TRAPPIST, Ky. — On July 11, two men just shy of age 40 from Ohio professed solemn vows at the Abbey of Gethsemani, joining 30 other men at the monastery near Bardstown, Ky.
With those vows, they promised to begin their day at 3:15 a.m., pray seven times a day on a set schedule, accept a vegetarian diet and live by the strict observance of the Cistercian order.
And it’s just what Brother Joseph, formerly Chris Bender, and Brother Abel, formerly Ian Arbuckle, were seeking.
“We don’t do anything on our own,” said Brother Abel, a soft-spoken man of 39, during an interview in the guest house at Gethsemani July 16. “It’s a much more intense religious life (than other orders he considered). I was looking for what I found here.”
In his former life, Brother Abel was a welder and liked to work on racing bikes. He comes from New Albany, Ohio, and was a member of Resurrection Church.
He is a convert who says he didn’t pay much attention to religion or Christianity until the age of 30.
“I must have met a Christian,” he said. “But none of them made it known to me. So I adopted a cruel caricature of what it must be” to be a Christian.
He began reading the classics on his own — St. Augustine and the like. And they led him to the faith.
“I started finding out the real deal and it was very attractive,” he said.
He entered an RCIA program and became Catholic in 2013. From there, he began his discernment to religious life.
“I felt like I was interested in following Christ in a more serious way, but not as a priest. That doesn’t interest me at all.”
He and Brother Joseph entered Gethsemani just three weeks apart and both consider themselves converts, though Brother Joseph was baptized Catholic.
Brother Joseph, 38, is from Cleveland. His family didn’t attend church, but at age 29, two events within two weeks eventually led him to the abbey, he said.
“I was dumped by my girlfriend and I lost my job,” he said.
Living in an area near historic churches in Tremont, Ohio, and having a bad day, he set out to look for a place to meditate — he was interested in East Indian spirituality at the time.
“I tried a Russian Orthodox church, but it was locked,” he said. The only one he found open that day was Holy Ghost Church, a Byzantine Catholic church. The church had been closed, but the pastor was there preparing to reopen it.
“Father Richard was about my age and he and his mother were there cleaning it,” Brother Joseph explained. “I sat there for about 30 minutes.”
On his way out, the pastor’s mother stopped him and, “She told me I was supposed to be there because you know what today is? I had no idea. It’s the nativity of Our Lady. I had sat in front of the image of Our Lady.”
Brother Joseph, who was a nursing assistant at Regina Health Center, continued to stop in at Holy Ghost — and somehow managed to keep showing up on Marian feast days.
In the meantime, his mom introduced him to Thomas Merton, the famous writer who was a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
After a retreat at Gethsemani, he said, “I thought this was a wonderful way to spend a lifetime.” He even imagined that it would be nice to be a janitor at Gethsemani.
He still had discernment ahead of him. He learned to pray during a difficult experience in India. And gradually his meditation practices transitioned into prayer, he said.
As is the expectation of men in discernment, Brother Joseph made return trips to Gethsemani beginning in 2015.
“When I started coming here and seeing how beautiful life was, I saw how God was calling me to completely live this life. He doesn’t want me to live it halfway like a live-in janitor.”
Men like Brothers Joseph and Abel first come to Gethsemani as observers. In fact, there are observers at Gethsemani this week. They rise with the monks, pray the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day, attend Mass and get to know the community and life at the abbey. Observers are asked to come three times unless they are traveling too far for that to be feasible, said Father Anton, the vocation director.
The next step is to become a postulant. He must be at least 22 years old and this lasts six months. Then a man becomes a novice for two years. After that, he makes temporary vows each year for three years. The next step is solemn vows. The entire process, during which the man is in formation, is five and a half years.
“There are no responsibilities (during formation). The emphasis is on absorbing the monastic tradition, letting go of everything and living the schedule,” said Father Anton.
After solemn vows, the newer monks share in the general work of the community. Brother Joseph helps make and package fruitcakes, one of the cottage industries that support the monks.
Brother Abel works in the kitchen. And Brother Joseph holds his cooking in high regard.
Eventually, their previous work experience may be used in service to the community, but that’s not assured, Father Anton noted.
“We’re supposed to work with our hands — literally,” said Father Anton, noting the Rule of St. Benedict, the basis for Cistercian life. “We use our hands to make fudge, fruitcakes, gift items for the gift shop we operate and the retreat house.”
At its heart, the life is one of simplicity, ordered around prayer, work and reading, he explained.
The Abbey of Gethsemani was established in 1848 by 41 monks who came from France on land they bought from the Sisters of Loretto. They first inhabited three cabins that formerly housed enslaved people, he said.
Currently, the abbey here has five daughter houses in the United States and Chile.
There are 32 men at the abbey in solemn vows ranging in age from 37 to 98. There are four men in formation. There are also two long-term visiting monks. Another man intends to join them but is stuck in India because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The men living at Gethsemani mostly hail from the United States, but there is some diversity, said Father Anton. One monk is from the Philippines, three are from Canada, two are from Vietnam, one is from Peru, one is from Rwanda and another is from Nigeria.
For more information about the abbey, visit monks.org.