Tag Archives: Monasticism

St. Benedict’s in the Bronx: My “Urban Monastery”

There is lots of activity here around my new home in the southeast Bronx. A century ago, one would have found farmland and manors on this little peninsula of Throggs Neck, but those have long since been replaced with tightly packed bungalows and the odd apartment building. Half a century ago, no highway came close to here, but now it is framed by four, two of which lead to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges to Long Island. On top of that, we are squarely situated right underneath the flight path to the airport, so if you are ever flying into LaGuardia, be sure to look out the window and wave as you descend, because chances are I will see your plane – I certainly will be hearing it!

A shot of my new home from the western side of I-95.
A shot of St. Benedict’s from the western side of I-95.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of this corner of New York City, my new home stands on an island in the midst of interstates. St. Benedict’s Catholic Church was built by the Benedictine order several decades ago, and just as their monasteries overlook river valleys in quieter parts of the world, this one-time monastic home overlooks I-95. There are no longer monks living here (the Archdiocese of New York took it over for the Benedictines about 30 years ago), but I like to think of this piece of property as my own “urban monastery.” Just as monks used to work and pray here, so am I settling into a simple and peaceful routine of ora et labora.

A Typical Day

My day begins early: I like to wake up in time to do an hour of personal prayer before daily mass at 6:45 am, which is well attended by folks on their way to work. Although it is short, it is a brief moment of communion and prayer as we all prepare to take on our respective days. After being strengthened by the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we all disperse into the City, ready to take on the world.

After mass, I have breakfast in the rectory, during which I read the Wall Street Journal and catch up on the news. Following breakfast, I battle my way north on the Hutchison Parkway to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. There is usually always some traffic congestion, so I have to give myself 45 minutes in order to make it on time for moral theology class.

After class, I study for an hour or two in Archbishop Corrigan Memorial Library before going to the refectory for lunch. Following lunch, I hit the road again to get back to the parish where I spend the afternoon working on projects, writing, and answering e-mails.

The three priests of the parish and I usually have dinner together around 6 pm. After dinner, I work a little longer before praying the rosary and vespers. Following vespers, I spend about and hour reading and studying before going to bed between 9:30 and 10:00 pm.

Being Happy with a Simple Life

While I am certainly taking advantage of being in the city to re-connect with friends, I am learning to love the normal days in my “urban monastery” as much as the days when I am out and about. My time in a religious order has helped me to appreciate a peaceful rhythm of life. Routine and stability are blessings since they free us from distractions and make our hearts more attentive to the promptings and inspirations of the Spirit.

This is one of the reasons why I have decided to keep things simple. As a writer, and as someone preparing to be a spiritual father and a leader of souls, I feel that I need to keep unnecessary noise out of my life. For that reason, I have decided not to play video games, and to only watch a little TV on the weekend. These things are not bad in themselves, I have found that I need to limit my information input. Less unnecessary noise frees me to focus on “the things above” and ponder what God wants me do, say, and write.

A Thought for the Week

We are not all called to be monks, but as Christians, we are called to be the light of the world. To truly shine forth, we need to set aside time to be quiet and let God shine on us. According to your personality and situation in life, try to set aside one or two quiet evenings. (Sunday night is always a good choice.) Instead of watching TV, pour yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and read a book. If you are the more active type of person, find a quiet project that you can do: put together a puzzle or play an instrument. Whatever the case, the important thing is to create a moment when you can relax and be at peace. These are the moments when God speaks.

Epic Art: A Marvelous Fresco of an Amazing Monk

During my time in the guesthouse of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia, I was invited by the abbot to join the monks for their daily hour of conversation. After vespers, I was escorted to their common room, and on the way I caught sight of a magnificent fresco on the other side of the cloister. I was so taken by it, I decided that one way or another, I would get a second look.

Fr. Dunstan Massey, O.S.B. with his fresco.
Fr. Dunstan Massey, O.S.B. with his fresco.

As soon as I could the following day, I went back to the fresco to study it more closely. It was truly a beautiful work. The style was was surrealist and clearly influenced by Salvador Dalí, but it was nevertheless a very original work charged with rich symbolism and profound meaning.

It is an iconic portrayal of St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism. He stands as a patriarchal figure, with arms outstretched in a gesture of praise that brings our eyes heavenward, just as his entire life, dedicated to divine contemplation and worship, was a continual invitation to his fellow man to raise their hearts and minds to God.

Directly below him is a younger version of himself struggling withIMG_1379 (2) temptation depicted as a serpent-headed vine of thorns. He arises from the spiritual battle as a new man, freed from the slavery of evil and touching the Eucharistic host from which he drew his strength.

The barren landscape behind St. Benedict evokes the desert where hermits have gone for centuries to flee the world and seek closer communion with God. In the wilderness, living with the daily possibility of death, the solitary man of God disciplined himself to always seek the things above.

