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 This practice is cultivated here in Europe as well, but, as I assume, in much withdrawn way – inside the monastery’s walls.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.