Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Family tradition carries on in Mount Michael’s homemade jams and jellies

If you see a light burning in the kitchen at Mount Michael at 3 a.m., most likely it is Father John hard at work, making jams and jellies.
The modern, commercial kitchen gives him all the equipment and the space he needs to create tasty concoctions of jams and jellies, like zucchini-peach, chokecherry, grape, apple butter and even jalapeño. Made mainly from produce homegrown at Mount Michael, the jams and jellies are just one way Father John Hagemann. O.S.B., helps raise money for the school and the abbey.
Both are close to his heart. He came to Mount Michael in 1963 at the age of 14. He taught English and theology full-time for about 30 years, along with directing musicals and the school choir. He continues to teach all the seniors on a part-time basis while serving as the groundskeeper for Mount Michael’s extensive property. Father John is also the monastic choirmaster, organizing music for the liturgy in the chapel.
In his seniors’ Social Justice and Peace class, which focuses on environmental issues, Father John has the students participate in their immediate environment, the campus of Mount Michael. They help trim trees and pitch in to prepare for the annual Fall Festival. The jams and jellies he makes are sold at the festival and the Farmers Market, and Father John makes them throughout the year from the juices and berries he has carefully frozen. Those visiting the Guest House for luncheons are able to purchase the jellies by the jar or the case, and all the flavors are available for people to purchase at the Development Office for holiday gifts.
Making jam has been a tradition in many monasteries over the years, but Father John is following a family tradition. For a long time, his mother and his sister made jams for Mount Michael’s Fall Festival and the Farmers Market, but his mother passed and his sister moved, so he decided to carry on the tradition. His cousin, Paul Dohmen, who lives in Columbus, continues to supply him with wild chokecherries that grow along the canal there, chemical-free.
Another family tradition Father John follows is baking seasonal pies for Mount Michael’s Farmers Market. Rhubarb custard was his dad’s favorite, and one he loves to make now.
“My mom could always make him happy with one of those pies,” Father John said.
He also makes pumpkin bread from the leftover pumpkins from the Mount Michael Fall Festival. Visitors enjoy it, as well as the students, who are treated to it at lunchtime now and then.
The Festival and Farmers Market are over for the season, but the jams and jellies, as well as some homemade pickles, are available for purchase now.
“People love the rhubarb-strawberry,” Father John said. “It’s a real seller.”
The jalapeño jelly is made from jalapeños grown for the Fall Festival. At the festival the jalapeños are stuffed with cheese and grilled. The leftover jalapeños are processed and frozen for the jelly, which can be mixed with cream cheese, for instance, and served on crackers or bread.
Father John’s apple butter and applesauce are made from the red and yellow Delicious apples grown in Mount Michael’s own orchard. The red apples give the applesauce a natural pink color.
The jams and jellies are reasonably priced, and the sales benefit the school and the abbey. To purchase any of the homemade items, visit Mount Michael’s Development office, 22520 Mount Michael Road, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For pumpkin bread, call the office a few days ahead at 253-0950. Other gift items are available in the Guest House and at Journey’s End Farm located on Mt. Michael’s campus.

by Mary Lou Rodgers
Reprinted with permission from the Douglas County Post-Gazette

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Listening --- Tomatoes --- A Bountiful Crop

Anyone who has just skimmed Benedictine Spirituality knows that listening is a very important tenet in living Benedictine Spirituality. The very fist word of the Rule of Benedict is the word: Listen. But throughout the whole of the Rule, there is an emphasis on listening and listening to each other. For example, when the monks are summoned for counsel, the Rule explicitly says that even the youngest members must be given a chance to speak, for they might have thoughts and suggestions on a matter that is even more worthwhile than the thoughts and suggestions of “seasoned” monks.

This past summer provided me with a great example of listening. In relating this experience, perhaps it could be of value to others as well.

In the summer of 2002, a young man from Lithuania spent some time with us here at Mount Michael, discerning a vocation. Although he discovered his calling was not a monastic one, he did value his experience, and would probably repeat it. He also contributed to us here at Mount Michael. His name is Tomas Butvilas.

Tomas often helped me in the garden. He is quite knowledgeable about growing vegetables and fruit trees, but particularly knowledgeable in regard to tomatoes. Actually one summer of his life, during his college days, Tomas worked in a huge green house growing tomatoes in Norway—hydroponic tomatoes.

When Tomas first saw my tomato plants and how I cared for them, he laughed! He told me I was growing bushes, not tomato vines. Then he proceeded to tell me I needed to be pruning my plants, taking off the extra branches and leaves.

I had heard of such a method before, particularly pruning all the sucker branches, but Tomas wanted me to strip the plant almost totally. I really did NOT want to listen to him, let alone DO what he was telling me to do.

As the years have passed since Tomas has been here, I have thought about this way of growing tomatoes. I kept hearing Tomas’ words about my plants being bushes and not vines. I kept thinking that there must be something to this method, especially if there was a way to control the amount of leaves on a plant. It made sense that the plant would send its energy to the fruit and not to all that foliage that “looks” so nice. So I decided to do more research and went to the internet to find more. And did I ever find more.

I clicked on to a site called Joyful Tomatoes. Eventually, I found a book by Jacper Postawski. This book told me all I needed to know about this method. So I went about grooming my tomato plants. At one point my youngest brother, Alan, who helps me at times in the garden chided me for spending too much time working on the tomato plants.

And yes the rest is history, I did groom my tomatoes this past summer. I did have a great crop. We ate tomatoes all summer long. I gave lots of tomatoes to people. We sold a lot of tomatoes at the Farmer’s Market. We have lots in the freezer and in jars—juice, salsa, whole tomatoes, etc…

So what is the point? The point is that it is good to listen to others, even if you think their ideas or suggestions are pretty wacky and crazy. Truly, Benedictines, particularly need to be attuned to listening to one another and perhaps even applying what is heard. The Abbot needs to listen to his monks. The monks need to listen to their abbot. And if we truly follow Benedictine Spirituality then all those connected to a Benedictine Community should be listening to one another. Great possibilities and accomplishments are possible if we listen to one another and are willing to follow advice.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Iris—A Poor Man’s Orchid

Noticing an arrangement of irises in the Abbey recreation room, one of my confreres commented about how irises were quite popular in the depression years, when people could not spend much money on flowers. He explained that irises were actually called a poor man’s orchid.

