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Monday, July 5, 2010

I: A Letter to St. Benedict Abbey


In May 2004, I was mowing the yard, and for some reason a certain clarity and focus of thought occasionally befalls me during those times. This particular time my thoughts went back to that May several years prior when I spent one night in a small Benedictine abbey in Still River, Massachusetts. The experience, though brief, had impacted me greatly and the inspiration came strongly upon me to write them a letter. While mowing the grass that evening, the entire letter from start to finish basically fell into place in my mind. I typed it out shortly thereafter and mailed it off. I provide it here in full:
Dear Brothers, 
I name you brothers indeed. It was around this time 7 years ago, early May 1997, after a disappointing sojourn in Maine, after finding the world large and lonely, and fiercely frightening, I found myself ringing the bell at the door of your guesthouse. I was expected, and a young tall monk opened the door smiling. I forget his name, but he was quite welcoming and friendly. He showed me to my room in the guesthouse and invited me to evening prayers, followed by community meal. The simple chanting in the chapel was full of a refreshing devotion and spirit, and it touched me. I was so very far from home in Georgia, and that wasn’t home for me anymore. I knew not where I was going, nor what Christ would have me do, a wanderer, a searcher, but for what I did not know. At least here, when all the world was cold and grey, here was a touch of warmth. And with my head still spinning from the noise of travel, here at last was a place of peace.
I had come to your Abbey almost at random, from thumbing through a United States retreat house guide in anticipation of my moving to New England, I had jotted down a few of the monastaries. Yours was not really on my way, but it was the closest and I had no particular place otherwise to be. I had a hungering need to spend some quiet time in prayer, to maybe finally catch God’s voice after a strange and silent year of dryness and near-disillusionment with Christianity. A spiritual life that was once vibrant and exciting was now a fading memory, the honest assessment of the surrounding darkness was too real to ignore.  
In the cafeteria, I wanted to eat alone, but the monks and other retreatants were very welcoming, with a smile and genuine interest in my company. I found myself at a table with a few monks, I particularly remember a young monk, and his sweet mother who was visiting him. His mother was seated right beside me and was quite friendly, and everyone expressed interest in where I was from and what brought me to the Abbey. Somehow I let it slip that I wasn’t Catholic, but Baptist, and there was a stir and not a few inquisitive looks…What would bring an evangelical Protestant to a Catholic monastery? I had no clear answer. I simply found monasteries spiritually inspiring and nourishing. And my reading of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales, as well as listening to John Michael Talbot’s music had drawn me closer to Christ over the past couple of years, which also drew me to interest in peaceful monastic settings.  
I couldn’t exactly explain my interest in Catholic spirituality from a Protestant standpoint, but I could explain why I wasn’t Catholic, and so I did to these strangers at my table, and forgot my aching longing for awhile, amidst firing off tired questions about calling priests Father, and praying to Mary like she were a goddess. Looking back I was probably quite disrespectful, the spiritually dry Protestant attempting to put on a good show for the deluded Catholics. But everyone was very respectful to me, ever cordial, ever friendly, and had calm well thought out answers to my barrage of criticisms. I may have been too free in talking, forgetting almost the setting, and I may have frustrated the young monk with my persistence. But afterwards, his kind mother came up to me and handed me a book she had just purchased for me at the Abbey bookshop: “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic" [by David Currie]. She said that she would be praying for me, that I would come home to the Catholic Church. I received the book with gratitude, but thought to myself “you can pray all you want, but I will never become Catholic.” Though my Christianity was dismantling, at least that was one thing I was sure of.
That night, in the silence, wandering out of my room into dark halls, I happened upon a small chapel-room, with a simple altar. Kneeling there in the dimness, looking up at the crucifix on the wall – curious thing for a Protestant – but there He was, and there I was. My mouth uttered no prayers; crouching there in silence was all I could do, and that was enough. The resounding silence, the encroaching darkness, the life without direction, it was like God was looking at me writhing, and doing and saying nothing to help.

