How to become a spiritual millionaire

David D. Perata first visited the Convent of Our Lady of New Clairvaux in 1967. In the Sacramento Valley town of Vina, 35 monks lived amidst 450 acres of plum and walnut orchards. He found dirt roads, old board and lattice guesthouses, and the magical smell of freshly cut alfalfa.

He had come with his best mate Joe and Joe’s father. The two boys, both from strong Catholic families, “rarely had the opportunity to see a priest or nun in secular dress, to have a beer, or to work on a tractor.”

He fell in love with this Trappist monastery, an offshoot of Gethsemani (made famous by Thomas Merton) in Kentucky. As he grew up, he kept coming back.

In 1991 he approached then-Abbot Thomas Davis about the possibility of photographing the monks and interviewing them about their lives. Permission was granted – miraculously, as the monks are strict about their privacy, as per the Rule of St. Benedict). Perata wrote a number of articles, but the oral traditions lay dormant for seven years.

Eventually, again with permission, he transcribed the stories and collected them, along with a series of black-and-white photographs showing the monks at work and prayer, in a book entitled The Orchards of Perseverance (St. Therese’s Press, 19 $.59). ).

Many of the monks had joined in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At least one had already died when the book was published.

I came across the volume shortly after joining the Church in the mid 1990’s and have referred to it many times since.

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“What I found in researching the history of Cistercian monasticism was an incredible description of the mystical relationship between God and the human soul,” notes Perata, “and how a monk strives to perfect that relationship through his monastic vocation.”

The monks are depicted baking bread, sorting walnuts, painting a shed or repairing an engine. The individual stories, the mystery of a divine call, the almost universal monastic experience of ups, downs, dark nights of the soul, and the arrival of a kind of deep peace – despite lingering surface tensions and fears – make for compelling reading.

In the stillness and solitude, deprived of their previous lives, many of the men experienced a kind of personality disintegration. The realization that they weren’t who they thought they were could be deeply unsettling.

Brother Adam – baker, tailor, shoemaker – had learned after 50 years of monastery life that the focus must be on the community. “If you don’t play your small role, you affect the whole team. … You must have a real drive and incentive to become successful like you are in the world. A spiritual millionaire if you want to look at it that way.”

Father Timothy had lived in a simple hermit’s hut in New Clairvaux since 1958. “My experience at the end of all these years is that in Christ I experience God as my own dear Father. … There is contentment, happiness, fulfillment; Gratitude, love, joy that you want to share with everyone around the world and I do that at the cabin.”

But there is one monk who held a special place in my psyche: Father Anthony, who came to New Clairvaux in 1972.

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Born and raised Catholic, he initially had no desire to become a priest. He earned degrees in Economics and Engineering and became a corporate sales engineer. But after his plans to marry and have children fell through, he joined the Dominicans in San Francisco and began studying as a priest at St. Albert’s College in Oakland. Six months later he had a complete nervous breakdown.

He had been commissioned to sweep the sidewalk in front of the novitiate. They had given him a small three-foot push broom, and he immediately saw that putting two brooms together would get the job done faster. So he swept away and the novice master came and said, “No, no, no, don’t do that, just use a broom.”

And Anthony suffered a complete breakdown, inside and out. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up for two weeks. He was with a psychiatrist for five years. He had been a producer all his life. They had taken the production away from him and he no longer knew who he was.

Many times over the years I have revisited Anthony’s story with a sense of deep glee. Who would I be if “they” took away my phone, laptop, notebook, to-do lists, post-its, appointment book, calendar, stacks of books, saved files, pen? My pride in being able to move fast, to multitask, to give a “good performance” of myself at the end of the day?

Anthony eventually left the Dominicans, joined the Trappists, and became a priest and potter. He started out making ceramic goblets and branched out into jugs, mugs and vases. He died in 2018.

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Recently, on a whim, I googled his name and found a number of his vases on eBay. One, Madonna blue and beautifully round, is now sitting next to my bed.

Be a spiritual millionaire, it whispers. Use the one small broom.

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