Every since I heard this little comment, I have thought about how appropriate that was in regard to what we have been trying to do here at Mount Michael for the past several years. And that would be the endeavor of the Journey’s End barn, Farmer’s and Flea Markets.

Rather than trucking everything away in a dumpster (old furniture or items that we no longer needed), we try to take things to the barn and recycle them in the Flea Market.
For example, when we took down the Priory Building that housed us for so many years, we saved much of the furniture, especially chest-of-drawers and put them in the Flea Market. And of course, many people notice that we do such things and give us items that they no longer need as well. We also had a rather extensive record collection, which of course has become obsolete. But rather than throwing it away, we put it in the Flea Market.

In the hayloft of the barn, one can find a secret garden of sorts. Over the years I have dried lots of flowers and grasses from the garden. And each year I add to the collection of flowers in this secret garden. Br. Jerome has helped with his artistic ability in making some unique arrangements and continuing the principle of making something from nothing so to speak.

The garden also produces much that can be used for the Farmer’s Market. Two items that are quite popular are rhubarb/strawberry jam and kosher dill pickles. Although the cucumbers are not ready yet, the rhubarb is producing in abundance and jellies and jams are being made for the Farmer’s Market.

I have not discovered how to dry the poor man’s orchid (the iris) yet, but we are certainly trying to make use of some of the items and products we have to help the cause of Mount Michael and our mission.

This is also a bit of explanation of how my time has been spent the last few weeks and will continue to occupy me in the coming growing season of the summer and fall of 2009.

I also thought that I would include an appeal letter that has gone out to the public over the past several years. Perhaps there might be someone out there who might be interested in helping us at Mount Michael produce orchids for poor people. Iris Photos

Dear Friends of Mount Michael.

Again we turn another cycle of life and have come to another growing season at Mount Michael. Indeed, it is nice to hear that people appreciate the effort and time that we put into trying to make the grounds of Mount Michael a pleasant and peaceful place. Nonetheless, creating a pleasant and peaceful place does not just happen. It does take energy and help, even financial help. And the same is true of growth in monastic life. It, too, takes energy, time and help – even financial help.

If you have followed the monastic website of late, you will find that the two Mount Michael monks (Br. Gregory Congote & Br. August Schafer) who are studying theology at St. John’s Abbey at Collegeville, Minnesota, are doing quite well. Both have shown growth in their education and are progressing on the road to priestly ordination. We are also happy to mention in this growing season letter that we have a new postulant, Chris Moses. He will be entering the novitiate during this growing season. Br. Benedict Mary also made his final vows in late May. So we have another monk who joins the ranks of permanent membership of Mount Michael. Your continued help in this matter assures us that we can give quality training and education to monks of Mount Michael and provide a pleasant and peaceful place for new members.

Most of you are probably aware that Mount Michael was hit rather hard by the storm of June 27th of last growing season. It caused damage to not only the roof of the abbey building, but also caused lots of damage to lots of trees. We even lost huge fir trees. We have had to have some professional trimming done because of the lack of equipment or man power to clean the mess and care for the trees. And we are always losing Scotch Pines to the Scotch Pine Disease. It is costly to remove these trees. Your help in this matter helps us to keep the grounds pleasant and peaceful.

Lastly, we do continue to recycle at the Journey’s End Farm. The Flea and Farmer’s Market will continue in the barn that we continue to renovate. It still needs more work and we would also like to build an addition to it on the south side. Continually, we get people who are willing to donate to our cause of “fleas” and recycling. Your help in this regard only helps us to continue to provide a pleasant and peaceful place to do this.

Please also realize that you help us by your prayers. We appreciate all that you do for us!

God’s blessings to you always,

Fr. John Hagemann OSB—Gardener and Grounds Keeper/Vocation Director

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Memories of My Holy Week at Mount Michael -- Tomas Butvilas

Numerous times in the past and still at the given moment I do remember quite clearly those spiritually deep days spent at MM during the Holy Week. Today is a Great and Holy Monday – the beginning of the last week of Lent – the commemoration of the death and resurrection of our Lord the Savior. Thus this week is rather appropriate for doing some retreat and for remembering things that were significant in our lives and perhaps sometimes even crucial as they could’ve change the directions of our paths. Few times I’ve mentioned to Fr. John that I do have a clear memory on some ceremonial events at MM’s Liturgical service during the Holy Week, especially songs and being my feet washed by Abbot Theodore. Was really an incredible experience. Besides, using this opportunity, I want to greet all Mount Michael Community Members along with the Abbot Michael in front with upcoming Easter joy and Resurrection in all meanings. May this Season happiness do not stop thru the whole year!

Well, as we already began our conversations with Fr. John on various things and sort to speak – miracles of our daily life – we do continue this tradition and here the questions come:

In one of your responses of the last conversation, you mentioned that American Benedictines are quite different than European Benedictines. Can you be more specific about what you mean?

When I did express that phrase I had in mind different traditions that every Benedictine house have, although American Benedictines as well as other religious branches, i.e. Franciscans, Jesuits etc. (by the way, I’m not an expert in that) quite differ from those that are situated here in Europe. This is only my own experience and opinion. These differences can be identified by many characteristics like monks running a boarding school, doing some scientific surveys, belonging to some kind leisure associations etc. Generally speaking – religious people, as I got that picture when I was in the States, are more balancing between their devotion to what they are dedicated to and also their work outside the monasteries. Thus the Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora!” could be expanded a bit and have such ending as “Ora, Labora et Lege!”, i.e. pray, work, and study. This practice is cultivated here in Europe as well, but, as I assume, in much withdrawn way – inside the monastery’s walls.

You did mention, in a specific way, that you were also attracted to the Benedictine house in your country, the French-rooted priory. But then you chose to send time with us here at MM. Why did you choose to spend time at MM and not at the priory there in Lithuania?

