More Contemplate a Monastic Calling

Vocations: Once seen as dying out, monasteries are renovating or expanding their facilities to accommodate a surge in new members.

By Claire Luna
Times Staff Writer

LA Times... March 16, 2002

In the stillness of a balmy spring day, as a breeze floats through the Joshua trees and a clanging bell summons the men to prayer, the presence of God is palpable.

At least that is how Brother Vincent Ng justifies leaving his cushy life in Hong Kong in his 40s for this Catholic monastery in an isolated swath of Antelope Valley desert.

The most recent newcomer to St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo is one of hundreds of men nationally who have made monasteries their homes in the last seven years--a resurgence for a religious lifestyle that conventional wisdom said was dying. Although the number of incoming parish priests has dropped 7% each decade since the late 1960s, monasteries, from St. Andrews, 35 miles east of Palmdale, to South Carolina, have seen such a surge in interest in the monastic life that they are renovating or expanding their structures to accommodate new members.

More Vigorous Recruitment Cited

Theology experts attribute the increase to more active recruitment and to some Catholics' desire for a religious lifestyle they consider more progressive and spiritually fulfilling than those offered by other traditional institutions.

"The monastic impulse is loose in the world," said Michael Downey, theologian for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who leads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "The number of people who hear this deeply contemplative call has skyrocketed."

The expansion at St. Andrew's includes tripling the size of the abbey's acclaimed ceramics factory, rebuilding its wood-and-rock chapel and adding rooms to house 50 monks instead of 30.

For other monasteries that had become stagnant, the addition of just a few new acolytes can mean rebirth and a drive to put a new face on aging institutions:

* Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, S.C., is in the midst of a 10-year, $8.3-million building program in response to membership growth and more than 15,000 tourist visits each year. The riverfront monastery has accepted 11 candidates in the last seven years and turned around an institution that a decade ago was quietly preparing to fold.

* Of the 50 monks at Mt. Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Ore., 11 joined in 2000. The spike in growth, along with a corresponding jump in enrollment at its seminary, has prompted the abbey to launch a $25-million capital campaign to renovate the church and college and build a welcome center in the next three years.

* Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, within a jet's roar of Camp Pendleton, has four monks joining its current 25 within the next year and recently finished a set of renovations that included modernizing the electrical system and rebuilding its housing.

Most monks attribute the interest in monastic life to God's desire to see them flourish, although some laypeople have more temporal explanations.

Sheila Briggs, a USC religion professor and expert on theology and the Catholic Church, said monasteries are attractive because they provide spiritual companionship and are untouched by some of the trials that have troubled parish priests, such as the ongoing scandal over molestation.

"The suspicion that those scandals have caused hasn't affected the monasteries," Briggs said. "They exist more in the margins, but it's a fringe that remains part of the institutional church."

The life of a monk--taking vows of celibacy and poverty and making lifetime commitments to long periods of prayer, scripture reading, manual labor and contemplative silence--means they can better focus on a single-hearted pursuit of God than parish priests, she said.

"They are able to have a broader spiritual experience.... The whole focus is on discovering your own spirituality, rather than administration. If what you want to do in your life is help people--what used to be the parish priest's unique domain--there's now a whole network of [charitable] organizations out there that don't require any sort of spiritual commitment," Briggs said.

Monasteries' more aggressive recruitment efforts, such as vocational retreats, a monastery "matchmaking" service and Web sites that feature chanting, electronic postcards and virtual tours, have publicized the lifestyle to people who otherwise might not have considered monastic communities, said a researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

"Instead of sitting back and waiting for God to do it, they're beginning to realize that young people respond to marketing," said Mary Gautier, senior research associate. "Granted, vocations do come from the Holy Spirit, but Jesus never said, 'Stand back and let me do all the work.'"

St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., the largest U.S. monastery with 190 men and its own monk-staffed fire department, holds periodic "Monastic Explorer" weeks and a six-week "Monastic Experience" summer session. Two to five men have joined the abbey each year since the mid-1990s.

Taking religious recruitment to the next level, a Florida woman who bills herself as a "monk headhunter" started Vocations Placement Service, a nonprofit organization that in its four years has sent about 700 men on retreats to help them decide if the monastic life is right for them.

Twenty of those people have joined monasteries, and hundreds more are still trying to figure out what they want, said Natalie Smith, a former marketing executive who runs the Web site and toll-free number.

"Each vocation director was operating in a vacuum, and potential monks were having to do everything on their own--from finding the right monastery to deciding if they should even become a monk," Smith said. "We're modernizing the process and taking the mysticism out of it."

At St. Bernard's Abbey in Cullman, Ala., officials admit that recruitment efforts were unfocused and inefficient before they began working with Smith.

"We're not ad men," said Father Francis Reque, vocation director. "Hooking up with Natalie was really a godsend."

Since starting to work with Smith two years ago, St. Bernard's has hosted more than 100 men ages 16 to 60, with 10 men scheduled for this month alone. Seven are now in the process between application and solemn vows, including a retired Army colonel and a Cuban priest who came to the United States after raising seven orphans in the Dominican Republic.

Abbey's Newcomers Are a Diverse Group

The men who have joined the Antelope Valley monastery in the last few years are just as diverse, including a 26-year-old who dropped out of UC San Diego when he sensed God's call.

"I encounter different struggles in this lifestyle that are much more meaningful to me than what I was doing before," said Brother James Brennan, St. Andrew's youngest monk, who said "a great sense of peace" overwhelmed him the first time he came to the monastery.

He is an earnest man with an easy grin, and his dark hair flops across his face when he jumps up to serve clam chowder during the midday meal. "Even the normal stuff takes on a new purpose when you're living a life dedicated to your ideals," he said.

Brennan and other new monks must spend a year of observation at a monastery before they are allowed to join, a period that another new monk said was fulfilling rather than frustrating.

"I believe God is very patient," said Brother Lazarus Tumath, 52, a former Bay Area accountant who joined St. Andrew's last year. "If you have a true calling, the feeling that this is your home is never going to leave you. It just makes you more sure that you're surrounded by people who are on the same spiritual page as you."

That communal nature will be emphasized in St. Andrew's renovated monastery, with a refurbished chapel able to hold 200, instead of the current 70.

The new buildings will be positioned so that guests at the 2,000-acre property will first be greeted with a welcome center that will house the gift ship and bookstore, currently located in an old apple cellar.

New monk Ng, 46, said he had been running a lucrative electronics export business before coming to St. Andrew's last year.

"Sometimes I wish this vocation didn't come to me," he said as he watched a foursome of ducks paddling through the pond in the monastery's tea garden. "I was more comfortable with what I was doing before. But it's my calling, and I can't ignore it."