Faith rules: Inside the Clear Creek Monastery
by: MICHAEL OVERALL Tulsa World
3/23/2008 12:00 AM
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about the Clear Creek Monastery. In Monday’s World, part two: “Keeping the faith.”
Some people say the world is slipping into a new Dark Age. Some might say the world has been in the Dark Ages for quite a while already.
In morality, in architecture, in craftsmanship and art and literature, the 21st century is a long way from the Renaissance, and many self-described “traditionalists” would suggest that it’s a long way down.
Less than a generation after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a growing number of Catholics want to restore Latin as a regular part of worship. But for them, it’s not just about language. It’s about reversing the decline of civilization itself.
In their eyes, the loss of Latin represented a much wider crisis in the modern world — a rejection of tradition, a defiance of history, the severing of cultural roots and a loss of faith in general. In bringing back old-fashioned prayers, they hope to bring back old-fashioned values, too.
In this worldwide effort to “reform the reforms,” Tulsa has stepped to the forefront because of a place called Clear Creek.
For three days in February, the Tulsa World gained unprecedented access to the only contemplative Benedictine monastery in the United States. And it offered a glimpse of what life might be like in a world where . . .faith rules.
The bell ringer comes outside an hour before dawn.
No light escapes from the open door. No stars peek through the cloud cover. The remote landscape offers nothing but darkness for miles in every direction.
Wearing a long black robe with a hood pulled over his head, this solitary monk seems almost invisible, silhouetted like a shadow against the crypt’s bare concrete wall.
In the strict silence of the monastery — so quiet that the monks can lie awake and meditate to the sound of their own heartbeats — his footsteps seem subversively loud, crunching on the gravel path. A few steps from the door, he reaches out with both hands to pull on a rope that dangles down the side of the crypt.
The bell tears through the cold morning air, echoing for miles across the wooded hills that surround the north side of Fort Gibson Lake. Inside, the monks descend into the crypt in a long, solemn line, black robes brushing lightly across the concrete floor.
Heads bowed, hands clasped together, they can see their own breath in this chilly, underground chamber, lit only by a few dim bulbs and candles flickering from the altar.
“Gloria Patri,” the monks begin to sing, “et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto . . . .”
Outside, unseen by the monks, a pair of headlights appears on the crest of a distant hill. Then a second. Then a third.
Snaking along the dirt road and across a small, stone bridge, the outsiders pull into an unpaved parking lot, tires crunching on the gravel louder than any monk’s footsteps.
A couple climb out of the first SUV. Three kids and their mother emerge from a minivan. A second SUV unloads half a dozen passengers, men, women and children.
With the first subtle hint of dawn shading the sky, they all file through a side entrance to the crypt, the heavy door — its hinges squeaking — slamming shut behind them.
The Benedictines came to Oklahoma looking for solitude; to escape from the rest of the world, protected by muddy roads and low-water bridges and the sheer distance from any main highway.
Now the world is coming to the Monastery of Clear Creek.
‘Set a standard’
The iron comes out of the fire glowing red, sending sparks across the cluttered workshop as George Carpenter pounds it with a mallet.
Starting out as a thin strip, the metal twists and folds into the shape of a door hinge for one of the new monastery’s grand entrances.
In a more philosophical mood, Carpenter might reflect on the way religion shapes a man’s life, bending and twisting, folding and turning. A younger man, with a soul that is still red-hot and malleable, might question his faith.
Does he really believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection? Or is it like believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Is he Catholic because he really embraces the church? Or just because his parents are Catholic?
“I was looking for some kind of spiritual connection,” Carpenter remembers now that he’s approaching middle age. “Something solid. Firm. Something permanent, that didn’t need reformed.”
Part of the first generation born after the Second Vatican Council, Carpenter grew up hearing Mass in English instead of Latin. Since the council in the 1960s, most Catholic services have been in a country’s common language.
Whether the changes sparked a crisis or simply coincided with it, that’s a matter of debate. But church attendance has dropped, seminaries face shortages of new priests and millions of Catholics openly dissent from church teachings.
