Showing posts with label monks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label monks. Show all posts


Feast of Saint Benedict — Photos of Work and Community from My Time as a Benedictine Monk (c. 2004)

Today is the feast day of Saint Benedict of Nursia, famous cenobite who, 1,500 years ago, carved out a rule for people to live together in community, living by a rule of Ora et Labora. I have been rummaging through old thumb drives, hard drives, and forgotten folders on my Google Drive and I have managed to come across some interesting finds that date back a decade or so — back when my life was a Benedictine monk in south Louisiana.
I had a Canon Sure Shot camera back then — and I would get my hands on black and white film and take photos of life in action. These photos are of jobs that I undertook when I was a relatively young monk in temporary profession (which means I had not yet made my final vows). At twenty-five years of age, I had just made my profession, and my life was caught up in the rhythm of work and community living.
We had a small barbershop in the monastery. If someone wanted a haircut they asked Br. Elias or Fr. Ambrose — and voilà you got a haircut. No need for SuperCuts.
Dom Gregory DeWitt created this painting on wood of Christ's first haircut. 

Ideally, everything is provided for in Benedictine communities. People who become Benedictines often bring with them their skills. We had bread makers, honey maker, vintner, pianist, writer, and farmer. Famously, the community I lived in had hosted a Flemish monk who was a famed artist. This was in the 1940s and 50s. Dom Gregory Dewitt, O.S.B. painted the murals in the monks' refectory (e.g., the dining room) and the church. But he also painted small curiosities that one could still find. In the barbershop, where I had my haircut many times, there was a wonderful painting on wood of "Christ's First Haircut." It depicts an almost Norman Rockwell-esque version of the Holy Family. Christ has placed his halo on a nail so his father Joseph can cut his hair. Mary sits in a chair nearby sewing a piece of cloth, and an angel sweeps the floor!
Often we would have to go to the nearby town to run errands, or to bring older members of the community to a doctor's appointment or to go shopping for this, that, and any other thing.
 I invented "Book Face Friday" way before its adoption on social media. In this photograph, taken sometime in 2004, I had Br. Bernard take a photo with a cover of a book I was reading entitled "A Brief History of Everything".
Sometimes in the evening after prayer, we would have small group activities, like one night a week, we did poetry readings. I don't remember much of what we read, but I remember it was heavily attended by some of the older community members, so it made me become more familiar with caring for Senior citizens. I fondly remember Fr. Dominic and Fr. Stan who were consistent members of our poetry reading sessions. Fr. Dominic had been poised to enter the world of operatic drama and singing but he ended up joining the community in the 1950s and was a strong supporter of Civil Rights and liturgical reform. He had a booming baritone voice, that he used proudly. I took him on many outings during my time, and while we were never really close friends, I think he appreciated how I initiated creativity and sparked his more associative thinking process. Fr. Stan had lived in New York for many years as a parish priest, but when he retired he came back to our community in Louisiana. I remember he was soft-spoken, sometimes passive-aggressive, but he was a writer, especially of poetry. I wonder where his writings are now and whether any of his stuff was published?
After dinner on Sundays, it was considered a more-or-less-leisure time. We could talk at table (while eating dinner), invite guests, and have a beer or a glass of wine. After dinner, each evening, one of us was assigned to wash dishes — which was a fun job — because we used this industrial strength dishwasher!
Outside of the monastery building were a set of benches where we could relax, talk, and if people were smokers, they could smoke.
Although most of us were not allowed to smoke, because the Abbot made a new rule saying younger members had to quit smoking, but those who had already developed the habit were silently allowed. Those were the rules.
 In the kitchen, we had a crew of workers, some from the outside, like this woman — her name is L. and I remember we used to talk a lot about her children.
For a couple of Summers, I was part of the camp program — where we had campers from across the state come in for weeks at a time; they stayed in a campground, replete with a chapel, cabins, swimming pool, dining area, and a Pavillion — about a quarter-mile from our community, but still on the property. On Sundays, the kids would come to the church for Mass and I would give a tour of the buildings, pointing out some of the features of Dom Gregory DeWitt's artwork. I love how in this photograph I have most of the kids' attention.
Lagniappe (More Photos)


How I Learned to Love Solitude and Why I Am No Longer a Benedictine Monk

I am going through old papers, tossing out papers, and boxing up books so I can move out of my apartment on April first.
Saint Joseph Abbey is a Benedictine community of monks in South Louisiana
Saint Joseph Abbey Church in St. Benedict, Louisiana
I realized I could not find any photographs of me as Brother Bede. I used to be a Benedictine monk. But the traces of that life are quickly receding.

