Br. David Wilson
I was raised Catholic in a small rural parish. Sunday mass, the Stations of the Cross during Lent, along with the faithful witness of my grandmother and a grandmotherly neighbor, were a strong influence in my life growing up. At 14, first thoughts of a life given to God in prayer came to me, but during my teen years and early 20’s struggles with worldly desires and unfaithfulness to certain Church teachings marked my life. Gradually, the struggle was resolved when I encountered the love of our Blessed Virgin Mother as revealed in some of her apparitions, calling the faithful to a life of prayer, fasting, daily reading of scriptures and daily Mass. A whole-hearted desire to discover the best way to respond to Mary’s call led me to seek the counsel of my parish priest. He invited me to participate in a discernment retreat at a nearby Trappist monastery… It was there I found what I had been searching for: a life lived totally for God; a simple, peaceful life, filled with quiet joy. A life that prepares us for our eternal vocation: to sing the praises of God forever.
Rev. Fr. Gerard D’Souza
I was born in the Middle East in 1958. My father worked for the British Petroleum Company and for the first five years of my life I lived in Bahrain. My family then moved to Mumbai, India where I did my schooling and college. I was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Mumbai and it was in the seminary that I chanced upon a book by Thomas Merton called The Silent Life. This was the very first time I had heard of the Trappists and the seed was sown in my heart and imagination. There was nothing else I wanted after that. I had to leave the seminary to help my Dad out in the family business but the desire to be a monk never left me. In 1988, my family immigrated to North America. I lived, studied and worked in New York City. I was able to look at the Trappists and the Carthusians and finally joined Genesee Abbey in 1992. It was close to 14 years between my reading The Silent Life and being able to finally enter the monastery. I believe those 14 years were years of preparation for the monastic life in God’s plan. I made solemn vows in 1999 and was the novice master from 2004 until 2012 when I was elected abbot. I have heard it said that the reasons that bring a man to monastic life are not the reasons that keep a man in monastic life. This is certainly true in my case. The mystery of Christ’s presence mediated through the Liturgy, in community, in sacred reading, in study, in service to the brothers, in silence and solitude – this is what keeps me in the monastery.
Fr. Isaac Slater
My first image of a Christian monk was in Dostoevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, which I read for the first time, at least in part, when I was about 16. One of the book’s heroes, the elder Zosima, is an aging monk whose spirit of universal mercy is set in counterpoint to the pervasive nihilism of late 19th century Russia. As a young man, Zosima had gotten into trouble then had a dramatic experience of conversion in which he experienced the meaning of forgiveness in a powerful way that changed his life and set him on course to the monastery. At the heart of Zosima’s spirituality is a deep sense that in a mysterious way each one of us is guilty to all for everything. I would later learn that some of his discourses were borrowed from homilies by the 7th century monk St Isaac of Syria. In one of these, he speaks of the man of mercy as one consumed with love for humanity, who prays from the heart for everyone, even the demons, even the lizards! On my first retreat at a Trappist monastery, I read André Louf’s Tuning into Grace and a passage he cites from St Isaac deeply confirmed my sense that I was on the right track in looking to become a monk. It said basically that the solitary and repentant follower of Christ does something for the world even more powerful than someone who works miracles or preaches to the multitudes…I was living in Toronto at the time and looked for writings by St Isaac everywhere but couldn’t find anything. At this point, I was looking at entering the Abbey of the Genesee and hoped they might have a book by him there. Sure enough, the very first night I came to Genesee as a postulant, not only did they read from St. Isaac at vigils—they had one of only 500 copies of his homilies published in English—but they were reading the very passage Dostoevski had placed on the lips of Zosima, about the monk as a person of mercy who prays from the heart for everyone. I knew then I was in the right place — and had a strong hint as to what name I might take as a monk.
Fr. Stephen Muller
Born in Porterville, Ca. Youngest of ten children. Father very devout. He led us in the rosary every night. Grew up on a farm. Attended public schools. Enjoyed sports, animals, fixing things, working outdoors. By sophomore year of high school I was set on being a priest. Entered diocesan seminary after graduation at 18. Four years of college seminary, one year of theology. Felt a call to monastic life. Entered the Trappists in Utah in 1985. Enjoyed the work, the beautiful scenery, the prayerful atmosphere, and the other monks. Five years later, in 1990, I felt God was calling me to the Carthusians. Switched to the Charterhouse in Vermont. Was a choir religious, on track to be ordained a priest, rounding out my seminary studies. After eight years I didn’t make the vote for solemn profession. Returned to the Trappists in Utah. The doors were closed to me there too. Went home, sad. The love of my family perked me up. Still felt drawn to the monastic life, so pursued that path while remaining open to other paths if God were to make it obvious. Visited several monasteries. It all felt right when I got to Genesee. I entered in June of ’99, made solemn profession in Dec. of ’02, and was ordained in May of ’06. I have found an outlet for my love of outdoor work by managing our woods, thinning, and cutting down mature trees for logs for sawmills and furniture. We have a great shop/garage where I spend time tinkering with things that break down. People come to the Abbey for confession and spiritual counseling. Many graces have occurred in the exercise of my priestly ministry. I’m not strong on self-discipline, so the schedule of prayer and spiritual reading is good for me. It keeps my life in balance. The community life has also been very fulfilling, although sometimes a trial. From the outside, it may look like this life has many deprivations. Every state in life has its pluses and minuses. The older I get the more thankful I am for being in a place like this.