There could be few aspects of answering this question. On the one hand European Benedictines have deep historical traditions (e.g. monasteries they live in were built back in 8th or 10th centuries or so) and symbols of that are still alive (Gothic churches, Roman basilicas etc.). This kind of thing is quite attractive to me personally as I used to study history and my favorite period was middle ages. We all know the first Benedictines influence in Charlemagne period and others as well. On the other hand I didn’t choose to spend some time for discernment at French-rooted priory here in Lithuania as the living style (a strict regula) there would’ve been for me unbearable. As Fr. John already noticed, I’m more outgoing person, thus there is a great tradition that Benedictines have – a bit different rules of each house throughout the world that help individuals to pick the right one, which suits both personality and spiritual needs.

Many religious communities are experiencing a lack of vocations these days. As a young person and one who has at least thought about religious life, in your opinion, what are some of the reasons why young people are not choosing this way of life? Do you think the reasons are different in Europe from those in America?

As well known sociologists and anthropologists J. Fiske, De Certeau, R. LeFevre et al. would state that the main obstacles in this day and age for individuals freedom to choose are: i) commercialized economy, ii) labor market and iii) a pop culture. All of this leads us in most cases into the moral virtues devaluation, nihilism, and in some ways – anarchy in owns lives. Many people, because of those very reasons just mentioned above, lose the interest in life and seek joy mainly thru media, commercialism, and exploitation the others. Thus the lack of real vocations into religious life could be affected by those modern world’s characteristics.

You were with us here at MM during Holy Week one year. On occasion you speak of memories that you still have of MM during that week. What are some of those memories and why do you suppose they are still alive in you?

As I’ve already mentioned above, some of the memories are related to music of the Liturgy at MM, and some of them – to events within the Holy Week’s Liturgy, i.e. washing feet etc. These things stay alive because of the very simple reason – the simplicity of MM’s monks and their both truthfulness and being openhearted in their vocation. Every word that has been said during the masses (homilies etc.) was deeply tested in a real life. This could be the next reason – the ability to combine spiritual insights with ones that have been experienced outside the monastery. People want to experience empathy – the feeling when I know that the person who’s talking to me or listens to me knows exactly my mind flow and emotional condition. That was very attractive for me personally and I do believe – for the rest visitors as well.

In the past several years, numerous men have told me about many memories that are still very real of the days when they were here at MM. And even several of them tell me about dreams that have years after being here. What do you make of that?

I suppose, I already answered to this one while answering to the previous one. People like to know that they are important to those who they visit or by whom they are visited. This is the most important rule to make a communication effective. Thus the Benedictines’ (especially the MM’s community) openhearted welcoming is touching and overwhelming. No wondering that people even after ten or twenty yrs. may still long for this homey feeling and mature understanding.


When completing the article entitled, A Benedictine with Franciscan Roots, I ended by saying that I also needed to give some women credit for sustaining my vocation while I was in elementary school. And so I will now give voice to the story of the religious women who were so very important in forming me in a spiritual way and perhaps providing me with the necessary material to form a very pleasant image of God.

While I am old enough to be still a part of the long tradition of education in one-room-school houses of rural Nebraska, that was only one year for me—my kindergarten year.
And although I would have to count that year as a very good one as well, immediately after that I was sent to a new Catholic elementary school in Albion, Nebraska—St. Michael’s.

The parishioners of St. Michael’s were very proud to open the doors of the elementary school when I was a first grader, along with the religious women who would staff the school—the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. It happened the fall of 1955.

In my time there at St. Michael’s, I was blessed to have several religious women teach me, actually three of them. Sr. Adelaide Yeoman, Mathias Eich and Sr. Leonilla Mock.

Sr. Adelaide was the teacher of the first and second graders. I had her for two years of my elementary years. My memory of her is that she was very young and a very pretty woman—from what I could surmise of her looks in a full habit—only her face was exposed for anyone to see.

My memory of this religious woman was kindness, compassion and tenderness. For me she was the prefect person to be teaching young children. She used to select a student’s papers and post them on the bulletin board as examples of good handwriting or simply good work. I remember my papers being selected at times to be posted and it gave me confidence and spurred me on to do even better.

Then when it was time to move on to the next classroom the third and fourth grade classroom, I was introduced to Sr. Mathias Eich. Sr. Mathias was an older woman, but not less enthusiastic nor less compassionate. Yes, she could keep discipline, but she was able to do so because she drew respect from her students.

In those days of education, the Hardy Boys novels were popular. Sr. Mathias used a Benedictine practice with us as students all those years ago. (People in monasteries listen to lots of reading all their lives.) She would read to us after the noon recess. She used this as a type of practice that would settle us down and allow us to focus better after getting exercise outside. So we really looked forward to this time of listening to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. One day she had particularly captured our interest and we really did not want her to stop reading. So we begged her to continue. She agreed to read a few more pages. We continued to beg for more reading and believe it or not, we convinced her to read the rest of the afternoon. (In hindsight of this experience, I think St. Mathias wanted to find our what was happening in the book as well and perhaps she was delighted that we were all so interested.) It was a wonderful experience and she made us all so happy. We could save the same homework that was due that day for the following day.

Just this little experience of pleasant reading and entertainment taught me a lot about this woman and how the life of a religious could be enjoyable. I will always be grateful for this experience. And to top it off, Sr. Mathias came back after my fourth grade year only to move into the fifth and sixth grade classroom. So I ended up having Sr. Mathias for two more years of my elementary education and a total of four years with her. Indeed, she was a great woman. I know that she continued to teach many years after she had me in the classroom. In fact, she had some of the students of Mount Michael in York, Nebraska when she began to teach even younger students—like second graders. So I actually had some her students in my classroom as well.

When I moved to the seventh and eighth grade classroom, I was introduced to a very serious educator, Sr. Leonilla Mock. I say serious because Sr. Leonilla moved us into student projects and student presentations. We were not allowed to be passive or just absorb information. We had to take the initiative to do research and be presenters, like the teacher was doing.

Admittedly, this was quite a change for me and it was intimidating, especially to stand up in front of my peers and give a presentation. I remember being very nervous about doing this. However, Sr. Leonilla was reassuring and encouraging. I also remember that she was a bit challenging. She told me that if I wanted to be a priest one day, indeed, I would have to learn how to speak in front of people and work at being comfortable in doing so.