Leaving a Monastery 
When I left Saint Joseph Abbey - a Benedictine monastery in Saint Benedict, Louisiana - I was twenty-eight years old (and six months). In my life as a monk, I was Brother Bede. I baked bread once or twice a week with my fellow monks, I went to daily prayers, ate with my community at the common table, worked in our college library - and I was a graduate student at the local university. That was nine years ago (and eight months, roughly).

As a monk, you are told: "To work is to pray." So I grew up in this dispensation. We were told that we were monks first. Our work was just something we did as part of our religious identity. If I was baking bread, or if I was studying Latin, I was merely living out my life of prayer and work. I was a monk. So don't complain.

The Life of the Monk
Life in the monastery followed a trajectory. And there were different stages of my life there. Depending on how you count the years, I was first a seminary student - I was called a scholastic. Then I was a postulant, then a novice, then a monk in temporary vows, then a monk in solemn vows - all for a total of ten years. 

I had just graduated from high school when I joined the seminary. It's crazy to think that was twenty years ago. In May, I am going to Louisiana to celebrate my high school reunion. But I probably won't visit the abbey where I gave ten years of my life - formative years (if you want to put it that way.)

I fantasize that when I tell people I was a monk, they think I lived in a stone hut, spoke to no one and ate bone stew and hard bread. The truth is my life as a monk was at the same time innocuous and magical. Life follows a scheduled rhythm in a monastery. Vigils, Morning prayers, Mass, Evening prayers, and Compline. Monks were assigned jobs. And for the most part, we went through our day praying, eating together, and performing our tasks.

Why did I Join?
People often ask me why I joined a monastery. What was going through my head? And then they ask me why I left the monastery. And people seem to be pretty curious about the whole process. For me - I wanted to be a priest or a monk from an early age. I can remember pretending to celebrate Mass with Ritz style crackers while my brothers complained (they'd rather play other games). When I was in High School, I was very much into Catholicism - and I made it pretty well known that I wanted to join the seminary when I graduated.

Read more about why I became celibate after the jump . . .


Poem: A Monk Reads at Table

image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
at table reading,
our minds most likely a cacophony
of invective, misery, and lower back pain.

There is silence.  
Usually amid the drone of listless
 put an asparagus spear in your

the tables are urchin gray; the reader enjoys
eating in silence is all we can ever do


Memento: When I Was a Benedictine Postulant

A page from my scrapbook that dates from circa 2002
My Life Circa 2002
Taken from a page of my scrapbook dated circa 2002 — I had just entered the monastery of Saint Joseph Abbey as a postulant. I was about twenty-two years old (freshly graduated from college). I had started my scrapbook as a seminary college student. The page in this scrapbook marks a special time in my life. It was a time where I had an enormous amount of free time (ironically, since I was living in a monastery). A postulant is someone who has requested to be a novice in a monastery. It is the waiting period between "moving in" and being officially sworn in as a new member of the community.
In the Summer I Joined the Novitiate
After a few weeks of postulancy, the novitiate begins. That lasts for a year, after which the novice petitions the community to take the first set of monastic vows. During this time, the community of monks which I belonged to had voted on a new Abbot. His name was Justin.
An Explanation of the Pages Of My Scrapbook
On the left side of the book is the card that I had saved from Abbot Justin's installation as abbot of the community. I had written in the space below the holy card, "Justin Gerald Brown's Abbatial Blessing". On the facing page is a card that I had kept when I was a postulant. My name (as it is now) was "Greig". On the top is a postcard of a boy sitting amongst a hilly field accompanied by two pigs. My memory is hazy but I think I had picked up this postcard when I had been a student at the American College of Louvain in Belgium  I guess I placed it in the scrapbook as a memento.


An Interview with My Former Self (When I Was a Benedictine Monk)

When I was a Benedictine monk, I was interviewed by a high school student for his school project. His teacher had asked him to interview a person who had undergone a life changing odyssey. Here is the transcript of the interview.
Fr. Raphael often smoked a cigarette after Mass.

