Beginning the Age of Monks (continued)

Published in: 19. The School of Anonymity

(See part 1 in AB No. 18 “Phases of Craft”)


The magazine continues its effort to acquaint readers with the current state of the formation of an American Benedictine monastery, recently elevated to the status of an abbey, whose goal has been and remains to “create a monastery to last a thousand years.”  Having raised the first structures of their compound in predominantly rural Cherokee County, Oklahoma, not far from “Lost City,” the monks are beginning their second decade here with an unchanged commitment to making the monastery and their life in it as real and solid as their faith.  They glean a primary support from the ancient rule and the axis of its Benedictine motto:  Ora et Labora (prayer and work).


Encountering a monastery poses a special challenge.  It can’t be understood at first glance.  It encompasses layers of spiritual content, a rule, a system of human practices, attitudes and roles supplying the groundwork not only for a given individual institution, but for all foundations of its order as a whole.  From the moment of its conception, each monastery exists in a rich, vast context.  For America, part of monasteries’ appeal lies in their buttressing of spiritual reflection with powerful historical and philosophical matter, given acknowledgement less than frequently on the country’s common contemporary scale of reference.

Although Protestant-based churches are seen as dominant among Christian denominations in North America, Catholicism has its own historical roots here.  Among well-known examples, one might name the evangelizing work of the French Jesuits who found their way to America, or the relative tolerance toward Catholics under the laws of the Pennsylvania colony.  In California, long the property of Spain, the chain of historical Catholic missions remains part of the state’s available traditions.  Even today, however, with a significant number of believing Catholics in the country, echoes linger from the colonial-era hostility toward Catholicism, with its regard for the authority of Rome.  The American idea of revolutionary democracy shares more with the precedent of “subjective rebellion” along Protestant lines.  This mindset reveals itself in the historical unfolding of America’s religious dynamics.

The Clear Creek community doesn’t seek conformity with prevailing views.  The French abbey of Fontgombault, through whose support Clear Creek was founded, takes pride in having “never disobeyed Rome.”  Commenting on the American monastery’s elevation to the status of an abbey, American-born Philip Anderson, who has become Clear Creek’s abbot, openly acknowledges, “Our spiritual roots are in France.”  In France, of course, religious life and monastic orders reflect centuries of the Roman church’s influence.  European beginnings distinguish the American community of Clear Creek, which embraces continuity with hierarchies superseding geopolitical borders, kinship with times far beyond the date of the monastery’s emergence.

The critical link for this continuity in the Benedictine order is manifested in the principles established by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, which saw his founding of the great abbey of Monte Cassino and the penning of a written version of his classic rule for monasteries.  Although the original abbey succumbed to assault and fell in a renewed wave of barbarism, each new Benedictine monastery rises from the indestructible plan of the same changeless rule.  Monte Cassino itself, destroyed and rebuilt time and again over its long history, made its most recent return to life in the aftermath of bombing carried out by American armed forces in Italy in 1944.

A host of monasteries have repeatedly been subjected to attack, obliteration, all manners of persecution, starting with the early Christian period and including recent European history.  This fact makes for a still deeper awareness of the resilience and vitality of what they stand on, time after time newly affirmed.  Oklahoma-based Clear Creek, like its French patron Fontgombault, belongs to the congregation of the French abbey of Solesmes, in turn a survivor of turmoil, oppression, wartime pillaging, dissolution in the violence of revolution, when the order itself was destroyed, seemingly irreversibly, and many years of exile at the beginning of the twentieth century — every cycle of hostility toward the given form of religious practice or religion as a whole.  At present, the abbey of Solesmes, which recently observed its thousand-year jubilee, is held in high esteem throughout the world, in part for its devotion to a mission of restoring the theory and practice of Gregorian chant.  Here among those who traveled to the jubilee celebrations was brother Philip Anderson, the abbot of a new Benedictine monastery for America — a monastery that aims, taking its example from France’s models, to exist for a thousand years.

It’s impossible to predict what twists of fate in new ages the barely established abbey of Clear Creek may have to face, like its venerable predecessors in the same spiritual archipelago.  It could be that time will prove the least of its obstacles.  The settlement has already endured much in its first years, and the monks must display tremendous inner strength and perseverance to move farther along their chosen way of prayer and work.  Physical labor combined with Oklahoma’s summer heat and intense humidity led to serious exhaustion for some of the brothers.  The abbot gave permission to “change to white habits during the hottest season,” and also allowed a brief siesta after the noon meal.  These measures can scarcely be called utilitarian.  They rather show a benevolent humility, the preservation of human fortitude while acknowledging the power of nature.  Always guided by the rule and the pursuit of an ideal of self-sufficiency, the abbey adapts, remaining true to its principles.