So perhaps one of the greatest gifts Sr. Leonilla gave me was overcoming a bit of timidity and fear in speaking before a group of people, especially my peers. I knew that I would have much more to learn in this regard, but definitely Sr. Leonilla was the initial person in helping me get on the right path.

Both Sr. Mathias and Sr. Leonilla were present at my ordination here at Mount Michael. I am sure that they were proud, seeing one of their former students, a Benedictine being ordained to the priesthood.

Over the years of many different assignments away from Mount Michael, I will always cherish the days of being retreat director and chaplain for a short period of time at Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. Although I was never there while Sr. Matthias was still alive, I can remember times when I was there and could visit with Sr. Leonilla. I even had the privilege to deliver the homily at Sr. Leonilla’s funeral liturgy.

The last point that I would like to make about these women of South Dakota is that they still have a grasp on me. One of the places where I love to spend time when I visit Sacred Heart is their cemetery. Of course, the community has been there for many years and the community was very large at one time – over 600 members. It is still a large community. (Female Benedictines have always out numbered male Benedictines). Nonetheless, the cemetery is an awesome place. It winds along the back of the monastery on the high banks of the Missouri River, just below Gavin’s Point Dam. It is not easy to describe the feeling I get when I am there among those women buried there. I know what at stalwart Mother Jerome was. I know how influential those women were, who were my teachers. I know how mellifluously those women sing and how I have always been moved by that fact. Quite honestly, I always feel that I am in a celestial place when I am in that cemetery, among hundreds of very holy Benedictine women. Really, I have learned how saintly they are!

I will always be grateful to these women, who really silently drew me to Benedictine spirituality.

And as I draw this little story to completion, I feel that I still have more individuals who had an influence on me in my early years. I should give acknowledgement to them as well. Those people would be two female Franciscans relatives and some pastors of my parish in Albion. But then again that it is another story for another time.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Responses from Lithuania

In the summer of 2003, a young man by the name of Tomas Butvilas spent a few months with us here at Mount Michael, discerning what he wanted to do in life. Ever since then, he has kept in contact with us and often visits our website. Tomas in now happily married and has completed his doctorate degree there in Lithuania. Although I was unable to be present for his wedding last July, I did visit him this past Christmas vacation. Tomas has been following the articles on vocation related material and thought he would write some comments as well. What follows are Tomas thoughts and responses to some of my questions.

Part One

Tomas Butvilas, PhD

Assoc. Prof. at Mykolas Romeris University, Lithuania


First of all I should say at least few words on myself and introduce the links that connect me and Mount Michael Benedictines. Few years ago I have had a great opportunity to taste monastic life waters and stay at Mount Michael (further in this text - MM) for a while. Especially at that time and even earlier (when I studied at UNO back in 2002) I found monks who are deep in their spirituality and at the same time they put all of it into practice, and so combine their way of living with the outside world that develops and grows quite rapidly along with all its cosmopolitan, individualized, and money-based interaction ideologies. Although it could sound a bit sarcastic, namely MM's monks would stand firmly in their choice to live the Benedictine way. I do remember quite well some lessons of such way that Fr. John Hagemann and others (as Bro. Jerome, Abbot Theodore, Abbot Michael, Fr. Daniel, Fr. Richard et al.) have taught me - be patient and LISTEN. In the beginning, as Fr. John would agree, I wasn't so patient or eager to listen, but later on I did learn how to roll along step-by-step and always listen what my consciousness and the whole environment that I'm in would tell me. The main teacher on becoming that way person was the social surrounding, i.e. environment. Thus, when I read Fr. John's recent articles on vocation, its roots, and psychological influence, I thought it would be good to share with few lines from my own experience and the "smart" guys who do researches in vocational psychology area.

There are many different psychometric tools (e.g. Minnesota Importance Questionnaire, Minnesota Job Description Questionnaire, Satisfaction or Satisfactoriness questionnaires, Holland Test etc.) that could help assessing ones abilities, linking towards some kind of work type and career making ways. However, psychologists (Berns et al.) and research methodologists (Denzin&Lincoln et al.) would argue these days the effectiveness of those tools/instruments as the main reason of it - is already conceptualized more phenomenological approach to individual life experience and choice makings. Thus there is a great need to discuss a bit more on the main factors and possible challenges that could make an important influence on ones vocational direction and decision making processes. As we all clearly know from various sources on definitions (e.g. Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia, etc.), vocation is closely related to a religious life, though it could be related to other social spheres as well. Mainly vocation (the calling) is understood as central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. From this very point of view we could identify few possible approaches to this phenomenon: one would be specifically theology centered (i.e. associated more with a divine call to service to the Church and humanity through particular vocational life commitments such as marriage, consecration as a religious, ordination to priestly ministry in the Church and even a holy life as a single persona etc.), while another one - socially oriented. Let's dig deeper particularly on this last one.

Namely both classical and postmodern social theorists (Durkheim, Weber, Giddens, Barthes et al.) as well as psychologists (Richardson, Savickas et al.) and social constructionists (Hacking, Lyotard, Wapner) stress decentralized modern life that creates a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production. On the other hand, this perspective implements the environmental importance to individual's choices in life. Thus, as psychologists R. Berns and U. Bronfenbrenner state, the ecology of environmental model on the basis of micro, macro, and mezzo levels is the main determinant for some kind of person's vocation within today's globalization conditions, in which media and pop cultures are predominant and so consequently form our images of what is appropriate, and what - less appropriate or not modern/popular.
Reflecting on Fr. John's previous touching articles about making choices in our lives, I would argue the imprint from birth phenomenon more than being socially molded and formed as the whole social environment that surrounds us is the main factor and challenge at once while we consider to become this or that. This very environment may nourish our decisions, abilities and skills or crush them down forcing its own traditions and popular ways of living. Although Fr. John in his recent article "Called From All Eternity" supports this environmentalist idea saying that other people (like his great uncle Franciscan Friar) make much influence thru their live personal examples and so strengthens our own decisions. Finally, even though I just tried shallowly to analyze just one perspective on the factors and challenges that affect ones vocation, there are numerous other perspectives on which I'd lovely learn more from much skilled and experience-equipped experts.

