More Contemplate a Monastic Calling
Once seen as dying out, monasteries are renovating or expanding
their facilities to accommodate a surge in new members.
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
Most monks attribute the interest in monastic life to God's
desire to see them flourish, although some laypeople have more
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,"
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
"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
"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
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