History and Origins
Benedictine Life - Passing Through The Narrow Gate
By Father Patrick Brankin
The Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, October 25, 1998
Apart from faith, it is impossible to understand what attracts generous men to the austerities of Benedictine life. And the austerities are many!
First of all there are the physical privations which must be endured: the shortened hours of sleep, the demands of physical labor, and the exhausting intensity of chanting the Divine Office. To this must be added the mental and spiritual restraints that come from binding oneself to a community of frail men, from having to learn humility from the constant renunciation of self-interest and the discovery that the fountain of charity flows from the cross of community life.
Despite these austerities, however, an increasing number of young men--normal, healthy men, formed by the same cultural values as their peers and subject to the same pressures--have chosen to seek God and follow Christ as monks at the Abbey of Fontgombault and her daughterhouses. Certainly the stability of monastic life and the timeless beauty of the Latin liturgy might attract someone tired of the instabilities of contemporary life; but the only real answer as to why someone enters a cloister is because God calls some men to give themselves entirely to Him.
"It is an incomparable joy", explained one young monk, " to know that you mean something to someone. To know that you are loved by God, well, this changes your life completely. Then you have only one desire: to give yourself to Him." In the Benedictine contemplative tradition, this means that the monk submits to a Rule and lives as a member of a family or community under the authority of a Father Abbot.
Besides a Father Abbot, the Benedictine Rule specifies other fathers and brothers, giving Benedictine life the character of a family. But the life is also attentive to both order and hierarchy. Each member of the community assumes his proper place in the life of the house for the peaceful functioning of the whole.
The "Rule" which governs a monastery of the kind that will be established in our diocese is a testimony left by St Benedict to his monastic sons. A book of 73 chapters, written in A.D. 540, the Rule of St Benedict offers a sober approach to monastic life, balancing contemplation with manual labor, and personal prayer and study with the chanting of the Divine Office. By its demands, the Rule--lived out in concrete situations--encourages the growth of that New Man of whom the Scriptures speak and who--by entering through the narrow gate--gives evidence of the manifold mercy of God.
The following is found on the last page of the special four-page section on Fontgombault and Clear Creek. It describes the site and the history of this foundation in more detail.
Cleo Epps would have a hard time imagining habited monks farming the rocky bottom land that she so carefully accumulated during Prohibition. The sound of bells erupting in the afternoon's silence and the careful cadence of Gregorian chant would have been strange sounds indeed to Oklahoma's notorious bootlegger, who assembled the secluded Clear Creek ranch by buying out small cotton and peanut farmers. Epps wanted the land because there was an abundance of sweet water for whiskey and the area was remote even by the standards of rural Oklahoma. Water was to prove an important consideration in Cleo's life until the end and it was that same abundant water, from Clear Creek itself and from a natural spring on the property [transcriber's note: called Little Clear Creek], that attracted Benedictines to this 1,200 acre ranch in Cherokee County.
Before settling on this property, Abbot Forgeot investigated other properties in Oklahoma and Tennessee, but none of them had the combination of positive factors that drew him to Clear Creek and to its owners, the Stan Doyle Family of Christ the King Parish in Tulsa. "I know it was the beauty that impressed me", said Fr Lawrence Brown, who saw the land after a late summer rain. "What a variety of possibilities Clear Creek can offer a monastery: gardens, orchards, and rich pastures. So much beauty!", he concluded.
As Father Brown explains it, beauty is an essential requirement for a monastery since beauty draws guests and retreatants and fosters a religious atmosphere. Benedictine life is a family life and as in any family, it is important to welcome guests. That's why the Rule stipulates that guests should be received as Christ Himself, and the Charter (Ad Dei Gloriam) which Bishop Slattery signed allowing the Abbey of Fontgombault to establish this daughterhouse clearly provides for the opening of a guesthouse.
As Fr Brown explained it, 50 to 60 monks, divided between priests and laybrothers, are needed to maintain all the functions of a monastery. It's likely then that the initial 12 men at Clear Creek will be hard-pressed to complete the physical renovation of the buildings at the same time that they begin putting down monastic roots in Cherokee County.
"Contemplative life offers so much to a diocese like Tulsa. It shows people that the religious dimension of life can constitute a life in itself, a life wholly centered upon God."
An interview with Abbot Forgeot
"The Church has proclaimed St Therese of the Child Jesus 'patroness of the missions' similarly to St Francis Xavier. In the case of St Francis Xavier, it is easy to see why; with St Therese it is less evident. She hardly lived 10 years in her Carmel, she did nothing extraordinary, but she led her life perfectly for she understood that her vocation was love. This is the secret of the fecundity of monastic life. This encourages us greatly."