IMG_1379St. Benedict embraced this austere lifestyle when he was but a boy, leaving the chaos of Rome to live in a cave in the Apennine Mountains. He chose a place that has come to be known as Subiaco, and the beginning of his hermetic life is symbolized on the right side of the painting where we see a cliff labeled “Sub Lacum” (the Latin from which “Subiaco” is derived). A spring of water flows down its side in remembrance of the one that sprang forth miraculously after he spent a night in vigil.

On the left side of the fresco, we see Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict founded his most important monasteryIMG_1379.  In the Roman ruins of Casinum, St. Benedict began a monastic movement that would help preserve the best of Western culture through the dark centuries that followed the fall of the Empire.

The entire fresco, which was done around the fifteenth centenary of St. Benedict’s birth, is a memorial to the huge impact that he had on the shaping of European culture. Fr. Dustan Massey, the creator of the fresco, sums up  the unexpected scope of the Benedictine influence:

Alone in his cave, the young Benedict knew nothing of what he would become – “The Father of Europe”; nothing of those thousands of monasteries springing up in the dark and middle ages. When, some forty years later, he prescribed the reading of books, he could scarcely imagine the numberless scribes copying God’s word, and the wisdom of the ancient world, nor the schools that would arise, or the universities that would grow out of them. Nor is it likely he could have foreseen the succession of choirs in the great Cluniac houses, chanting both day and night the divine praises, to which, in the Rule, he allows nothing to be preferred. As a boy hermit, he knew nothing of the missionary monks sent into alien cultures at the risk of martyrdom, nor of those wayside houses that became hospitable places of refuge for the sick, the poor, and the pilgrims, nor of Abbots in distant lands who became Bishops, builders of cathedrals and counselors of Kings. 

IMG_1379 (1)

This epic fresco invites us to contemplate the incredible impact that one individual can have on future generations. When one sincerely seeks God above all else, the range of his influence can exceed the wildest expectations.

To learn more about Fr. Dustan Massey and his art, click here.

Ora et Labora: Finding Peace at a Benedictine Monastery

Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia.
Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to do a retreat at a Benedictine monastery on a hill with a stunning view of the Fraser River Valley in southern British Columbia. There are fifty monks currently in residence; some of them are older and some of them are younger, but they all live the way Benedictines have been living for centuries, following the age-old dictum of their order: ora et labora (“pray and work”). Five times a day, their bell tolls and they all silently make their way to the chapel where they chant the Psalms, joining their voices to the eternal praises of the angels in Heaven.

When they are not praying in community, they are fulfilling their duties in running their monastery. Some work the farm and care for their beef cattle, while others run the major and minor seminaries that are attached to the abbey. Some work in the kitchen, others in maintenance, and others in the sacristy. Some of the monks are expert scholars and one is even a renowned artist, but all follow the same schedule and share equally in the community’s labors.

A view of the Fraser River Valley from the Abbey.
A view of the Fraser River Valley looking east from the abbey.

The life of a monk is one that is lived on the threshold of Heaven and Earth. When he is praying, the monk directs his attention entirely to God and the things of above; when he is working, he remains in communion with God, but he turns his attention to the Earth and seeks to sanctify and cultivate it by the work of his hands, ordering it in accordance with God’s Will. The Benedictine monk has no worldly ambitions; rather, he lives a simple and content life on a hill-top monastery, cultivating and sanctifying the small corner of the world to which God has called him.

An Invaluable Lesson

When I was at the abbey, I experienced the monks’ life, and I loved it. I loved the soft mellow cadence of their chant and the steady rhythm of their daily schedule. I loved the simplicity of their lifestyle and the spiritual freedom that it engenders. I relished my time with them, realizing that before long I would be back in New York City, far away from their haven of peace and quiet. The abbey was my Rivendell, a final resting place before going on to face new and unknown challenges.

The monastery chapel during vespers.
The abbey chapel during vespers.

I now find myself in the northeast Bronx, far away from the tranquility of southern British Columbia. Instead of chirping birds and tolling bells, my daily background noise is the never-ending drone of traffic on I-95 and the roaring of jets landing at LaGuardia. However, despite my new surroundings, which may not seem conducive to serenity, the peace that I found at the abbey still remains with me thanks to an idea that came to me while I was there: no matter where you find yourself, you can always live on the threshold between Heaven and Earth. You can always live in God’s presence, because doing so is part of being Christian.

I may not be living in a Benedictine hill-top monastery (although my parish is named after St. Benedict!), but God has given me my own corner of the world in which he is calling me to help sanctify with my prayer and work. I may not be chanting the Psalms daily in community, but I will be raising my heart and mind to God every time I attend mass or privately pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I may not be tilling the soil or engaging in other forms of monastic manual labor, but I nevertheless will be  working daily in my new parish assignment to bring our neighborhood closer to God. Whether I am teaching religious education, visiting shut-ins, or studying Scripture, I will be doing my small part to sanctify this small corner of  New York City where God has called me to live this upcoming year.