Part 2
Fr. John’s and Dr. Tomas’ Conversations
on Daily Life and Other Neat Things

Fr. John Hagemann and I just recently got a thought about starting some kind of conversations session on various things in life – both religious and lay. This would be quite a small step towards all of us who are concerned by existential issues, e.g. vocation, family life, decision making, self-awareness, loyalty etc. In some ways it may remind the Socratic dialogues and the antique style of teaching and learning, i.e. while walking and asking the master. Thus, in our conversations with Fr. John we will try to touch different kinds of socio-cultural and psychological activities within our daily life and routine. Hopefully this would become a kind of contribution to all of those who dare to search and ask. Finally all of us will certainly find. This first conversation between Fr. John and me is going to be mainly about my first impressions and experience while I spent some time at Mount Michael back in 2003. Note that Fr. John’s questions will be presented in bold and mine – just in ordinary letters.

So the first question would be:
What was the value for you in spending time in a Benedictine Abbey? Did it help you at all? And if it did help you, how did it help you?

Well, Fr. John, as I used to tell you in the past and during your last visit to Lithuania in 2008, being at Mount Michael in the beginning was some kind of a mixture between tasting the waters of monastic life and also spending some time in a different culture. The last-mentioned one is, in my opinion, in most cases the main reason for the biggest part of foreigners who come to another country and wish to escape from the feeling of boredom. Exactly this natural feeling (along with other needs that a man has), according to the psychologist C.D. Fisher et al., is an emotional state experienced during periods lacking activity or when individuals are uninterested in the activities surrounding them. That happens to everyone and the possibility to spend some time in totally new socio-cultural environment and also to get some bonuses from it (e.g. strengthening lingual skills, broadening ones social circle etc.) in many cases is seen as a basic way-out of being bored. Actually, I don’t want to say that I was totally bored while living in my native country, but having an opportunity to see other culture (even in the name of studies, love or discernment) and communicate with different people, who have various approaches to things, were quite main factors of my arrival and stay at MM Abbey.

However, as you well know, deep in my heart I had a great desire to live communal life, sharing my abilities and skills for the wellbeing of others. From time to time I was caught by the wish of holy solitary and the chances to combine prayer and work. Thus, Benedictines as well as Jesuits (later we could talk a bit more about their positive influence to my thinking), were seen as the right point of fulfilling this desire of mine. Especially American Benedictines, who are in many ways different than Europeans (by the way there is a French-rooted priory in Lithuania as well), have attracted me and I thought this is the place where I could realize my dreams and goals in life. So, after all, as you may assume, I felt quite a mixture of various feelings about being at MM and, of course, one of the most important was to ponder whether or not I’m suitable for such a living style.

Speaking about the value of spending time at MM Abbey, I could state that I was gifted abundantly with plenty of choices to use my skills and knowledge within the Benedictine day-routine and in that regard I have had a great opportunity ever – to FEEL what a real life is being as a member of that community. Spending some time in the sphere that you are interested in is the best way a person can do in his/her life. By the way, this is how Japan society is built having in mind the vocational training – students, according to Sh. Fukuyama, before they choose study field at the higher education level have to experience the real situation of their desirable profession.

The second question is about was it embarrassing to you when you realized that a monastic vocation really was not your calling?

About being embarrassed or feeling other negative emotions was not a real part of what I’ve gone thru. First, I was quite happy to understand that living in community for the rest time of my life is not what I’d love to do most. The second thing was that I really took that time as an advantage for myself because I could compare my routine at home (in Lithuania) and here at MM. This truly has helped me to sort things out. Also, as I’ve mentioned in the previous article on the factors that could make an affect to our vocation, the whole social environment (not only MM but Lithuanian community in Omaha, Creighton Jesuits, other friends etc.) helped me during this discernment process and eventually has led me into a certain decision making – to continue my jobs as a lay person.

To the question “Do you have any regrets that you spent this time in a Benedictine Abbey?“

I suppose, I’ve already answered in those lines above and repeatedly I could add that no regrets should be felt as every moment in our live are the great lessons. Thus every situation that we are going and living thru in our lives is always as a new chance to start things from the beginning. I mean, my stay at MM back in 2003 was a wonderful moment filled with deep conversations on spirituality, outside work (gardening, ground keeping etc.), knowing culture, learning language, meeting different people, and most importantly – answering to myself whether or not this is my calling. I’ve got my answer and it came to me by not having just few correspondences via Internet communicational tools (Skype, Messanger, E-mails or whatever) with vocational Director, but spending the real time in the real place!

And lastly, would I ever advise others to have the same experience that I‘ve had?

– without any doubt I can firmly stress that only by being in presence and experiencing lively those things that matter in your live we can make a right decision at the given moment. Of course, some of you might argue about that and point directly to one of the great psychological mental imagery methods – visualization. Yes! I can partly agree with it – visualization in some ways helps people to project themselves in certain positions that they would love to be or act (additionally see also K. Randolph, R. Finke, W. Fezler et al. works). However, nothing will change the value of a real experience.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Called From All Eternity

Recently I have been spending time delving into several books that deal with stories of individuals articulating their journeys into monastic life—Touched by God – Edited by Laurentia Johns OSB and The Wisdom of the Benedictine Elders by Mark McGinnis.

I ran across a few lines in one story that really spoke to me. Following is an exact quote: “Some people say that all vocations are born, not made. I believe this myself, in the sense that I believe in the slow-release miracle of God’s love. From the womb he calls each one of us – perhaps even from all eternity”.
This was written by a monk by the name of Andrew Nugent from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland.

I would like to meet this monk some day. Whether I ever have a chance to do that is another matter. His story is a much more interesting one than mine, but his belief is similar to mine. His is entitled An Away Match.