THE MONASTIC VOCATION
"What are the essentials of a monastic vocation? St Benedict enumerates in his Rule the criteria for a monastic vocation: truly seek God and be eager for obedience and humiliation. The contemplative monastic vocation is a call--to follow Christ Who became obedient all the way to death on the Cross, to enter into His prayer, to be attentive to the things of God by spiritual reading and study, to live in charity. As St Therese said, to love is to give everything and to give yourself."
THE VOCATION CRISIS
"The crisis of vocations to the priesthood must not put into question the existence of contemplative monasteries. I would say, to the contrary, that this crisis demands the existence of such monasteries because the crisis cannot be resolved but by prayer, as Our Lord taught when He said, 'Pray, therefore, that the Lord of the harvest . . .' (St Luke 10:2)"
PREPARING BY PRAYER
The monks' arrival in Oklahoma is foreseen, if it be God's Will, for September, 1999--after the deep summer heat! The founders are preparing for this "adventure" by thinking of what is possible and desirable for their first installation. However, given the distance, it is really only when they are in the United States that they will be able to obtain what is needed. So it is mainly by prayer that they are preparing for this foundation. I am happy to have this opportunity to ask the prayer not only of the people of Tulsa but also of all the faithful in America. Please recommend our coming foundation to her that has been called the 'Mother of the Americas'.
FIRST A HERMITAGE
In the 10th or 11th century, a hermit by the name of Gombaud came to dwell in a grotto along the left bank of the River Creuse near a fountain which was called after him Font-Gombaud. By the end of the 11th century, this hermitage had expanded into a community of monks under the direction of Pierre de l'Etoile, who in 1091 set out to erect a Benedictine monastery on the north side of the river. Construction of the Abbey continued after Pierre's death (1114) and by 1141 the Abbey church was ready to be consecrated. The rest of the impressive buildings were completed by the beginning of the 13th century.
DECLINE AND REBIRTH
The Abbey of Fontgombault suffered serious setbacks after its initial period of growth. Though it had been fortified with moats and walls, the Abbey was sacked during the Hundred Years War and burned by Calvinists in 1569.
More disastrous still was the practice of the French kings to appoint abbots who collected sizable revenues from the Abbey without being concerned for the spiritual life of the community.
In the 17th century, the Abbey's fortunes changed again under the priorate of Dom Nicolas Andrieu. At the time of his death in 1705, the Abbey enjoyed a reputation for fervor, discipline, and the regularity of its monastic life.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Unfortunately Dom Andrieu's revival was only short-lived and the Benedictine community, suppressed in 1741, was succeeded first by the Lazarists and then by the Society of St Sulpice. During the French Revolution, Fontgombault became State Property and was sold in 1791. The site was used as a stone quarry and the picturesque ruins became a local picnic site. In 1850, the Abbe Lenoir, a diocesan priest from Bourges [Fontgombault is located in the Archdiocese of Bourges], undertook the restoration of the ancient buildings.
Trappist monks from Bellefontaine and Melleray took up residence; but a series of anti-clerical laws forced them to disperse in 1903.
THE CONGREGATION OF SOLESMES
Fontgombault was definitively restored in 1948 when monks from Solesmes re-established contemplative Benedictine life according to the ideals of Dom Gueranger, whose lifelong work was to preserve the Church's liturgical chant.
The monastery was raised to the rank of Abbey on August 15, 1953 and the restored church was consecrated in 1954. Since then, the Abbey has established three daughterhouses in France. The foundation in eastern Oklahoma will be the first in the United States.
A MOST TENACIOUS GROUP OF MONKS - Oklahoma's Pioneering Benedictines
The French Benedictines who will be establishing a contemplative monastery next year at Clear Creek will not be the first French monks to come to Oklahoma.
That distinction goes to the monks of the Abbey of La Pierre-qui-Vire who established the original (1875) Benedictine foundation near Atoka in the Indian Territory.
The monks of la Pierre-qui-Vire were noted for their strict observance of the Rule. Pope Pius IX once remarked that their life was more "enviable than imitable" and the foundation's superior, Fr Isidore Robot, directed all his efforts to balancing the monks' missionary efforts with their contemplative life.
This was not always easy. Conditions were so primitive as to deprive the monks of even basic necessities. In 1877, the monks, who by then had already founded Sacred Heart Indian School (near Konawa) for the children of the Potawatomi Nation, were still sleeping in tents or in wagons under the open sky. After a disastrous fire in 1901, the Abbey was relocated near Shawnee and in 1915 the school reopened as St Gregory College, making it the oldest accredited institution of higher learning in our state and our only Catholic university in Oklahoma.