I went back to my room and slept without dreaming, awoke early for a quick breakfast, and then I was off. I often wish now that I had stayed longer, but I was restless then, and hurried on to visit Niagara Falls, and beyond that I knew not where I would go. It’s a strange feeling to be 1000 miles from anywhere familiar, with all one’s possessions in tow. But I did eventually become settled somewhere, in Louisville, Kentucky, and that book I was given remained on my shelf unread, nestled between John of the Cross and Tolkien, for over a year.
But through many a longing and searching, through many paths and wanderings, through an absolute fevered desperation to draw closer to God, I stumbled into a Catholic Church one Sunday for Mass, and sensed the beginning of a quenching of a long-suffered thirst. And recalling that book on my shelf, given by a kind woman back in Still River, I began reading. Some of it made a lot of sense, some made me scoff, but all of it made me think, and pray, and cry, and think some more. And on the second reading, together with other studying and praying, a tremendous miracle took place, for nothing else could explain the instant melting of many, many barriers and long held misconceptions about the Catholic Faith.  
And so, you know now where this leads: On February, 18th, 1999, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and words cannot express the fire Christ has ignited in me, through His One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, a Treasure of Treasures, and I could go on for pages and pages about the Blessed Eucharist alone, as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Communion of Saints, the Rosary, the Divine Office, the feasts and liturgical cycle of seasons, the rich devotion and love for Our Lord, the depth of spirituality, the vast riches of 2000 years of Christ’s Church on earth! – new vistas and vast oceans of boundless and unspeakable treasures open up before my eyes, and the clear and brilliant light of Truth, O Glorious Truth, unmuddled, unchanging, shining brightly in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, in the Bride and Body of Christ dispersed yet One throughout the whole earth! Such are my thoughts now when I contemplate the Church. I knew Christ before, yes, but the crumbs and morsels of Him I tasted and cherished before, are now laid out in fullness before me upon the richest and most glorious Banquet Table!

I’ll stop now, but I simply wanted to write you to thank you at long last for your hospitality and patience with that poor wanderer seven years ago, and also to pass on my thanks to that monk’s mother, whose kind and thoughtful gift was used by God more than she knows. The dawning of God’s light before us often throws new light on the paths behind, and we see at times how God’s hidden hand was with us when we least knew it. He uses many threads in weaving the rich tapestries of our lives, and he certainly used you all and your peaceful little abbey. May God continue to bless and make fruitful your important ministry and witness in the Church and in the entire world.
I had not read this letter in several years, but reading through it again I felt motivated to compose a fuller account of my journey to the Catholic Church. So many seasons have passed through this land of my life that the tracks have faded, and it is difficult to point them out when asked what had led me this way. There is certainly a tale worth telling, as in all conversion stories, and there is much drama involved, as well as many twists and surprises, and there is also not a lack of a good deal of sorrow. But all leads to Joy, and Truth, and so the end is worth all trials encountered and crosses borne along the way.

Several weeks after mailing this letter to St. Benedict Abbey, I received a return correspondence. The monks had appreciated my letter, and had actually given it the privilege of being read aloud at their community evening meal. Some of the monks indeed remembered my visit, and looked forward to me returning one day. The young monk I mentioned had moved on, but I heard from him later as well. He corrected my memory that the woman who gave me the book was not his mother, although she was there as well, but was instead was a frequent visitor to the abbey who made it a habit of giving strangers such as myself the same sort of kindnesses as she showed me. He did mention that he had written my name in the front of his Bible to remind him to pray for me, as he sensed my searching spirit. He said that he had prayed daily for me by name since our meeting 7 years prior. Of course he was pleased to hear of my coming home to the Catholic Church, and how perhaps his prayers played a role. I myself am eternally grateful.

St. Benedict Abbey can be contacted at:

St. Benedict Abbey
252 Still River Rd.
P.O. Box 67
Still River, MA 01467
http://www.abbey.org/

Continue to Part 2 of My Conversion Story: "The Rapture that Never Happened"

3 comments:

Barb Schoeneberger said...

Still River is a great abbey. Christ led you there. I am struck once again as in so many of my own experiences, that He is so infinitely patient with us and our stubbornness. After reading your letter I must say that you were already half Catholic by the time you hit the monastery door.

Anonymous said...

As a Catholic Christian (born and raised), who married into a family of non-denominational Christians on one side and Catholics on the other,I am thrilled to begin reading your blog. You just cannot imagine how happy I am to have found it from Scott's newsletter.

I am eagerly going to go through the others.

Thank you, and welcome to the family. :)

Missy

The Catholic Sojourner said...

Thanks Missy - happy reading

I understand the intra-family struggles of Protestant/Catholic tension - my prayers are with you and your family.

I hope to hear from you again
God bless--
---todd