Sixty miles outside of Tulsa, near the small city of Hulbert, Okla., stands a Benedictine abbey where monks in black habits can be found chanting the Liturgy of the Hours, day and night, in Latin.
This is, as one might imagine, an unusual sight in this deeply wooded, rural area, where cattle vastly outnumber humans, and the population is only 3 percent Catholic. Yet over the last 10 years, the abbey has become a familiar, even honored place in northeastern Oklahoma. Its brothers operate a farm on their 1,000-acre property in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, from which they sell cheese and lamb meat. They also offer occasional instruction in Gregorian chant to curious neighbors and visitors.
Above all else, though, they pray. They pray the Divine Office for about six hours a day in the crypt below the construction site that will one day become their permanent chapel. They spend another hour or two praying at Holy Mass, 30 minutes in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and an hour contemplating the words of Scripture (lectio divina). They pray for the needs of the Church, and primarily, they pray to glorify God.
In many ways, Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey typifies both the recent renewal of the Church’s monastic tradition and the “vocations boom” experienced in many faithful communities over the last two decades. Founded in 1999 by 13 monks from the 900-year-old Abbey Notre Dame de Fontgombault in central France, Clear Creek has seen its numbers nearly triple to 36 monks in its first decade.
Fueling this surge has been another authentically Catholic institution some 1,500 miles away, one also situated in an unlikely location: Thomas Aquinas College, just 70 miles north of Los Angeles. More than a third of the men who have entered Clear Creek since its founding are alumni of the College, who account for 10 of the community’s brothers. Correspondingly, one in eight of the 81 Thomas Aquinas College alumni who are currently priests or seminarians are at Clear Creek Abbey.
Among the original 13 Fontgombault monks to found this monastery was Rev. Mark Bachmann, O.S.B., (’82). And when Clear Creek was promoted to the status of an Abbey in 2010, Fr. Bachman was named its first subprior.
The Benedictine monks of Clear Creek Abbey, 10 of whom are
Thomas Aquinas College alumni, take their daily half-hour walk.
“A Good Fit”
What accounts for the tremendous synergy between Clear Creek Abbey and Thomas Aquinas College? Lloyd Noble, a Tulsa businessman and a benefactor of both, says it is only natural that the College’s graduates would pursue their vocations within a comparably faithful religious community. “Both are very traditional in their values,” says Mr. Noble. “I think that’s why they’re a good fit.”
The College’s alumni monks also cite additional reasons for how their time at the College helped lead them to Clear Creek. One was the inspiration of tutor Dr. John Nieto (’89), who holds the abbey in great esteem and befriended many of the alumni when he taught them Gregorian chant in the College’s Schola Cantorum. Then there was the witness of the rest of the College’s faculty, particularly its founders. “It was helpful for me,” recalls Fr. Bachmann, “to see men like Dr. McArthur and Dr. Neumayr ,who were venerable scholars … talk humbly about submission to the Church, about humility, things of God. That really made an impression on me as a teenager.”
Reflecting on his decision to enter Fontgombault after his graduation from the College in 1982, Fr. Bachmann observes that just as the College served as a stronghold against much of the tumult that troubled the Church at that time, so, too, did Fontgombault. “The turmoil made a young man like me uneasy, and I was looking for that stability, that doctrinal stability, that I could entrust my life to.” As Rev. Joshua Morey, O.S.B. (’00), puts it, like the College, “Fontgombault has never disobeyed Rome. We are part of the Church; we are here to serve the Church.”
Yet beyond these similarities and the tendency for friendly institutional relationships to self-perpetuate, there are even greater explanations for why so many young men in Santa Paula have found their way to Hulbert. These explanations become all the more evident when one examines the extraordinary life of the Clear Creek monks.
Representing Thomas Aquinas College at the October 25, 2009, ordination of
Rev. Joshua Morey, O.S.B. ('00, pictured on left), tutor John Nieto ('89) is shown here visiting with several of the alumni monks — many of whom he directed in the College's Schola Cantorum — in the Clear Creek Abbey courtyard.
Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience
A typical day at Clear Creek Abbey begins well before sunrise when the bell rings at 4:50 a.m. After rising, the monks head to the dark, cold crypt chapel for lauds and matins. In choir and often on their knees, they spend most of the next two hours chanting the office according to the cursus laid out by St. Benedict in his Rule. Low Mass (1962 missal) immediately follows in the side altars that surround the crypt. After prime at 8 a.m., the brothers head to the refectory for a simple breakfast, which they eat in silence, standing at table.
Throughout the day, they return to the crypt or the chapter room six more times for High Mass and to pray the rest of the Office. In between, the choir monks (priests and seminarians) busy themselves with private prayer, study, contemplation, and manual work around the monastery, while the lay brothers tend to the farm and livestock.
Lunch and dinner are also simple affairs. The monks sit on backless stools and eat silently while listening to a reading from the Rule of St. Benedict or some other work of historical or spiritual significance. Recreation is limited to a half-hour walk six days a week and a longer, three-hour hike on Thursdays.
The day ends with compline at 8:25 p.m., after which the brothers retire to their cells, usually at about 10 p.m. Silence is then observed until the end of matins the next morning.
Like all religious, Clear Creek’s monks take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which they honor rigorously. Most will rarely, if ever, leave the abbey, and visits from friends and family are brief and infrequent. The brothers do not have telephones, televisions, newspapers, or radios. They surrender all property upon entering, and any gifts received afterward belong to the entire community.
