(SNR) – Bishop James Conley and six seminarians of the Diocese of Lincoln spent June 19-21 at a monastery in Oklahoma, the Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek.
The monastery, built in the Diocese of Tulsa in September 1999, was founded from the Abbey of Fontgombault in central France.
“Shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church and before I entered the seminary,” Bishop Conley said, “I had the wonderful opportunity to travel in Europe with college friends from University of Kansas. We knew about a French Benedictine monastery – cloistered and contemplative – in central France called the Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault, where a number of our fellow convert-classmates from KU had entered to become monks.”
Bishop Conley spent nearly a year there, discerning his vocation. There were about 90 monks in the community at the time, with an average age of around 36. The monastery chanted the entire liturgical office in Latin Gregorian Chant, which the bishop called “heavenly.” The monastery was totally self-sufficient, raising its own food, wine and generating electricity from a hydro-electric generator ran from the river next to the monastery.
“My yearlong experience at the Abbey of Fontgombault really shaped my spiritual life,” he said, “and prepared the ground for my vocation to the diocesan priesthood. The monks introduced me to the contemplative life and really taught me how to pray.
“Needless to say, that year had a profound impact on the rest of my life.”
Because the monastery had such a profound effect on his life, and because of the importance of prayer, contemplation, solitude, the beauty of Gregorian Chant, and the witness of monastic life in the world, Bishop Conley said he wanted to somehow expose the diocese’s seminarians in a systematic way to the life of a Benedictine monk.
“I decided last year, (2014)” he said, “to begin a tradition of bringing all of our third year theologians - those seminarians who are scheduled to be ordained deacons in the following spring - to the Abbey of Our Lady of Clear Creek for a long weekend. These are the men upon whom I will lay my hands next, ordaining them to the transitional diaconate.
“I thought, ‘what better way to get know these guys than through an eight-hour “road trip” in a van and a weekend of “ora et labora” (work and prayer)?’ So, this is the second annual ‘pilgrimage to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek.’”
The founding monks of the Oklahoma monastery – eight Americans and five French – were former classmates of Bishop Conley at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. Since 1999, they have grown from 13 to 45 monks with an average age of 32 years old.
Cole Kennett, one of the seminarians who participated in the pilgrimage and detailed the schedule of prayer they attended, said he was blessed to meet the monks, who he called “spiritual giants.”
“The life of a monk is saturated with sacrifice so that they can enter into silence and continually engage Our Lord through prayer,” he said. “The entire Church is privileged to stand on the shoulders of these men.”
He also spoke about the final communal Mass on their trip, celebrated by Bishop Conley.
“It was during this Mass,” he said, “that I realized that, to the secular world, these monks seem to have absolutely nothing. But, through the eyes of faith, these monks have everything.
“The beauty of their continual sacrifice to engage our Lord in prayer struck me deeply and inspired me to look at silence more affectionately,” he said. “I need to see silence as an invitation to experience Christ as an ever-abiding loving presence in my life at all times.”
Bishop Conley added that one other tradition he added to the trip was a stop for dinner on the way back from the monastery at “the most famous barbecue restaurant in all of Kansas City,” Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue Restaurant on 22nd and Brooklyn in downtown Kansas City.
“My father used to take me to Arthur Bryant’s when I was growing up as a kid. The restaurant was and still is just down the street from the old Municipal Stadium on 18th and Brooklyn (now torn down) where the Kansas City Athletics and the Kansas City Chiefs used to play.”