Now a growing movement is trying to “reform the reforms,” bringing back Latin in hopes of bringing back faithfulness in general. The pope himself recently changed church rules to encourage a broader use of Latin in services.
For Carpenter, “the renewal,” as the movement calls itself, began several years ago when his father-in-law showed him a video of an old Latin service.
“I was drawn to it immediately,” he says, pausing for a moment to pound another red-hot piece of iron.
“It was mysterious. Beautiful. Timeless.”
Using an anvil and his own linebacker-size muscles, Carpenter bends the metal into an “S” shape, forming another part of the door hinge. Blacksmiths used the same techniques in the sixth century, when St. Benedict was alive.
“When the metal is hot,” Carpenter explains, “it’s not much different from shaping clay. As it cools, the shape becomes firm.”
Growing older, Carpenter left his doubts behind and took his family to a traditional Latin parish in Texas. But in shaping his children’s lives, faith had to compete with modern culture.
He worried about the endless pursuit of consumer goods and what he calls “the trivialization of promiscuity,” even in schools and on “family” television shows.
“We wanted to raise our kids in a truly Christian culture,” he says, “a place where the church is the backdrop for everyday life.”
Four years ago, they moved to a small farm just up the road from Clear Creek, where Carpenter works part time in the metal shop.
Others have come from the West Coast and the East, the Midwest and the Deep South. From all across the country, dozens of families have moved to this obscure corner of rural Oklahoma to live within reach of the monastery bell. Like the monks, they want to “be ye separate” from the world.
“The monks set a standard for us to look up to,” Carpenter says, throwing more coals on the fire. “We’re the foot soldiers of the church, so to speak, but they’re the special forces. They’re the Marines.”
In the fight to reclaim traditions, Clear Creek is the tip of the spear.
‘Our cultural home’
The daily Mass ends just after 11 a.m., with each monk pausing in front of the altar and falling to his knees, bowing with his forehead nearly touching the floor.
Two-by-two, they stand up and march out of the crypt in perfect rhythm, left-right-left. Hands clasped, heads bowed, they don’t whisper a word. They don’t even glance at the people in the pews.
Careful not to make the slightest noise, Carpenter and the other laymen wait patiently while the monks pass. The last one out the door hits a light switch, leaving everybody else in the dark.
They must remember — this Mass was not for them.
Catholics usually genuflect before leaving a sanctuary. But here, most people follow the monks’ example — bowing on both knees.
The younger girls struggle with the maneuver, awkward in skirts that reach to their ankles, lacy scarves slipping off their heads. But their mothers make it look effortless.
In the vestibule, laypeople go out the door on the right, to the parking lot. No matter how close they live, no matter how often they come here to worship, they’re still outsiders. The monks never asked anybody to come and now they have to leave.
It takes special permission to go through the door on the left, then up a flight of stairs to a loggia. An arched opening leads to the inner cloister itself, a courtyard that would be strictly off limits if the prior himself was not serving as a personal escort.
Eventually, as construction continues, the monastery buildings will form a giant square with this courtyard hidden in the middle. But for now, the church remains nothing but a crypt, a kind of basement foundation where the monks gather to pray.
Only one side of the square has been finished — a four-story residential hall big enough for 60 monks to occupy.
“It’s an ambitious undertaking,” admits Father Philip Anderson, the prior of Clear Creek and one of the original 13 monks who opened the monastery in 1999. “If I was doing it over again, I’m not sure we would be so ambitious.”
The fundraising and the construction can become a distraction from what the monks came here to do — to pray. And to pray, specifically, the old Latin liturgy.
“You can see that civilization is in a crisis,” Anderson says, his robe fluttering in the breeze as he walks in the courtyard.
“This crisis has, in some ways, infected even the church. There’s a lack of discipline, a lack of clear moral principles.”
Society keeps trying to reinvent itself — political revolutions, sexual revolutions, technological revolutions.