I do think that there are some people who know very early in life that they are being called to consecrated life or the priesthood. I also believe that many people these days do not always listen to the call of consecrated life, even though they are being called. They simply ignore it and run in the opposite direction, making many excuses.
My article entitled Promised at Birth, chronicles the story of how the seeds were planted in me to become a priest. My mother had much to do with planting those seeds. At a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a priest. I just knew it.
This past January I celebrated my 60th birthday. It so happened that my family decided to shower me with a few gifts when we had our Christmas family gathering in January. Of course, there were a few funny gifts, like a package of Depends (disposable underwear for older people) that have been passed down the way when each of us siblings reaches 60 years old, but there was one gift that was presented to me that brought back lots of memories.
Someone found the old vestment (chasuable – a fiddle back one) that I used as a young boy when I was playing priest. I had not seen it in a very long time. In fact, I did not think that it was still around. Indeed, it brought back lots of memories for me.

So I knew that I really did not want to have another item that I might have to deal with in trying to pare down on possessions these days. We monastics try to do that all our lives, but we really try to pare down as we get older. So I knew exactly to whom I should pass this vestment on to—my great nephew, Jacob Nore.

Jacob is only in elementary school – St. Michael’s in Albion, Nebraska. It is the same school that I attended when I was his age. But for several years now he has been telling his parents that he wants to be a priest. I thought perhaps he might like to have an item that belonged to his great uncle, who did pursue consecrated life and the priesthood.

Indeed, Jacob has used the vestments numerous times already. He is not being hesitant in telling his parents what he would like to do in life.

Perhaps he is young and perhaps things will all change for him, but perhaps also a seed has been planted and just perhaps he is listening to something that was destined for him from all eternity.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Benedictine with Franciscan Roots

Each year the universal church sets aside a day to celebrate Consecrated Life. Usually, it is in February, near the Feast of the Presentation – February 2nd. This year in the Omaha Archdiocese, this special day was observed on Saturday, February 7th at St. John Vianney Parish in Omaha.

Bishop William Dendinger from the Grand Island Diocese in Nebraska was the keynote speaker. In his presentation on Consecrated Life, he articulated his own personal vocational story. Indeed, he has a very interesting story. Some day I hope that he too puts his story in writing so that others can benefit from his journey in following the vocational call.

While listening to Bishop Dendinger, I noticed something that I think is common for many individuals who decide to become a member of a community and join the consecrated life or become a priest. This common thread is the presence of religious people in the life of one who is considering the life for him/herself. Bishop Dendinger mentioned numerous priests who made home visits and were present in his life before he became a priest, especially when he was a young boy and those who sustained him on the way and still do.
I would like to begin to mention a few people who played that role in my life and who were definitely very influential in planting seeds deep within and did much to help me make the choice to become a monk.

One of the first persons, who was already in consecrated life and who made a deep impression upon me would be my great uncle, Br. Adrian Borer, a Franciscan Friar. I mentioned him in the article entitled Promised at Birth.

Br. Adrian was near the end of a long line of children in his family – a family of 15. Already, one of his sisters was a Franciscan nun as well. Br. Adrian was born in Franciscan country in Nebraska—Platte County, in the St. Bernard area – near Humphrey, Nebraska.

He left home at an early age and received his education and formation at Quincy, Illionis. I, myself, dreamt about going to that same institution and beginning my life as a religious as well. But Br. Adrian spent most of his years in San Antonio, Texas. He loved the mission there and spent most of his life preparing food for his confreres and helping poor people. He became very famous for his baking, especially his bread.

Although I don’t remember every summer when he came back to Nebraska, oftentimes he would come to visit his many nieces and nephews. My mother was one of his nieces. We have a funny photo of my mom in Br. Adrian’s habit. Br. Adrian would relax a bit among family members and take off his habit and usually placed it on the bed in the main bedroom. His nieces and nephews would jump at the chance and don his habit.

When Br. Adrian came to visit my family, he would give me special attention, more than he gave my bothers and sisters. I have a distinct memory of going on long walks with him. Never was he pushy with me about joining the Franciscans, but I must admit that I was enamored by the order and specifically by him. I, too, liked to cook and bake and so we had something in common. Not so long ago, I read the letter the superior of the St. Louis Province of the Franciscans wrote to all the confreres when Br. Adrian died. Indeed, it was a moving letter and a great tribute to a simple and humble man.
In the last few years, I have realized how much this man meant to me and how in a very quiet way, he had been a tremendous force in my life. I was particularly able to articulate this fact after hearing Bishop Dendinger’s presentation on Consecrated Life Day in Omaha.
And in finding a way to articulate this fact, I think it is important that we who are in consecrated life, realize that we can be the same for others who meet us, especially young people. Yes, we are all very busy people these days with fewer members in our communities. But we still have the capability of having an influence on others. And it also struck me that perhaps the internet is way for this to happen these days.

Indeed, Br. Adrian was a wonderful person in lots of ways. I only wish that I could have been closer to him in my younger days of formation in religious life. In the last few years, I have read a lot of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who is a leading spiritual writer of present times. I can’t help but think of my great uncle, Br. Adrian, and admit the pleasant feeling I get when I am in touch with my Franciscan roots. Perhaps that is one explanation of my love for gardening besides my rural upbringing and background.

Hopefully, we in religious life can return the graces to others which we received from great mentors like, Br. Adrian Borer.

The other people in religious life who had a great impact on me would be the Benedictine Sisters of Scared Heart Monastery in Yankton, SD. But that is another story and article.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why Mount Michael Abbey? Why Be A Monk?

I am not sure if the general public would know that there are a good number of Benedictine communities throughout the United States and also in other countries for that matter. But when a man decides to become a Benedictine monk, he really does have a number of choices that he could make as far as what community he might decide to spend the rest of his life. In fact there are numerous monasteries within the congregation of which Mount Michael Abbey belongs – the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation. Each year each member of Mount Michael receives a little book, the Ordo. In this little book, all the Benedictine communities are listed and the members of each community. Many Mount Michael monks have visited other monasteries in our congregation and monasteries from other congregations as well. But each of us chose Mount Michael over and above the others. I thought it might be rather interesting to do a series of articles in the Michaeleen and on the abbey webpage, dealing with this topic and other topics of vocation-related-material. These articles can be found on the abbey webpage. So in the future, please look for this article. If you care to do so, give me some feedback so that I can continue to generate ideas for articles in the future.

