A monk’s life takes dedication, sense of humor

Posted by on Sep 12, 2004 | No Comments

A person chooses monastic life for one reason – and many reasons.

The sole reason is to serve God.

The many reasons can be as individual as the people themselves.

“Sometimes it’s hard to explain,” said Abbot Peter Eberle, who heads a monastery in Oregon. “I’ve tried to explain it to myself a lot. Candidates who come looking for a life in a community of like-minded men … are attracted to a life of common prayer, a common sharing of work, a common sharing of ideals.”

The men – and women – who enter monasteries are attracted to the community aspect of that life, said Sister Mary Forman. She teaches monastic studies at St. John’s University School of Theology in Collegeville, Minn.

They want the company of others on their spiritual search.

“If you’re going to be a diocesan priest, you have to live alone,” Forman said. “In a community, you live with brothers who are on a search for God together. That’s an attraction.”

It attracted Brother Sebastian Goldade, an Aberdeen native who grew up in a family with 11 boys and five girls.

“There’s not much change going from a large family to a larger family,” he said.

Comparing the life of a diocesan priest to that of a monk is like comparing apples and oranges, said Abbot Thomas Hillenbrand of Blue Cloud Abbey.

“God calls them to that way of life, and it’s an independent life where they’re pretty much on their own,” Hillenbrand said of diocesan priests. “They have their own car, they have their own finances, and that kind of thing.”

A monk doesn’t own a car, Hillenbrand said. He doesn’t have a private bank account. Money brought in through parish work or from retreats goes back to the community.

“It’s a tough vocation,” the abbot said of diocesan priesthood. “Some of the best men I’ve ever run into as far as spiritual values and spiritual virtue I’ve found in the diocesan priests.”

As with any vocation, commitment to community life can waver. Every morning a monk awakens and must recommit himself to monastic life, Brother Chris Wesely said.

Raised in Vermillion, Brother James Hanson, 73, first came to Blue Cloud Abbey in 1953. Over the years, Hanson struggled with his vocation. At one point, he left the abbey for 12 years, traveling around the country and picking up jobs in a copper mine or as a truck driver. He returned in 1972.

“You have to be serious about religious life,” he said.

But at the same time, a sense of humor is essential.

“In most monasteries, there is a certain lightness, of humor,” Eberle said. “Every monastery has stories and great characters that become legendary, that are a great source of humor and story telling.”

Blue Cloud Abbey’s Web page – www.bluecloud.org – tells some of those stories in the obituaries of departed monks.

Brother Michael Peterson tells a story about the late Father Paul McHarness, whose legendary crankiness generally amused his fellow monks.

Peterson was wheeling a cart piled with his possessions into the monastery when he encountered the priest-monk, then in his late 70s.

“Father Paul comes out of the rec room in his underwear,” Peterson said. “He looks at me, I look at him, and he says, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m coming to live here, Father.’ He says, ‘Be careful.’ ”

Community life offers emotional, financial and spiritual support, Father Matthew Kowalski said.

“It’s definitely challenging,” he said.

“Not every person is capable of it. There’s a little bit of stress that goes along with living with a lot of people, normal human stress.”

A monk’s life takes dedication, sense of humor
Jill Callison
Argus Leader