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.