A Lesson for Us All

The lesson I learned with the monks is something we can all benefitimage from: peace comes when we accept our Christian calling to live on the threshold of Heaven and Earth. Peace comes when, instead of being consumed by worldly ambitions, we live with eyes set on Heaven and seek to sanctify our respective corners of the world with our daily work and prayer. 

Your corner of the world is the neighborhood where you live, the job you have, and the family you are in. You sanctify your corner of the world by praying for the people God has put with you and working to bring them closer to God through the charity and responsibility with which you carry out your duties.

Very few of us are called to be monks, but we are all called to peace, a peace that comes through lives that are full of God-centered work and silent prayer: ora et labora. 

Made for More

National-Geographic-Channel-Captures-Dodge-Appeal-of-Living-off-GridIn the Hoh rain forest on the Olympic peninsula of Washington State, there lives a man by the name of Mick Dodge. This Washington native, whose great-grandparents settled the terrain he now inhabits, took off his shoes twenty-five years ago, left the modern world, and walked into the wilderness. When asked how he manages to live the way he does, he gives a characteristically quirky response:

“My family has perfected the art of dodging civilizations for hundreds of years. All I have to do is follow my feet.”

Leaving Everything Behind

After watching a show about him on the National Geographic Channel, I found myself very intrigued by this forest dweller. I was fascinated by the lifestyle that he had embraced: he lives in a tree, doesn’t wear shoes, and brushes his teeth with a pine-cone. Talk about simplifying your life!

The episode I watched showed him looking for meat after going days without any protein. It was a lot of fun to watch how resourcefully he solved his problem, never losing his sense of humor nor his positive outlook despite failed fishing attempts and other setbacks. “Following his feet” (and tiding himself over with some squirmy grubs) he went to a roadside where he stashed some road kill and headed to the seashore. There, he used the dead meat as bait to catch some crabs, from which he made a hearty meal.

Learning about him, I was impressed as much by his austerity as I was by his personality.  One might think that someone with a lifestyle like his, cut off from civilization, would be somewhat of a curmudgeon – reclusive and suspicious. However, Mick is anything but that. His unbeatable optimism and idiosyncratic sense of humor make him seem like someone whom I would love to get to know.

Leaving Everything Behind for God

Mick’s hermetic lifestyle is nothing new. Although it may look like aescobar_1505800c novelty, it really is nothing more than a secular version of an ancient religious tradition. For centuries, Christians have been voluntarily renouncing the world to live in the wilderness. St. Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356 AD – also known as the Father of Monasticism) was one of the first to leave everything and go into the desert to seek greater closeness to God. His life and intense ascetic practices became legendary, inspiring St. Athanasius to write The Life of Saint Anthony the Great, which in turn inspired a religious movement that eventually developed into great Christian monastic orders such as the Benedictines, Augustinians, and Trappists, all of which continue to this day.

Why is it that over the course of thousands of years, people have so radically changed their lives to live as hermits and monks? What is it that moves men and women to give up the comforts of human civilization? Even today, in a world that offers the possibility of instantaneous satisfaction of almost every human desire, people still leave it all behind: why?

“My heart is restless, Lord, until it rests in Thee.” – St. Augustine  

Imago DeiI think that it has something to do with human nature itself. We are such that we will never be fully satisfied by things: and this is something that makes us profoundly different from animals. My family back home has a pretty Welsh Corgi named Lucy. I have gotten to know her well and enjoy watching her antics. Lucy does not need much to be fully satisfied: with food, water, exercise, and a good belly rub, she is as happy as can be.

However, experience and history show us that it is not the same for humans: we are always striving for more, looking for something else. Material things are not enough to make us happy and satisfied: we seek and long for spiritual fulfillment. Every human heart has a deep longing, one that can only be satisfied by knowing that one is loved infinitely.

You are Made for God

Every person is capax Dei, “capable of God”: we were made for Him and have the capacity to know and love Him, even if we do not realize it.

This is why people leave the comforts of the modern world; and this is why more and more men and women are reacting against noisy and hyper-consumerist Western culture in search of a simpler and more meaningful life. That small voice that has driven men to seek the solitude of the wilderness for millennia still speaks deep down in the hearts of each one of us.

backgroundIt is voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush; it is the whisper that overwhelmed Elijah; it is the call that challenged the Apostles. It speaks to each one of us, asking us to leave the world to one degree or another. In a myriad of ways, each one as unique as the person to whom it is directed, the voice continues to say:

I AM WHO AM…Come, follow me.