“But every attempt at a solution only makes the crisis grow deeper,” Anderson says, his voice staying meditatively calm. “We’ve had all kinds of solutions — except tradition. We’ve explored many different paths — except turning back, returning to our cultural home, returning to the ancient faith.”
At Clear Creek, the ancient traditions aren’t history. They’re here. Now. And the monks are determined to keep them for the future.
Keeping the faith (part II)
Editor’s note: Tulsa World Staff Writer Michael Overall was allowed unprecedented access behind the walls of the Clear Creek Monastery. Here is part two of a two-part series about the monastery.
by: MICHAEL OVERALL
For monks, prayer is path to a brighter future
No one sits down. No one talks. Heads bowed, hands clasped together, the monks wait.
The prior stands just inside the door with a pitcher of water, an empty bowl and a clean white towel. In the sixth century, St. Benedict insisted that his followers wash a visitor’s feet before dinner, but traditions evolve — now the prior washes a visitor’s hands.
Guests eat in the middle of the room, separate from the monks, who surround two long, wooden tables against opposite walls.
“In nomine Patris,” they pray, as always, in Latin before finally sitting down, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. . . .”
The food comes with perfect etiquette, dishes served from the left, taken away from the right, and at a brisk pace.
Slurp quickly or the soup will disappear half finished to make room for fresh beets and coleslaw.
The monks resist earthly temptations — but when they eat, they flirt with extravagance.
Tonight, a hearty portion of salmon comes with a creamy tomato sauce, complemented by generous pours of cabmerlot wine.
The third course includes buttered noodles that look bland but taste decadent, with espresso for dessert.
When not needed, the servers stand at attention near the kitchen door, white aprons covering their black robes, ready to swoop down on the slightest crumb that might fall.
Benedictines don’t take a vow of silence. In fact, most Benedictines work at schools or hospitals, talking as much as anybody else.
Clear Creek is the only contemplative Benedictine monastery in the United States.
Nestled on the north end of Fort Gibson Lake near Hulbert, the monastery began operating in 1999.
Even here, a monk might clear his throat to ask for more wine, or whisper a couple of words if necessary. But living a contemplative life includes speaking as little as possible, lest you be distracted from always thinking about God.
Dinner would pass as quietly as the rest of the day if not for the cantor, sitting alone at a small table in the corner with a microphone and a book of saints.
“The sword cut deep into the martyr’s head,” he reads, describing the death of St. Boniface, a Benedictine missionary who brought Christianity to Germany in the eighth century. “And blood spurted forth.”
Every meal comes with a history lesson, and after a few days, a general theme emerges.
As Western civilization slid into the Dark Ages, monasteries became repositories of culture. Indeed, many scholars suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all, considering the art, literature and philosophy that flourished around the Benedictines, the Augustinians and the Carthusians.
The Renaissance would’ve been impossible without monks, and now some people see the need for another Renaissance.
In fashion, architecture, art and literature — and especially in public morals — hardly anything about 2008 looks like 1908, much less 1608.
And to the monks at Clear Creek, 2008 looks decidedly inferior.
Monasteries have saved civilization before, and monasteries might do it again.
‘JUST BEING FAITHFUL’
Silence has a way of amplifying noise. The drip of a faucet, the click of a light switch, the breeze tapping against the window. Everything draws attention to itself.
A guest will send footsteps echoing down the long corridors of the residential hall. But somehow, Father Mark Bachmann’s knocking on the door comes as a complete surprise.
“Being quiet,” he explains, “becomes a habit for us, like breathing.”
A guest’s private room measures less than 10 feet by 10, but the tall ceiling makes it seem reasonably spacious. A bed, not much bigger than an army cot, sits against the wall, with a small desk and chair beneath the window.
A separate room includes a sink and shower, but the toilets are down the hall. Each monk lives in a room, called a cell, just like this.
“Except for the sink and shower,” Bachmann says, taking a seat on the room’s footlocker. “We thought our guests might appreciate the privacy, but it’s a luxury we can do without.”