1. Describe your odyssey, spiritual, mental, or physical. You told me, Luke, that you are reading the Odyssey by Homer. So, it seems to make sense to start from there: “Sing to me,” the poet says to the muses at the beginning of the poem, invoking their help (who, I assume, stand in for the gods, or God). The spiritual longing alluded to in being “sung to” by the gods is intoxicating. Desiring the muses' song describes my odyssey the best. The “mental part” as you put it, is figuring out what the heck the gods are trying to say! And the physical part most likely boils down to the daily decision to get up, physically, in the morning. That, my friend, is an odyssey enough!
2. What was your childhood like? My childhood was for the most part pretty unassuming. I grew up in a suburban town, mainly middle-class. But, as a child, I had a very active imagination. And I spent an awful lot of hours daydreaming and reading books and listening to records. I loved stories and music as a child and I was very much active in drama and performing.
3. Did your childhood inspire your odyssey in any way? I think my childhood was most influential in that I was introduced to the world of knowledge — a world that has become my life’s mainstay. The greatest gift my parents gave to me was bringing me to the Public library and teaching me how to pray. I think my childhood introduction to libraries and an early memory of going to Church, influenced me more than I realize. That was the good part of my childhood. The difficulties of childhood also influenced me too. I learned from my childhood, that childhood is not perfect. In fact, we spend most of our adult life figuring out what the heck actually happened to us as kids.
4. Were you influenced by anyone to go on your odyssey? My mother read to me stories from books, when I was a little child. I think this profoundly influenced me. Also, she was probably the first person to teach me about God. She taught me that God was like a loving father. This too had profound — and also difficult — ramifications for me in later life. Also, my godmother was very influential for me. She taught me to follow my dreams but cautioned me that it would not always be easy. She told me that to pursue your desires often entails heartache, sweat, and a little bit of blood. I am thankful for her does of realism coupled with her undaunting affirmation and love for me.
5. How old were you when you found out your calling? Well, I can remember when I was about fifteen years old I wanted to do something that brought me closer to God and also strengthened my mind. I went on a retreat to a monastery and felt that the monk’s dedication to “love of learning and their desire for God” was an attractive aspect of their life. I have to admit, I did have an overly romantic view of monastic life as a young kid. And now that I am older, I don’t think I am as easily swept away by such ideals. Perhaps, I have learned along the way to acquire some of Odysseus’s practical intelligence.
6. How did your family and friends react when you told them? Well, family members really did not understand. My mother was dead set against it. My brothers were okay, but they figured it was kind of a strange decision. My father really did not have much to say, except telling me, “Do what you feel will make you happy.” My friends are very supportive but some of my friends question the validity of what they feel is an archaic lifestyle. I think they just wanted me to be happy and not make any foolish decisions.
7. Was it hard when you first began? Yes. I packed my bags several times. In fact, it still can be a difficult journey. I don’t believe our journeys are ever free from difficulties. If they were they would cease to be journeys.
8. Did you receive help from anyone who did the same or a similar journey you did? Yes, I have been blessed to have many mentors along the way. I don’t think I have ever had such a great guide as Athena in the Odyssey, but I have come close. There was one monk who told me that when he joined the monastery, he had no idea what he was really getting into. I think that is a great metaphor for life! Do we truly know what we are getting ourselves into? Hah. Probably not.
9. Would you help someone the same way they helped you? Of course. I believe helping a person find their own odyssey is a good thing. An odyssey should not be imposed on a person. That would not be a good thing. People are ready when they are ready. We all have to find our own way in the world. And a little bit of “help from our friends,” to quote that famous Rock song, helps tremendously along the way. In fact, the times I have helped people has in fact been some of the most pleasurable and enjoyable times of my life.
10. Was there a major hardship during your odyssey? Well, the life I lead now precludes me from having a significant love relationship and a family. While, I knew this going into monastic life, sometimes, the lack of a significant other and the prospect of adopting children of my own, has proven to be a hardship at times. But, looking back on my life thus far, I am amazed at what my life has granted to me thus far. I am very grateful. And I am very much interested in what the future will bring.
11. Do you ever look back and want to change anything you did or didn't do? I don’t regret the past. My fears have more to do with the future. You know, like, plans and hopes for my future that are not yet realized.
12. If you could pick one thing to change what would it be? Well, I would have liked to have been born French because I really enjoy French and consider myself a francophile but I have to consign myself to the reality that I am a Louisianian which is close enough! But, seriously, to answer your question, I have been plagued with this question often enough to realize that it leads me nowhere. There are, of course, many things I could change or would desire to change. But a person can go mad spending time dwelling on that stuff.
13. Was your journey always tough, or were there any enjoyable moments? Of course, there were many enjoyable moments. Enjoyment is something I think highly of!!! It is funny though when I think back on my life thus far I tend to think more about the good stuff. I often marvel at how I was even able to manage myself through the difficult stuff even though while it was happening I did not think the same way. One of the most difficult years for me was my junior year abroad when I studied in Europe under the most difficult professors at the University I attended. I was stunned when I got my grades in and saw that I had passed.
14. If so, name the most predominant one. Well, like I said, when I graduated from college with my degree in Philosophy, I was very proud of myself and felt an enormous surge of satisfaction. But also, I have had many enjoyable moments. On an intimate level, the most enjoyable moments have been with my friends on several travels and vacations I have been able to take.
15. Once you were finished your odyssey, how did you feel? Well, Luke, I am not finished yet!! What are you trying to do? Put me in an early grave?! I like to think of life as an enormous Odyssey.
16. Have you ever regret doing it? No regrets. It is too costly to think that way.
17. How has it changed your life? Well, I think I would have led a lonelier life if it had not been for this journey that I am on now. I think by nature, I am a free-spirit, so my decision to become a Benedictine is at first a strange one, because of the constraints put on a monk’s life — but at the same time, my life has helped me to hone my free-spirit nature in ways that I never imagined.
18. How has it helped you in the certain area? (physical, mental, spiritual). I think I am by nature a mental and a spiritual person. I think I chose the life I lead because it matches already (more or less) what is inside of me. Not that there are other things I could be doing but I tend to gravitate toward activities that I already have a natural aptitude.
19. Were these changes for better or worse? The life I lead does not always privilege the physical aspects of life. Running jumping swimming, etc. This change poses a challenge. I often have to force myself to think outside of the mental and the spiritual and just plunge into the physical activity of life. Sometimes this just means closing my book and going outside. So a goal of mine is to try to remain more physically active and not remain sedentary.
20. Are you glad you don’t have to take on your odyssey again? Once this odyssey is finished, I think I will be ready to pack my bags.
An interview with Bede Greig Roselli, OSB by Luke Bernard