Some may find images of monastic life at Clear Creek additionally intriguing in their display of attributes of modernity.  A monk on a tractor or bulldozer is a fairly regular phenomenon here.  But the type of tool or machine for labor is less important than the very rhythm of the juxtaposed scenes of work and prayer.  “We should all live this way,” it’s said of Clear Creek’s monks.  “Not everyone has to become a monk, but we need monks as an example.”

Methods in the monastic cosmos may change, but truth itself is permanent.  For those committed to the vision that Clear Creek’s monks represent, the ecclesiastical canon also contains aesthetic truths intertwined with its spiritual content.  The abbey endeavors to embody them in its practice and to articulate them for the laity, concurrently creating a model for clergy who have adopted other styles of administering the faith.  Abbey-led “Gregorian Chant Weekends” initiate guests into the particulars of the restored traditional musical form.  Officially dismissed by the Catholic church in America for nearly a half-century, chant nonetheless continued to attract loyalists and in recent times has experienced an active renaissance.  Clear Creek also serves as a key source for reinstating the usage of older liturgical texts which had risked total obscurity in the contemporary context.  The liturgy lived by the Clear Creek monks reflects reverence for inherited nuances of worship.

Yet the preservation of cultural standards is impossible without their renewal.  For this reason, the construction of the abbey’s main church required the involvement of a sculptor to design the decorative elements for its portal — stone capitals embellished with Biblical scenes moving from the Fall to the Annunciation (the abbey is dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation).  Andrew Smith, who took on this work, served in the past as an apprentice to the court sculptor of Queen Elizabeth of England, before going on to complete his studies at the Florence Academy of Art.  He represents a classical direction in art, and while living in America has crafted likenesses of a series of Europe’s and America’s classic authors of literature and music.  The architect who created the design for the Clear Creek monastery complex, a professor at the prestigious University of Notre Dame in Indiana, tasked himself here with differentiating contemporary fidelity to the Cistercian style from the preceding manner of its interpretation in the modernist designs of Le Corbusier.

And yet nothing expresses the essence of what is transpiring at Clear Creek better than the monks themselves.  All they do, the whole reality they are a part of, represents the outward manifestation of inner work.  The monastic discipline removes all contradiction between contemplation and action.

Clear Creek’s practice casts doubt on the view that a religious orientation detracts from the life of the mind, from intellectual polish.  Here a significant contingent of monks received schooling at Thomas Aquinas College, noted for its classical educational methodology, a rarity in America.  Educational progress among monks at the abbey may also lead to coursework for increased qualifications through institutions far beyond its boundaries.

Some may be surprised by the monks’ efforts, acknowledges Anderson, “to try to build … something that will last a thousand years — amid the shifting sands of multiculturalism, not mention the moral and spiritual quagmire … around us…  [W]e consider both the threats that loom ever greater over our decadent Western society and the current of faith and generosity that is clearly present in our younger generations, ready to meet the challenge … in favor of what counts most.”

Once Benedictine monasteries gave medieval Europe its first libraries, schools and universities.  Today’s American abbot shares some of their thoughts:  “Perhaps some day we will even have a Doctor in Theology!”

Clear Creek aims for engagement in a theological dialogue that spans the ages, shaped by powerful Christian thinkers similarly influenced by prayer and dialectic.  A core group of the monastery’s founders arrived at their calling with the guidance of an inspired intellectual, John Senior, who saw his study of Thomas Aquinas as a turning point in his life.  For his part, Thomas Aquinas carried Benedict’s imprint beginning from childhood, given his rearing and early education at Monte Cassino, the main child of the earlier saint.

High ideals demand vigilance.  And edification, spiritual elevation, may continue even at mealtimes — the rule of Benedict provides for this as well.  The master’s instructions still apply in contemporary monastic life, affirms Clear Creek’s abbot:  “We follow all of that quite literally, even today.”


From the Rule of St. Benedict

6th century (fragment)

  1. On the Weekly Reader

The meals of the brethren should not be without reading.  Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book; but there should be a reader for the whole week, entering that office on Sunday.  Let this incoming reader, after Mass and Communion, ask all to pray for him that God may keep him from the spirit of pride.  And let him intone the following verse, which shall be said three times by all in the oratory:  “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”  Then, having received a blessing, let him enter on the reading.

And let absolute silence be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard nor any voice except the reader’s.  As to the things they need while they eat and drink, let the brethren pass them to one another so that no one need ask for anything.  If anything is needed, however, let it be asked for by means of some audible sign rather than by speech.  Nor shall anyone at table presume to ask questions about the reading or anything else, lest that give occasion for talking; except that the Superior may perhaps wish to say something briefly for the purpose of edification.

The brother who is reader for the week shall take a little ablution before he begins to read, on account of the Holy Communion and lest perhaps the fast be hard for him to bear.  He shall take his meal afterwards with the kitchen and table servers of the week.

The brethren are not to read or chant in order, but only those who edify their hearers.


From Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, translated from the Latin by Leonard J. Doyle OblSB, of Saint John’s Abbey, (© Copyright 1948, 2001, by the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, MN 56321)

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