Fr. Aelred Wentz
I was born and raised in the state of New York, in the Diocese of Brooklyn, in the county of Queens, in the town of Laurelton. It was 1955. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Walt Disney opened Disneyland and the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, went out to sea for the first time. My father worked as a Paper Cutter in the City and my Mom worked in the local public school cafeteria. I have an older brother and a younger brother. Our family was moderately religious. My siblings and I were all sent to Catholic grade school. Where we were taught by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, not the Dominican Sisters of Amityville. We all went to Confession on Saturdays and to the 9:00 o’clock children’s Mass on Sundays. My brothers and I were altar boys. Having a call to the priesthood I entered the diocesan prep seminary, Cathedral Prep High School Queens branch in Woodhaven (the Diocese is composed of both the county of Brooklyn and the county of Queens). While there as a freshman two events happened almost simultaneously. I was reading D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen Buddhism and talking with the spiritual director Fr. Ed Troike, a very good priest. It was an example of God’s grace, God interacting in the world that these two things happened together. It was at this time, a little after Vatican II, that one of the many ideas going around, at least where I was, was that it was not enough to just be a priest (or sister, or religious). One had to be a priest-phycologist, a priest-activist (of any cause) or a priest-social worker, or a priest hyphen anything. Just to be a priest (or sister, or religious) was not enough. D.T. Suzuki in his books as I interpreted them seemed to be saying that all one had to do was to BE. One just had to sit in the presence of God. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). One did not have to do anything to earn God’s love. It is already freely given, was, is and always will be. I only had to be myself, which included my vocation, without having to add anything else to try and make my vocation better. How could I make my vocation better since it is God’s call? I can never improve on God’s call. I talked about this with the spiritual director, Fr. Ed Troike. It was he who first thought that I might have a vocation to the monastic life. We had several talks. One day he took me out of class to look at several books on different monastic Orders. I decided that I did not want to be a Jesuit, or a Dominican, or a Benedictine. I definitely did not want to be a Carthusian. I felt that if you put me into a monastic cell and left me alone within a week I would be talking to the walls in two weeks the walls would be talking back to me and in three weeks they would have to pad the walls. No, the Carthusians were not for me. The Trappist (Cistercians of the Strict Observance) however… now they struck a chord. They seemed to have a nice balance between silence and community. They were (are) a purely contemplative order. They also worked. There was again a balance between prayer and work. There was balance. Not leaning too heavy on one thing or the other. When a scale is in balance there is equilibrium, it has reached the still point. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). I was interested. Now where were they? Fr. Troike pulled out the “Blue Book”, the religious directory for the United States, and we looked up Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The two closest monasteries were St Joseph’s in Spencer, Massachusetts and The Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York. Thinking that a monastery in New York must be closer than one in far off Massachusetts (I was, please remember, just a freshman in High School) I wrote to the Abbot of the Abbey of the Genesee, Fr. Jerome Burk asking to enter as a novice. I received a reply in just a few days from Fr. Regis. He wrote that Fr. Jerome had retired as Abbot and a new Abbot had not been elected yet. He, Fr. Regis, was acting superior. He also informed me that I was way too young to enter the Abbey as a novice. If I wanted to come to the Abbey during the summer for a week’s retreat he would be glad to talk to me about the life of a Cistercian monk. I went up that summer to make a retreat and talk with Fr Regis. I continued going to the Abbey of the Genesee for a week’s retreat every summer for the next seven years. The eighth year I graduated from college and entered the Abbey as an Observer eventually making my Solemn Vows as a professed monk of the Abbey of the Genesee. The letter that Fr Regis first wrote to me besides saying that I was too young to enter the monastery also said that it would be preferable not only to finish high school but to go to and finish college. Thinking that I would go to St. John’s College or Queen’s College since I did not have a vocation to the diocesan priesthood I mentioned this to Fr. Troike. He very quickly and strongly told me not to be silly and to apply to the college seminary, Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, NY. He said that the spiritual life that the College Seminary offered was very important. I did apply and was accepted, Bishop Mugavero had no problem with my vocation to the Cistercians. It was good that I listened to Fr Troike and went to Douglaston for there I met guys who had gone to the Brooklyn Cathedral High School. Some of the guys from Brooklyn had gone on retreats to St Joseph’s Abbey. It turned out that St. Joseph’s was actually closer than Genesee to where my parents lived. I talked to them of my experiences at Genesee and they told me of their experiences at St Joseph’s. Once again I saw God’s loving hand in my life for I realized that if I had gone to St. Joseph’s I probably would have said after my first retreat there not bad but not for me. I guess I don’t have a vocation to the Cistercian life. I will stay with the diocesan priesthood. Each Cistercian abbey does have its own flavor and Genesee was the flavor for me. Since I entered the monastery I find that trying to maintain that balance of being at the still point, of “Be still and know that I am God.” is what makes the Cistercian life fulfilling and rewarding and at times frustrating in my failures. When my ego is unhealthy and I look to other things and other people to give me what only God can give I lose my balance. The balance has to always be maintained as I change, as I grow and mature in the belief, then the knowledge, then the acceptance of God’s unconditional and eternal Love for me and then in my response to His Love. — Fr. Aelred O.C.S.O.