Conversations with the brothers are unlike any others. You won’t hear one of them say “Hey, how are you?” and walk past.
A brother will stop, make eye contact and ask with all sincerity “How are you?” And then he will listen.
And when he speaks, no matter to whom, he speaks as though speaking to Christ.
This is because of the scripture in Matthew 25:40 where Christ says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
While the monks live very similar lives, they all have distinct personalities. Like the rest of us, they come from various backgrounds and cultures—from countries as scattered and different as Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Ecuador, Chile, China, Singapore, Brunei and the United States.
One brother, a Chico State graduate, was an accomplished jazz pianist in the Bay Area. After three years in the monastery, he left to become a practicing priest.
Usually one in eight monks take life vows to remain monks. The others, like the former jazz pianist, return to the outside world.
A prospective monk begins as an observer. Within a three-month period, he decides whether to become a postulant, committing himself for one year. During postulancy the monk is responsible for covering his own medical needs.
The order takes on those expenses once the monk moves to the next level, novice, and later to the commitment of what’s called simple profession.
At some point, monks must make a decision on whether to make life vows and commit to the monastery until death.
Much like a marriage vow, a life vow is a solemn profession. But even monks who’ve taken life vows can have a change of mind—or heart—if, for example, they choose to marry and start a family. In these cases, they must seek dispensation of their vows from the Church.
Monks call it “the rhythm of the day.” It begins at 3:30 a.m. with the first of seven worship services inside the abbey’s church.
The sanctuary is filled with the sweet aroma of incense, which the building’s pine walls have absorbed since it was built on the abbey grounds in 1960.
Like most of the other services, this one includes scripture readings and the beautiful rhythmic chants of the monks.
The day ends with a similar 7:30 p.m. service before the monks retire for the night.
In between those bookend services the monks engage in a series of three disciplines—prayer, manual labor and spiritual reading. “The prayer grounds us,” said Brother Cullen.
Each monk has an occupation. Brother Gerard Arsenault, for example, is the primary cook. Virtually everything he prepares is made from scratch. Their three meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—are held in silence except for a book reading by one of the monks.
Other monks work in the vineyard, library or guest services office.
During the Tim Tebow mania that captured endless news cycles, I asked Father Anthony Bellesorte about God’s role in our lives—that is, does God care who wins a football game? I rather naively asked him if the brothers ever share discussions like this among themselves.
“Well, Jerry,” Father Anthony gently said. “That’s kind of Theology 101 for us.”
What seems deep and philosophical to the average believer can be routine for a monk, who spends a third of his waking hours studying scripture and religious writings.
Lectio Divina (Latin for spiritual reading) is the third discipline of a monk. A vehicle for contemplation, the reading and study of Holy Scripture is the primary focus of Lectio Divina.
For these Benedictine monks, the Bible has “the pride of place,” but other books inside the monastery’s 40,000-book library deal with theology, philosophy and ancient monastic writings from the early fathers of the Church.
“It’s not so much that we learn something new,” said Bellesorte. “We’re listening to God.”
Listening and meditating.
“But for how long [do you listen and meditate]?” I ask.
“As long as it takes to inspire you,” said Bellesorte.
It took Brother Cortez a year and a half to get used to the rhythm of life at the abbey.
“Obedience and accepting correction are the most difficult disciplines of being a monk,” he said. “Continually joining your will to the will of the community is the deepest and most difficult challenge. In other words, it’s hard not to get your way all the time.”
The monks’ lives are predictable—some might say monotonous. But to the brothers at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, monotony is not a vice.
“We see boredom not as an enemy,” said Father Paul Mark Schwan. “The temptation is to fill the day with a lot of activity, gossip and idle chatter.”
But it’s a common myth that monks themselves are boring—or that they don’t enjoy their lives. Visitors are surprised by their cheerfulness and senses of humor.
But for Brother Cortez, balancing the sacrifices and challenges with the blessings, especially those that come from living in a cloistered paradise like New Clairvaux, are worth it for a life of peace and spiritual reflection.
“The less complicated you make your life, the more vibrant and enjoyable your life becomes,” he said.
Anthony Bellesorte grew up surrounded by a large Italian family. “Of course, that’s what I expected to have too,” said Bellesorte, now an ordained Catholic priest, who has lived at New Clairvaux for 40 years.
When he was a young man living in Milwaukee, Wis., Bellesorte—now 77—became enamored of a young woman named Mary Jane. “We really clicked,” he said. They fell in love and became engaged.
He’d just graduated from Drexel University with a degree in business and engineering and was preparing to start that large family. “I’d even gotten her a diamond engagement ring,” he said.
But Mary Jane’s career took her to Grand Rapids, Mich. Theirs became a long-distance romance that included a lot of phone calls and letter writing.
After 18 months Bellesorte and his fiancée landed jobs in the same city. But then something happened.
“We found out that the connection didn’t stick when we were close,” he said.