The boy monk: a review of ‘Monastery Mornings’
To be human is to suffer. In the case of third-grader Michael O’Brien, that meant watching the apparent disintegration of his family: a father who left home and divorced his wife, a series of moves that eventually led to making a home in Utah, and the struggles of his mom as she tried to pay her bills and raise her four children, of whom Michael was the youngest.
When we’re in that pit of discord where everything seems tangled up, or hopeless, and we’re bone-weary and battered, sometimes a light shines in that darkness. It might be the kindness of a friend or a family member, or a sudden reversal in fortunes, some event great or small that gives us a candle, a compass, and a path forward.
For Michael O’Brien and his mother, the flame that lit their way was the Abby of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity.
In “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks” (Paraclete Press, 2021, 192 pages), O’Brien gives us his true story of growing up mentored and loved by a group of Trappist monks cloistered in a monastery near the small town of Huntsville, Utah.
This relationship began in the spring of 1972, when his mom, Kay, took her son and one of her daughters, Karen, on a Saturday morning car ride and accidentally wound up at the monastery.
From that first visit, O’Brien remembers one special moment in the abbey’s giftshop:
“I think Mom was looking for a particular book that day, so she turned to Brother Felix and started to ask, ‘Do you know what I am looking for…?’ Before she finished her thought, he politely interrupted and said, “Yes, I do know, you are looking for the same thing as the rest of us — peace.’ His words were not profound, poetic, or prophetic, and the only thing they managed to do was to change our lives.”
Kay was a devout Catholic as well as a woman in need of spiritual comfort, and soon she and her children were making this drive, often several times a week, to attend liturgy, to go to the monastery’s bookstore, and to enjoy the tranquility of the church and the well-tended grounds. Mostly, however, they came to visit the monks.
In “Monastery Mornings,” O’Brien gives us a bit of history about the Cistercian Order, blends in the story of how that order came to plant an abbey in the middle of Mormon country, and offers side tours into Catholic and monastical practices ranging from the strict schedule of prayer and work (Ora et Labora) followed by the brothers to the meaning of their vows.
For the most part, however, O’Brien focuses his attention on the men he befriended during the years before he left home to attend the University of Notre Dame. He tells us many fond and often humorous stories about these mentors, who had set themselves apart to pray for the world and who supported that endeavor by the sweat of their labor, tending gardens, raising cows, and selling bread, honey, eggs, and books and gifts.
Brother Edward Eick, for example, like some of the others a veteran of World War II, “would softly hum and bounce on his feet when he talked with you.” He encouraged O’Brien to write and gave him his first typewriter. Brother Boniface — Brother Bon — sometimes put O’Brien and his mother to work in the bookshop while he greeted and chatted with visitors, brought his helpers treats, including the delicious “monk bread,” and dispensed advice as well.
As the months and years passed, the O’Briens and several of the monks came close to being a family.
Many other outsiders also visited the abbey. Some came out of curiosity or to purchase gifts or jars of honey while others sought counsel and a brief respite from troubled lives. “When I think about these people now,” O’Brien writes, “I see many breaking or broken people — like us — all searching for hope and healing. The monks took us all in ….”
The most striking takeaway from this memoir is the joy with which these men lived out their vows. Some of them experienced personal difficulties — one abandons the religious life to marry a woman he’d met when she began visiting the abbey — but the predominant mood shared by these men, at least as remembered by O’Brien, is happiness. This comes across in their zest for life, the attention they shower on visitors, and their sense of humor. (One typical monastic jest: Anyone can make holy water. You just put some water on the stove and boil the hell out of it.)
In 1983, after graduating from Notre Dame and before entering law school at the University of Utah, O’Brien made an overnight retreat at the monastery. He describes that time of farewell with the monks in some detail, then concludes with these thoughts:
“Thanks to my mother, I first came to the abbey in 1972 at age eleven, uncertain of whether I had a father. More than ten years later, I left the monastery as a grown man with at least a dozen of them. My past, my present, and my future were shaped, forever and for the better, by my decade as a boy monk. I drove home as night fell.”
“Monastery Mornings” offers all readers, whatever their religious persuasion, a retreat as well, the opportunity to pause and to remember the vital importance of peace, charity, and happiness.