Ordinarily, Bachmann would study Scripture or read devotional texts during this free time between dinner and evening prayers. But the prior has given him permission to visit the guest area, divided from the monks’ quarters by a locked door at the end of the corridor.
Taking vows more than 24 years ago, he’s one of the older monks here. Several are recent college graduates, but the prior hesitates to let the younger ones talk to outsiders.
“It’s the way parents are always more protective of children the younger they are,” Bachmann says. “They need to mature in their vows, grow stronger in their discipline.”
Once or twice a year, family members can come to the monastery to ask for “parlor time” — maybe 30 or 45 minutes in a visiting room downstairs. The prior rarely grants permission for a monk to leave the monastery grounds, which stretch for a thousand acres across Cherokee County.
“The death of a parent, for example,” Bachmann says.
Then a monk might ask to go home for a couple of days.
“What if we get homesick?
Of course, that will happen occasionally,” he says.
“Then that is something we can offer up to God as a sacrifice.”
The separation is usually harder for the families — especially considering that many of the monks are converts, and just being Catholic seemed controversial enough.
“In time, most parents come to be proud of a son for taking vows,” Bachmann says. “They come to understand that we are just being faithful to what God has called us to do.”
The monks understand the high hopes that traditional Catholics are placing on them — that the use of Latin will spread from Clear Creek and reinvigorate the faith as a whole.
Already, Gregorian chant can be heard in more and more parishes across the Tulsa diocese, where ordinary church choirs have learned Gregorian chant from the monks.
And although most of the Sunday Mass is still in English at Tulsa’s Holy Family Cathedral, the congregation slips into Latin for some prayers.
“If it is God’s will for Latin to regain prominence in the church,” Bachmann says, “then it will happen.”
But that’s not what the monks are trying to do. They believe in the power of prayer to change the world — and that’s the only kind of prayer they are trying to make.
“We’ve heard the Lord calling us to this life of prayer,” Bachmann says. “Just as Peter and John and the other Apostles heard the Lord say, ‘Come, follow me.’ They were just being obedient. They didn’t set out to change the world.”
But change it they did.
‘INTO THE FUTURE’
Sunday morning, the monastery bell echoes across the countryside to announce that High Mass will begin in 10 minutes. But the parking lot already looks full.
Inside the crypt, the reverent silence gives way to a murmuring crowd. Babies cry.
Toddlers squirm. Teenagers pass secrets between themselves.
As the monks come down the aisle, sunlight streams through the windows above the altar and bright votive candles cast a warm glow across the pews.
On most Sundays, latecomers might have to stand in the back.
But the flu has been going around, leaving a few empty seats.
George Carpenter, the blacksmith, arrives with only one son, while his wife and six other children — plus one more on the way — have stayed home.
Around here, that’s not a particularly large family. Some parents count children into double digits.
“If you understand that a child is the greatest blessing that God can give you,” Carpenter says, “well, why would you do anything to keep God from blessing you?”
Last year, Carpenter took an informal census of the Clear Creek community — counting 35 families with a total of 145 people, including 96 children.
There have been several pregnancies since then.
Realistically, most of these children won’t stay in Clear Creek after they grow up.
They’ll go off to college, then find jobs and move to big cities. But their parents expect them to stay devoutly Catholic wherever they go.
“They’ll raise children of their own in the faith,” Carpenter says. “And those children will raise children, and those children. . . .”
After a couple of generations, 145 people can multiply into several hundreds, then a few thousand. In five or six generations, the descendants of Clear Creek might amount to a tribe of their own, taking conservative values and traditional morals with them.
“That’s the way the faith reaches into the future,” Carpenter says. “That’s how traditions survive.”
That’s how the world is changed.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008
"Inside Clear Creek Monastery"
"Tulsa World" has launched a website with articles and a slideshow about the Benedictine Monks at Clear Creek Monastery in Tulsa Oklahoma. The photographs are beautiful, the slideshow is excellent and the articles (posted below) are very good. Enjoy.