutrition for Anthony's soul, but it was becoming an escape. He was retreating from a conflicted and complex world into a private world of books and ideas. His library grew, but not his heart nor his peace. It was clear that he had a strong attraction to monastic life, but even some of the attitudes and views expressed by monks made him wary and he wondered if perhaps he should look into Eastern Orthodoxy.
A spiritual director suggested it might instead be time for him to seriously consider joining a monastic community, take his beautiful and elevated ideals with him, but commit to real human relationships, and to the possibility of a long term commitment to one community of fallible monks. Over time, the idea of following this path began to make sense to Anthony on a deep level. Visiting New Melleray again in January for a few days, he was driving home, ruminating on the fact that the monks were looking older. A voice inside him spoke and with a kind of urgency: “Anthony, it's time to act – you need to enter the community at New Melleray now.”
Visiting again just after Easter, he had a good talk with Fr. Stephen, the Vocation Director and, at the end of their session together, told him: “Now, I'm ready.” It was clear to everyone who spoke to him, Anthony had turned a corner. A certain amount of time had to pass along with certain hard experiences before he could say with peace: “It's time.” He will enter as an Observer in June to begin his discernment of a monastic vocation with the monks of New Melleray. Pray for him! And pray for us.