The monastic life is, suffice it to say, very much at odds with the acquisitive, self-seeking ideal of modern American society. It is, further, a career choice that many would likely dismiss as strange for well-educated young men such as these, who could easily prosper in any professional field. Yet the Thomas Aquinas College alumni who have given their lives to God’s service at Clear Creek Abbey seem to regard this vocation much more as a gift than as a sacrifice.
Each one can cite tangible benefits of his vocation that bring great joy and peace. Br. Robert Nesbit (’07), for example, acknowledges the hardship of missing his family, but adds that “the grace that comes from living a life like this is a good recompense for not having t
hat contact.” He further takes delight in the extraordinary form of the liturgy, the prayers of the Church, and living in community. Br. Peter Miller (’07) notes that “receiving the Eucharist every day has to be the greatest blessing.” And Br. Patrick Carter (’05) is grateful for the sacramental life and the opportunity for mental prayer, which, he says, is “something you don’t have in the world; either you don’t have time for it, or you’ve never heard of it.”
Nonetheless, the monks are careful to insist that the monastic life has its own value, distinct from any mental or spiritual benefits that may be derived from it. “Some things are worth doing for their own sake even if you don’t see external fruit of your actions,” says Fr. Morey. “God deserves to be worshiped for His own sake.”
Know, Love, and Serve
This understanding is at the heart of Thomas Aquinas College’s academic program. As the College’s late president, Dr. Thomas E. Dillon, once wrote, “Liberal education is undertaken for its own sake, not for the sake of making or doing something in particular. Rather, it simply aims, in the long run, at understanding the truth about reality through a reflective consideration of the most important questions about nature, man, and God that all men face in every age.” By graduation, having spent four years carefully examining the works of the greatest minds of Western civilization, Thomas Aquinas College students have a profound appreciation for doing things “for their own sake.”
The intellectual life of the College thus lends itself naturally to contemplation. It “makes your mind realize the value and the importance of the contemplative life in the broad sense … the importance of the life of the mind and of the spirit, of prayer and studies,” says Br. Carter. As Br. Nesbit describes it, “The intellectual life of the College puts you in the current of the whole of Western thought, of Western culture, which was formed by the monastic life.”
And because the College’s curriculum is oriented toward theology, that is, knowledge of God, it tends to cultivate a deeper love for Him that is typically expressed through a greater desire to do His will. “What we learned about God in the curriculum — St. Augustine, the way he spoke about God, and St. Thomas’ treatise in the beginning of the Summa Theologiae — really set me toward this,” says Fr. Bachmann. “The College’s academic program is all ordered to theology, to God,” adds Br. Nesbit. “So when I was thinking ‘What am I going to do now?’ during my junior year, I prayed to know God’s will. And I thought, ‘Well, I have to give my life to God.’”
“What Must Their Creator Be Like?”
Still, as instrumental as the monks’ academic experience was in deepening their faith and opening their hearts to their vocations, living on the Thomas Aquinas College campus in a tight-knit community of believers was, in many instances, even more transformative.
“The College provides a really healthy climate, first of all from your peers,” says Fr. Bachmann, who remembers that his own faith was stirred as a freshman when he heard two of his classmates speaking passionately about Fatima. “I realized then that I’ve got to make a decision. I’ve got to be serious about what I believe.”
Fr. Morey recalls that around the time of his junior or senior year, “I found myself wondering: If I live surrounded by these people whom I love and admire and respect so much, and I was edified by them and their life and enjoy their company — some of the best friends I’ve ever had — What must their creator be like?”
“Truth is not the only transcendental,” Fr. Morey explains. “Like in the College’s motto (verum, bonum, pulchrum), there’s also the good and the beautiful in addition to the truth.… Yes, it’s the experience in the classroom setting and learning, but it’s also the smell of the orange blossoms on campus as it floats up the canyon in the spring, or playing beach volleyball in Ventura, or smoking cigars at Dr. Nieto’s, or eating burgers and shakes at In-N-Out, orange milkshakes at The Summit. These aren’t the noblest of all reasons, but the multifaceted reflections that you see all around you, and they are good, beautiful, and true.”
“It was at the College when I began to take my faith seriously,” says Br. Nesbit. “The community life, all the people, the faculty, the staff — and the Mass — all that really helped.” Or, as Br. Miller simply puts it, “I certainly would not be here if it were not for the College.”
Of course, the converse could be asked as well: Would Thomas Aquinas College be here — that is, would it have survived, let alone thrived through its first four decades — without the sacrifices, penances, and personal mortification of so many religious, including its alumni? Even liberal education as we know it would not exist today were it not for the yeoman efforts of monks who preserved the Western canon over the course of centuries. If Clear Creek Abbey has benefitted from an infusion of vocations from Thomas Aquinas College, how much more has the College benefitted from the abbey prayers, and its faithful service to the Church?
“The fruits of the monks’ sacrificial lives may be invisible to us in this life, but they are real,” says College President Dr. Michael F. McLean. “We are proud of the alumni at Clear Creek who so wholeheartedly take on the monastic life, and we are truly grateful. They bring great credit to the College, and even more importantly, they bring great glory to God.”
“We are studying to find the truth in each of the liberal arts, to see the truth in all of God’s creation. It helps you understand why we are here as rational human beings.”
– Thomas Lawlor (’13)