Apr 6, 2009

Clear Creek Monks

Yesterday's post reminded me I need to post about my trip to the Clear Creek Monastery before I forget (more of) it ...

I heard about the "Work Day" from the Catholic Young Adult mailing list. I had heard of the Clear Creek Monastery before, and this seemed like a good chance to visit and help. After I RSVP'd, the CYA president, Eric Grayless, sent a follow-up invitation for any men who wanted to go out the day before to help set some work up, say vespers and eat with the monks, and to spend the night in the old monastery (picture to the left). Hmm ... lemmethinkaboutitYES!

I had never met Eric or Alex - the guys who went with me that night - but I could tell we were all about equally excited about the trip when we met up downtown at the cathedral at mid-day Mass. I learned that they are both converts as well. I already had all my stuff in order, so I grabbed some lunch after Mass while they got themselves packed. We set out in Eric's car for Hulbert, OK - out near Tahlequah.

I remember asking Eric how many people would be out there. He said the CYA group was about 40-50. I asked how many people total? 400. 400 people! That's when I learned we were just one part of an annual Work Day for the Monastery. Apparently lots of school-aged Catholics attend to earn service hours - required for graduation from Catholic schools. And then there are a bunch of conservative traditional Catholic families who actually live out around the monastery who help the monks all year-round. (The picture is of Joey Lawless - a local guy - and I leading the CYA group to our work site. I later learned he's the nephew of one of the guys from my Tulsa PHP User Group! The world seems to get smaller when you join its largest single organization - over a billion people!)

Anyway, back to the night before ...

One of the first things I noticed when we arrived is there's no mobile phone coverage. Hah! Perfect.

We pulled up to the old monastery area to unload our overnight things into our cell (we all shared a single cell) and meet with the main organizer of the work. Eric had been to the site the previous two weekends so we followed his lead and he took us out to the next day's work site and gave us a real general overview of what we'd be doing. We met another local guy (can't remember his name) who was out burning brush to clear some work sites with his kids. (More on burning later) We put up a few signs for the work sites, and while we working we heard the honest-to-God prayer bells calling everyone to evening vespers. So we hopped on the ATV and headed to the new monastery, and that's when I saw it for the first time ...

It looked a little odd because it looked like it had been transposed directly from some European countryside into the middle of Oklahoma. In a way, that's what happened - it was started by a Benedictine order from France, if I remember correctly. Again, pictures don't really do justice to the peace that seems to engulf that place. We actually attended vespers in the Crypt of what will be the church on the site.

The prayers were exactly what you'd expect from monks - an other-worldly atmosphere of chanting and incense that made you not so much hear the prayers as *feel* them swirling around you. I hate to admit that about halfway thru my knees were killing me because we sat in seats with no kneelers, and I have bad knees already.

After vespers, we went to put up a couple more signs, and then we went to eat dinner with the monks. It was amazing...

First, for all of us n00bs to the monastery, the Prior and Guest-master monks washed our hands before we went into the refectory. There's no speaking in the refectory - only prayers and eating, and hand gestures. About six of the monks are there only to serve everyone else while they eat. They serve the entire meal - three courses of home-grown home-made fare. Because it was a Friday during Lent, there were no meat dishes. First course was vegetable soup, then an omelet dish, then a dish of figs and some kind of porridge. I noticed some monks abstaining from all the food, and some were abstaining from two dishes but eating the third. It occurred to me that fasting (i.e., two snacks and one meal per day) is made easy by the format of the meals.

Additionally, the monks "read" while they eat. And by read, I mean that one monk chants a book during the meal. Father/Brother Bethel told us they were "reading" a World War II history book during lunch, and "reading" a book about the life of a Saint during dinner. So cool to hear phrases like, "... his cavalier attitude during the Pacific campaign did not make a good reputation for post-war command ..." *sung* in Gregorian chanting!

At a designated time, all the monks stood up from their plates - some of them mid-bite, said a prayer of thanks, and returned to their horarium. We guests simply sat back down to finish our meals. Oh, and the serving monks served themselves after the other monks left. When we finished, we headed to the outer cloister where we met and spoke to Father Bethel for a short time before we headed back to the guest house and old monastery.

Alex, Eric and I decided to pray a Rosary down by the creek. I had never prayed a Rosary before, but they were able to guide me through it. It's a beautiful series of prayers and contemplations. Then we kicked around the guest house a bit, helping with some small odd chores that the dozen or so cooks (remember, 400 people!) needed done. Finally, we said our own compline prayers and went to sleep around midnight.

The next day we woke up about 6am so we could hike the mile and a half over to the monastery in time for Low Mass at 6:50am. I was a bit confused at first because the monks were celebrating Mass silently. Then I realized they were celebrating 4 separate Masses at once, and couldn't speak so as not to interrupt each other. We were able to follow along with the gestures mentioned in the missal.

In addition to work day guests, I was surprised to see some nuns there! Apparently there is a sister Convent just outside the territory of the Monastery. It seemed pretty cool that all of the local families and these sisters could come to the Monastery (at least to the Church portion) to receive the Holy Eucharist - even if I still couldn't yet. :)

After Mass and breakfast, the full work day began, which I think I'll make into a separate blog post sometime as it was more Labora than Ora.

I'm glad I went a day early to have this extra time for some prayer, reflection, contemplation, and experience in addition to the work helping at the monastery. While writing this post, I found a documentary video about the Monastery that lets some of the monks speak for themselves about what and why the do what they do. It also gives a sense of the atmosphere better than pictures. But it's a little dated - it was shot when they only had the old monastery.

Anyway, way too long of a post, but I have some making up to do for the month-long hiatus.


Saint said...

Awesomeness. Oh, and if you can't kneel, don't. Lots of old folks just prop themselves up on the edge of the seat. Haha, and I love your description on "reading" during meals. That's pretty awesome.

Matt said...

It does sound like a wonderful experience. I think we could all stand a bit more silence, meditation and reflection in our lives...oh, and selfless service too, but that's even more difficult to come by it seams.

luke said...

It was interesting - you can tell the families who live close to the monastery really feed off of their spirituality; at the same time, the monks really thrive off of the help they receive from the families.

It made me remember that we are a single Body of Christ - different members of the body have different vocations, occupations, and purposes, but we are all related and we all strengthen the whole in our own ways.