For this article, I asked Fr. Daniel Lenz and Br. Luke Clinton to articulate their reasons for choosing Mount Michael or why they had decided to become a monk. So what follows is a little story from each of them. - Fr. John

Fr. Daniel Lenz OSB

When I was 16 years old a number of experiences shaped me very deeply. I became a member of our Christian Life Committee here at Mount Michael when I was a high school student. One of my classmates, Jim Rafter, presented me with a challenge in these words, “You know how to use a hammer—we need your help.” These words made me realize that I should use my talent to help others and what follows are the experiences that lead me to Mount Michael Abbey.
I always knew my parents were very spiritual people. They were Benedictine Oblates and Fr. Henry Huber, a monk of Mount Michael was a regular guest at my home for both meals and pinochle. He was my mother’s spiritual director and formed my family’s spirituality.

As a little boy, I remember loving to attend mass, but a memory that I have at 5 years of age that formed me very, very deeply was my mother teaching me the song, Humbly We Adore Thee. I have always loved to sing, but this memory will always stay with me, for many other boys never sang in church, never wanted to sing. And here I was, loving it, particularly because my mother played a role in instilling this desire in me.

I lost this zeal when I was in the 8th grade and I began to question my parents in general. I call it a period of adolescent distrust of authority and parents. This stayed quietly inside me until my father began to take me with him when he did service work privately for the elderly and poor with the program, Meals On Wheels.

I was still not sure I wanted my parents’ spirituality until I was 16 years old. Remember, I was challenged by this classmate, Jim Rafter. Now there was a chance to use the hammer in participating in the creation of a soup kitchen – the first Catholic Worker House in Omaha – at that time called St Teresa House. Now it is the Francis/Sienna House in Omaha. Fr. Nicholas Nittler and Br. Andrew Sorensen, monks of Mount Michael Abbey took me and some of my classmates into Omaha to renovate an old “bar” into a shelter for the homeless and serve meals to them. I worked with Br. Andrew part of a Saturday and painted with my classmates the rest of the day. I kept returning on Saturdays and even started attending mass with the homeless people. Suddenly I realized that I was being opened by this experience to a life of service. It felt good! I had actually picked up the hammer and was already using it as my classmate had challenged me.

I then realized I could live this life of service as a monk of Mount Michael Abbey. By the end of my junior year at Mount Michael I had become much more interested in theology classes. One of my theology teachers, Fr. John Hagemann had just returned from studying scripture in Israel and his class stirred an interest in me of the study of archeology. I dreamt of doing this myself one day!

My senior year I attended the Eucharist every day and developed the courage to talk about having a call to be a monk. Believe it or not, I had no idea that monks prayed at other times of the day, besides the Eucharist. Fr. John at that time invited me to Night Prayer. I heard the chanting and felt God’s presence. Slowly and steadily I began the interior journey of becoming a monk.

While I studied theology as a freshman at Creighton University, I took a class from Fr. Dennis Hamm, SJ. We studied conversion by reading autobiographies of famous people—St. Augustine, Malcolm X, and John Woolman to name a few. But the one we did not get to was Thomas Merton’s, The Seven Storey Mountain. I decided that I was going to read it when I was 18 years and it became the clenched nail that I was hammering into the wood. I had discovered that I could share the journey to God in the way of service through community, like the early apostles did with Jesus in Galilee, by becoming of monk of Mount Michael Abbey.

For the most part, it was Mount Michael monks who had formed me and I realized that it was the place for me to try to do the same. The rest is history.

Br. Luke Clinton OSB

What drew me to monastic life? Is the answer simple or complex? It is both I suppose, but the simple answer is prayer drew me to monastic life.

Some of my earliest memories are my parent’s example of prayerfulness. My father would get up in the middle of the night to make a holy hour at our parish church. In grade school my father was making a morning holy hour when grandpa past away and it fell to me to walk to the church and tell him. I completed his holy hour for him. In junior high I went with him to pray at the pink sisters in Lincoln from time to time.
When I was four years old I remember going with my mother to her prayer group the morning after my father had a heart attack. We left early because she broke down and couldn’t continue. That’s when I figured out that a heart attack was a really bad thing. If mother couldn’t pray that was bad.

I remember my mother teaching me my prayers and praying with her every night when she put me to bed. I particularly remember a period when I was scared of the dark and afraid to go to sleep because of the monsters under my bed and in my closet. She told me to pray to our blessed mother. As a small-frightened child, those prayers to Mary were my first clear experience of contemplative prayer though it would be decades before I recognized it as such.

As a teenager I found praying started becoming second nature. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a saint. I was a typical teenager, but I did like to spend quiet time praying at night in the darkened chapel at Mount Michael. I took quiet prayerful walks in the countryside at home and at school. These walks stirred my soul and I recognized the awesome beauty and love of God. I attended special student masses on a regular basis when it was offered on weeknights by one of the monks. It was during this time that I thought about monastic life. I really didn’t have much of a concept of what a vocation was or why I might want to become a monk. I just had a yearning for something more than Mass and sacraments. I really didn’t think about it much. I just became a monk. The whole idea of a “calling” or “the process of discernment” was more confusing and stressful than simply following what was in my heart. It was that simple.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Early in the month of February (on the 2nd), we celebrated the Presentation. I was struck by the thought of being able to hold in one’s arms none other than Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.

The Feast of the Presentation is the celebration of Mary& Joseph presenting their child in the temple. And when they go to the temple, they are greeted by what the gospels tell us is a just, pious and old man, (Simeon) who has awaited the consolation of Israel. Simeon was given a revelation that he would not die until he had seen the Anointed One of the Lord. And so when Mary & Joseph entered the temple and Simeon realizes that this is the very moment he has been waiting for all his life, he says the following: “Now Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the people to see: a revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel.”
Simeon knows that he can now die in peace and he is ready to do so, His life has now been fulfilled by holding the Anointed One in his arms. The gospels do not tell us that Simeon died soon after this moment, but certainly we can conclude that he was a very happy man for having experienced what he did.

And so I meditated on this thought of happiness and fulfillment on behalf of Simeon. At one point the thought came to me that it would be really nice to be able to experience the exact same thing as Simeon did. But then another thought came to me. In many ways each of us has had the same experience at many different times in our lives.