Of Carmelites and African Greys

Brother Gabriel, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Joseph Abbey, tends to his African Gray parrot.
Brother Gabriel Rivet, OSB
In a mostly abandoned seminary building, I climb a flight of stairs, pass two meowing cats, and knock on the door of an old prefect’s office to rendezvous (as I do every Saturday afternoon) with Gabriel Rivet, a monk of Saint Joseph Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Covington, Louisiana, a bedroom community of New Orleans. The office is musty, retired parrot feathers garner the air and there is a strong scent of vegetables, parrot mix and the lulling hum of daytime television. “Mostly to entertain her,” Gabriel tells me pointing to the African Grey who does, in fact, seem to be watching TV, her head cocked to one side, intent, soaking it all in. Newspapers line the bottom of Jocko’s cage, old Times Picayunes and church bulletins; Br. Gabriel is exceedingly insistent that I place three layers of print to cover Jocko’s cage and to make sure I secure the edges with scotch tape. While he prepares Jocko’s egg – a treat the avian companion gets every afternoon – we talk about Saint Thérèse, Saint Benedict, and monasticism. “You want your egg, Jocko?” Gabriel croons, motioning to the bird with a plate he places on top of the cage. Jocko knows the routine and determinedly climbs up to eat her fill of the yellow yolk. Usually, the monk, who will celebrate his fiftieth year of monastic profession this summer, offers me the white of the egg. “It’s not good for her. No nutritional value.”


Video: First Profession of a Benedictine Monk

"Accept me Lord as you have promised so that I may live and let me not be put to shame in my hope"
Psalm 31:17

In the Benedictine monastery of Saint Joseph in Saint Benedict Louisiana, monks of the Swiss-American Congregation pledge their first monastic vows in the presence of the abbot, their fellow monastic brothers, and the community gathered in the Abbey Church. 

When a monk takes his first vows (or, temporary vows), he has pledged stability, obedience, and conversion to the monastic way of life for up to a three year period, after which he is free to petition for solemn profession, which is a permanent vow.

In case you didn't know:
Benedictine monks take three vows:

Stability - The monk chooses to live out his life with a particular monastic community.

Obedience - The monk pledges obedience to the abbot of the monastery.

Conversion to the Monastic Way of Live - The monk lives his life according to the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Video Source: © 2003 Greig Roselli