Like many Catholics, Michael Patrick O’Brien felt so appalled by the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Church, he considered leaving the institution to which he had belonged all his life. But then Michael received word that a facility close to his heart – Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah – would soon be closing. It was at that Trappist monastery that Michael, during his childhood, had formed friendships with monks who shaped his life in a positive way at a time when he needed male role models due to his parents’ divorce.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below) about his memoir “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” Michael told me, “The two events sort of merged into one for me because as I was wrestling with my anger with the scandal and the coverup…I had this burst of memories and recollections about these wonderful men who had cared so much for me and taken care of me as a boy. So I had to reconcile the church of my past, that I loved, with the church of the present, that was really disturbing me. I sort of had to move backwards in order to move forward. So I ended up writing a book as a form of spiritual therapy.”
Michael first discovered Holy Trinity Abbey during a drive with his mother and sister when he was 11. It occurred in the aftermath of his parents’ separation and divorce, which was prompted by his father leaving the family to be with another woman. Michael couldn’t help but feel abandoned. So when his Irish Catholic mother followed a road sign that read “Monastery,” he didn’t know this was a God-ordained detour. But what he found at the abbey changed his life.
The Trappists, or Cistercians, are a group of contemplative monks who follow the motto “Ora et Labora,” which is Latin for “Work and Prayer.”
“The Utah Trappists had an 1,800 acre ranch…about an hour’s drive north of Salt Lake, in a very rural area, dominated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” explained Michael. “They raised cattle. They raised chickens. They had a dairy. They baked bread. They had a beehive, and they produced honey. And every bit of that they considered to be a prayer. When the bells would ring and they were in the chicken coop, they would stop whatever they were doing, leave it for tomorrow, and go chant the Psalms seven times a day and pray to God. So it’s a life where prayer is the primary focus. And one of the monks said to me once, ‘We pray. We pray for peace. We pray for health. We pray for goodness in people’s lives. That’s what we do. Isn’t it nice to know that somebody up here is praying for you?'”
Both the environment and the down-to-earth friendliness of the monks attracted Michael to spend as much time as he could at the abbey. “I don’t know if I was a surrogate son or if they were surrogate fathers,” he recalled, “but whatever it was, they took me under their wings…They would ask me questions. They would tell me stories about their lives. The sort of things that I think are critical in parenting, making that connection with someone, adult to child – and the child learning how an adult makes his or her way in the world. And I saw that in a rather unique way, they were making their way in a monastic world, which is much different than the world I lived in. But they were making their way too. And it was that sort of, I think, direct observation that helped replace the absence of my father.”
Not only did Michael benefit from being around the monks, so did his mother, who was enduring her marital breakup during the late 1960s/early 1970s, when a divorced woman could often be looked down upon or condemned. The monks gave her compassionate support, noting the breakup was not her fault and that she could still be a good Catholic and good mother.
One of the monks who made a lasting impression on Michael was Brother Boniface, who he called “the face of God on earth.” Brother Boniface was originally from Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrant parents. After serving in World War II, he returned home, changed by the conflict, and decided to enter Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. At age 29, the Cistercians assigned him to Utah, where he spent the rest of his days. Michael observed, “He had this wonderful love of life, but also love of God.”
That love of both life and God shaped the way Michael would practice his Catholic faith as he got older. He said, “I think having that experience, years later created a path for me that I call my own spiritual path, which is sort of a monk in the world. I adhere to the Trappist vows in my own version of them as a married man working in the world. So, unwittingly, they gave me a pathway that I have tried to walk and that I think has been beneficial for me spiritually.”
There was one especially devastating event in Michael’s young life, after which he found support at the abbey. While riding his bike home from baseball practice one evening, a stranger stopped him to ask for directions. The stranger then dragged Michael into an isolated area where he sexually assaulted him. As this was going on, Michael instinctually started praying the “Hail Mary” out loud because he believed this might be the end of his life. “I said it loudly enough that I think the assailant heard me,” recalled Michael. “And for some reason, I don’t know how or why, it had an impact, and he stopped and let me go.”
Michael continued, “I told my family about it. Today they probably would’ve sent me to a therapist, but again, in the early seventies, therapy for 11-year-olds wasn’t that common. So my mom turned to the resources that she knew of. She said, ‘You have to talk to a couple of Catholic priests.’ She sent me to a Paulist priest who was a family friend, and to the Abbot of the monastery. They provided comfort and understanding and friendship, and really rescued me from a very difficult moment. Ironic, given the current state of affairs with the scandal, right? That I was a victim of sexual assault too, but it was priests and nuns and monks who rescued me from it, not who perpetrated it…That chapter wasn’t in the initial draft of the book. Finally, I realized as the book evolved, that in an era where the Catholic Church is struggling with priests as abusers, we also needed stories of priests as rescuers.”
Though Michael has endured times of darkness in his life, he hopes that reading “Monastery Mornings” serves as a light to readers. He concluded, “I’m a big believer in light…My story could have had a much different ending, right? A child of divorce, relatively impoverished family, a mother who had to spend 14 hours a day just bringing in the economic resources on which the family could live. Brothers and sisters going in different directions…So it could have been a very different story, but it was light that changed it for me…It was my mother. It was the monks. It was my sister who stepped up and sacrificed much at a very young age to help maintain the family. It was all these people in whom God was incarnated taking a moment to care about me, to show me light, to show me the way. So my story, in many ways, is a wonderful example of [The Christopher] motto, which is how important lighting that candle can be, despite the overwhelming amount of darkness that surrounds you.”
(To listen to my full interview with Michael Patrick O’Brien, click on the podcast link):