Although we don’t hold the child Jesus in our arms as Simeon did, we do hold Jesus in our hands in the form of bread and wine in the Eucharist. We hold Jesus in our arms in a real way also when we hold babies in our arms or when we hug one another. For truly all humans are created in the image and likeness of God and so, in a sense, God is within all of us. So although the moment may not be as dramatic as it was for Simeon, we also can hold the Anointed One in our arms.

On the Feast of the Presentation we also give a special place to light. We bless candles that are going to be used throughout the year. Our candles are always reminders of the Paschal Candle and that Christ is Light—the Light of the world. So as we continue the days of this month of February, let us be mindful of Christ in our midst and the dignity and respect we need to have for one another. For truly Christ is among us in one another and it is possible to hold this Christ in our arms!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Promised to God at Birth

Recently, numerous individuals have said they could identify very closely to an article that I had written about five years ago. It is entitled: Fearing Failure. The article is still available on our abbey website under the vocations button.

Because of the feedback that I am getting, I thought perhaps it would be advantageous to do more articles of this nature.

In this little article, I would like to take a very different approach. I would like to tell my own personal story about why I made the choices that I did and why I continue to stay where I am.
My story goes back to the day when I was born, January 23, 1949. Although I was just a baby, the winter I was born – 1948-49, was a winter to behold. I have seen lots and lots of photos of the blizzards of that year, particularly the huge snow drifts. Nebraskans experienced a winter in 1948-49, which Nebraskans these days have no idea of. The latest issue of Nebraska Life(January/February, 2009) has a great article about the winter of 1948-49 and will verify that my story here is not a tall-tale. There are also some great photos of the amounts of snow that winter in this magazine.

I am from a small rural area – Albion, Nebraska. In 1949, there was no hospital there in Albion. The two older siblings above me were born in Norfolk, Nebraska, approximately an hour’s drive from Albion. The plan was for me to be born in Norfolk as well. That did not happen.

The day I was born, another winter storm was in progress. My Dad packed Mom up to get her to the hospital, but the weather prevented them from reaching their destination. As it took longer and longer to get to their destination, Mom became more and more agitated and uncomfortable and I kept wanting to be born. Dad explained that the windshield wipers could not keep up with the heavy snow, so he kept his window rolled down and had to keep his head partly outside to make sure he was actually on the road. Mom feared the worst-- that I would be born in the car and that they would get stuck in a snow drift and we would all freeze to death. (Obviously, this did not happen.)

So Mom prayed. She prayed earnestly. Like women so often do. Dad arrived at a small town, just before Norfolk. Tilden is its name. There was clinic of sorts there and that is where I was born—very soon after they got there. I was born safely and healthily.
Mom’s prayer was one of those conditional prayers that we sometimes send to God. Yes, it had a very pleading tone and was conditional. “Please God, if everything is ok with this birth, I promise this child to you.”

Mom promised me to God, shortly before I was born. I don’t know if she said this aloud, and Dad heard it as well, but Mom told me this story when I was very, very young. And Dad never stopped her, never disagreed with her, at least on this issue. So from the moment Mom told me this, I wanted to be a priest.

The problem with this is: was it my vocation or my Mom’s vocation?

The timing of the Catholic Education system in Albion at St. Michael’s Parish was significant in my vocation. St. Michael’s Parish opened a new elementary school the year I began the first grade. My class was the first class to go through all eight grades of the school. At that time St. Michael’s was graced to have religious women operating and teaching in the school – Benedictines from Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. Indeed, these Benedictines influenced me and nurtured my desire for religious life. However, I was not interested in becoming a Benedictine.

My mother was born and raised for most of her childhood in the Lindsay—St. Bernard area of Nebraska – Platte County. This area was Franciscan territory. There were numerous Franciscans in Mom’s family. I must admit that I was enamored by a great uncle, my maternal grandfather’s brother—Br. Adrian Borer. He was a very simple man who seemed to be very happy with simplicity and humbleness. I wanted to be a Franciscan.

As I continued in elementary school and maybe even before I was in elementary school, I played priest. I had vestments and an altar. My siblings and I would play mass. We used the basement stairwell for pews – this is where my siblings were (on the steps) and I would be on the bottom behind the cardboard altar. I used sliced pickles for altar breads—bread and butter pickles. (For the longest time, I always thought the real altar breads had to be in some kind of juice, just because I had pickles in juice.) But when I got to the 7th and 8th grades, things became more serious. Where would I go to high school?

I still wanted to be a Franciscan and so Br. Adrian wanted me to go to Quincy, Illinois to the Friary there. I was ready to do that. But then the parish priest intervened. His name was Fr. Daniel Brick, a very matter of fact sort of man and priest. He very aptly stated that he thought going that far away from home would present a great problem for me. He noticed how close I was to my family and knew that I would get homesick. He was right. I got very homesick, even being only two hours-distance from my home and family.

Fr. Brick suggested St. John’s Seminary in the Omaha Archdiocese at Mount Michael Abbey. Offering to drive me there for a tour and visit was the beginning of the rest of my life as a religious person. I don’t know if I was just being naïve or stubborn when I was questioned by the administration of the seminary, but I did not declare a diocese. I was always an independent student. I think in the back of my mind, I still dreamt of religious life as a Franciscan. But as time passed in high school, I was really drawn to the monks of Mount Michael Abbey. I would also say some of the monks took full advantage of the fact that I did not declare a diocese. Perhaps a little recruiting was taking place among them.

Many wonderful things were happening in those days of the 1960’s. It was a good time for me for lots of reasons. Mount Michael was really growing in those days. I did not totally understand what was happening to me, but I began to realize that monks of Mount Michael were a large reason for making me the person I was becoming. I really began to feel indebted to them. I was very drawn to their way of life – a combination of academics and manual labor. I was from a rural area and had to work hard and I loved the thought of being able to continue to do that sort of thing and still being involved in matters academic and religious. I was so impressed that I just wanted to do for others what these wonderful monks had done for me.

The rest of the story is pretty much history. I came to Mount Michael when I was fourteen years old in 1963. I am now sixty years old – 2009. I have been here forty-six years. Perhaps time will now allow me to deal with the ups and downs of those forty-six years and create content for future articles. To be continued in one way or another!!!