By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published November 29, 2007
Cistercian Brother Michael Lautieri remembers well his first visit to the monastery. He was 52, beyond the age when men are accepted as possible candidates. But after a career as a teacher and a travel agent, he had heard again the call he first sensed as a younger man.
“When the call came again at 52, I pretty much was like Abraham and laughed. … I tried to dismiss it. I thought it was a passing thought,” he recalled. “It wasn’t. So I wrote a form letter and sent it out to all the Cistercian houses in the United States, expecting no answer. One monastery wrote back a nice letter, saying you are over our age limit, but if it is God’s will, someone will accept you. After that I got a letter from Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery.”
He was invited to come for an interview in 1996. When the Rhode Island resident reached the Conyers monastery, he was “overcome by fear and drove by the entrance.” He heard an inner voice chide him, “Get back there, will you.”
Entering the church during vespers he looked around and hoped the monk who would interview him would be an older man, but it was a younger monk. They sat together for what was supposed to be a one-hour interview. After 45 minutes, the monk abruptly closed the book in which he was noting information and looked at him. Michael braced himself.
“One of the things St. Benedict looks for is self-knowledge,” the monk told him. “At your age you seem to have a lot of self-knowledge.”
He told Michael he was accepted into the first step of observing monastic life.
“I was stunned. I left and started to walk down the magnolia lane, and I started to cry. To me, it was a miracle. It was the last thing I expected,” he said.
This unexpected grace in his own life now helps Brother Michael, who became a solemn professed member of the community in 2003, in his role as vocations director.
Right now about a half-dozen men are in various stages of studying the life. Two men are observers. Another has completed observership and is a postulant; another postulant is anticipated to enter shortly. There are three novices, the stage following the six-month period of postulancy. One person has completed the novitiate and has taken temporary vows and is considered a junior within the monastery.
In the past three years, five men have made solemn professed vows, completing the process of study, formation, discernment and acceptance that takes a minimum of six years. They make a vow of stability, promising to remain within this particular monastic community for life.
“We don’t recruit. We help these men really discern if this life is for them,” Brother Michael said. “We are quite happy and blessed God is sending us vocations. We have a deep sense of gratitude for that.”
He attributes it to the inspiration Pope John Paul II gave during his life and the graces that seemed to follow his death in 2005.
“It was right after that, that the inquiries started coming in, and they are still coming in,” Brother Michael said.
And he credits the intercession of monks who have died in recent years, including some of the 21 founders and pioneers who came immediately after the founding monks and helped build the monastery. The abbot “told the monks who were about to die that they had to pray for vocations and pray for replacements,” he said, and with their lifelong love for the monastic community it is no surprise some results have come about.
Ninety-five percent of the inquiries the monastery receives come through their Web site, and most men are in their 40s and 50s, with a smaller number in their 30s and an even smaller number in their 20s. Several vocation retreats are also given each year. Following initial contacts, men are invited to come for a brief visit, during which they pray and work with the monks and eat lunch with them. If they choose to come back following this first visit, they are interviewed by four monks, including the abbot, vocations director and novice master, and provide three letters of recommendation.
If accepted then, they can live with the community as an observer for a minimum of two months.
They are then required to leave and reflect more on their decision for at least a month. Normally during this time candidates must take care of the practical details of changing course from a secular life, with a job and home, to monastic life.
Postulancy is a six-month period. The novitiate is at least two years long and can be extended. At its conclusion the individual makes simple or temporary vows. This period as a junior extends for at least three years and can extend as long as nine years before a monk makes solemn vows.
Brother Michael credits the community at the monastery with helping to make candidates feel welcomed.
“It is remarkable that we have had several solemn professions in recent years. Vocations-wise we are doing well. It is the work of the Holy Spirit,” Brother Michael said. “I always emphasize it is the work of the community. They do a good job of welcoming people. I think that is extremely important.”
Under the Rule of St. Benedict, which dates to the sixth century, monks dedicate themselves to a contemplative life. They devote themselves to worshipping God, but they do not retreat from their fellowman. They serve others with a life of prayer and manual labor and commitment to the community.
“It is a life where one can find time and opportunities for our values—prayer, silence, solitude, community and work,” Brother Michael said.
“On a deeper level, it has to do with intimacy,” he continued. “The closest analogy to the monastic life is marriage. … You fall in love with God and he falls in love with you and this is the best place for that relationship to grow. The monk feels this is the best place for him.”
“Guys coming in here now have a decent prayer life and spiritual life. … Almost all are looking for a community in which to live out this prayer life,” he said.
Brother Elias, the novice master, said the journey from being a visitor or candidate to becoming a solemn professed monk is spiritually arduous, but priceless for those who discover the monastic life is their calling.
He entered in 1992 and made his solemn profession in 1999.
Prior to entering, he said, “I had money, friends, social life, the whole works. There was something in me that said I needed to be challenged. It was too easy out there. I entered close to 15 years ago. It was the best thing I could possibly have done.”
“I am just immensely grateful to be here, to know myself at a deep level,” he said. “To strip away all the pretenses, to see myself as I am is something that could not have happened on the outside, not for me.”
“It is very, very slow—the pride is broken down, little by little, the self-will, your demands that things be a certain way,” Brother Elias said. “It is a school of love. You’re educated in this love. … You become truly selfless more and more.”
For more information on the vocation process at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, contact Brother Michael, vocation director, at email@example.com or (678) 964-2018 or write to the vocations director in care of the monastery.