A Family’s Sacrifice

This might shock you, but monks come from families. No matter what you have heard, they were not hatched or dropped off at the monastery doorstep shortly after their birth. They were born into this world, much like you, experiencing the most formative years of their lives as part of a family. Some monks are an only child, and some come from very large families (in our community, as large as 12 and 14 children!).

As the monastery’s vocation director, I will ask a man interested in applying to enter the postulancy, “How are your parents doing with this decision?” Their decision to enter the monastery inevitably impacts others—their families, friends, and even their coworkers. Sometimes families are supportive of the decision, which makes the discernment process a little easier, but sometimes families—especially the parents—are dead-set against the decision, which makes a rather challenging choice like entering a monastery, much more difficult. I have often wondered about a few young men who did not persevere in their monastic vocation: If their parents had been more supportive, would they have stayed?

We all want acceptance, support, and affirmation, especially from those that we are closest to. Sometimes due to disagreements in faith, or for a variety of other reasons, friends and family members may not completely understand or accept the decision to enter religious life. This experience can be painful and a burdensome cross to bear. The young man might find consolation that Jesus’ relatives didn’t always understand his mission and, at one point, thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). But, though tension may arise, it is important for the candidate to be patient with others if they do not support him—it might be their way of expressing their concern and looking out for his best interest. In my experience, our loved ones want to see us happy and fulfilled, but many mistakenly believe that if you enter religious life, with all its rules, structure, and sacrifices, that you can neither be happy nor fulfilled. Some people think that the world, with all its allurements and promises, has much more to offer.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter says to Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us” (Mt 19:27)? In Jesus’ response, He says, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). The sacrifices for entering a monastery are real. I don’t get to be in close geographic proximity to my family—they are 400 miles away. Everyone who loves makes sacrifices, and often we don’t get to choose what sacrifices we are making in life. But we can still choose to embrace those sacrifices and believe in faith that we will receive “a hundred times more.”

It is important for friends or family to visit the religious community for themselves and have the opportunity to meet and interact with its members. This experience was very important for my parents. During their visits over the years, they have made friends with several of the monks. They know which ones like to play cards or board games, and which ones will be a suitable wine drinking partner for my mom (sorry Mom!).

The monks hosted their families for a special weekend June 2-4 to celebrate the monastery’s 150th anniversary with them.

I was a novice the last time we had a monastic family weekend event. While my parents have visited numerous times throughout the years, it is not always at a time when other families are visiting too. In light of our 150th anniversary celebrations, the community saw it important to host our families on a designated weekend. It turned out to be an overwhelming success which made us ask: Why don’t we do this more often? There were opportunities for more active or passive activities, like relaxing in a lawn chair or participating in a variety of yard games. The weekend balanced prayer in the Basilica and a social and festive meal. Fr. Pachomius offered a tour of the new seminary dormitory, Good Shepherd Hall, and families were able to interact at the evening social in the Alumni Union. There my nine-year-old niece had the opportunity to ask the other monks if they knew her “Uncle Paul.” She returned excited with the report that the other monks knew me and concluded that I must be “very popular around here.” Families mingled and interacted and the aforementioned niece was able to build a quick friendship with Fr. Pachomius’ niece who was about the same age.

While hosting and welcoming guests is always enjoyable, but can sometimes be a little taxing for a monk in the midst of the usual ora et labora, this weekend had a more relaxed and rejuvenating feel to it. It was an opportunity to praise God together with our families who gave us the gift of life and prepared us in faith to say “yes” to God’s call to monastic life. Their support, encouragement, and even correction over the years have been most impactful in forming us into the men we are today. While many people now address us “Father” or “Brother” we were first “brother” to others for many years before we donned the monastic habit. We can all acknowledge that while there are sacrifices asked of us in this life, we are already receiving God’s blessings “a hundred times

Fr. Paul Sheller, OSB
Abbey Vocation Director


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