Finding peace (and quiet) at Clear Creek Abbey

Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in northeast Oklahoma, about 65 miles east of Tulsa, is situated on 1,000 acres that are rugged, wooded, hilly and virtually hidden and through which a creek flows.

The monastery was founded in August 1999 by 13 monks who came from France — eight Americans, three Frenchmen and two Canadians — and became a priory of the French Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault, which was founded by the Abbey of St. Pierre of Solesmes, famous for the excellent quality of its Gregorian chant.

In 2010, the status of Clear Creek monastery as a priory of Fontgombault ended when it became an abbey, independent from Fontgombault, and now, after having originated with 13 monks, there are 50 at Clear Creek Abbey, many of whom are young, and more men continue to come to discern a vocation as a monk of the Order of St. Benedict of the Solesmes Congregation.

Abbey’s founders

The five Americans who helped establish the abbey had been non-Catholic students at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. They participated in a great-books program known as the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP), conducted by two Catholic professors and an Episcopalian (who later became Catholic).

The professors did not evangelize or push their students into converting to Catholicism, but the men, influenced by their professors’ character and charisma, became Catholics and went to Fontgombault and became Benedictine monks.

One of the students converted from Judaism, and another from Unitarianism, who explained his conversion as having taken place in part because, “I read the Confessions of St. Augustine in the summer of ’72. I was really struck by this, because I had believed that Christianity was something very sentimental, having a moral code of some sort but with no intellectual content, and here was — you could just tell, every page — a great mind, and he’s a Christian,” Abbot Philip Anderson said.

Abbot Anderson, after leaving the University of Kansas as a Catholic, was a Marine for two years and then went to Fontgombault and became a monk. He has said being a Marine made him a better monk. He was the prior of Clear Creek until 2010, when he became abbot.

The IHP produced hundreds of other converts, including Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and his boyhood friend and roommate at the University of Kansas, a cradle Catholic, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City.

Finding a home

The Americans who went to Fontgombault hoped that someday there would be a monastery of the Solesmes Congregation in America. The Abbot of Fontgombault wanted that, too, and looked at properties in several states before accepting the invitation of Bishop Edward J. Slattery to establish a monastery in the Diocese of Tulsa.

New and larger facilities than those already there, which were several log cabins and a horse barn that was converted into an oratory and monks’ cells, were needed. A large Romanesque-style church has been partially constructed, and a four-story residence building has been constructed and will have to be enlarged. Half of the building is used for the monks, and the other side is for male overnight visitors. There are overnight accommodations elsewhere for women and families, and there is a convent of Benedictine sisters.

A great many clerical and lay visitors come from all around the United States and foreign countries for private retreats or just to visit. Many of them sign a visitors’ book that is in the gatehouse, a large room that is the entrance to the monastery, and write in the book where they’re from. One winter, a few years ago, during a 10-day period filled with snow and ice that made going there difficult and treacherous, visitors from 17 states and three foreign countries signed the book.

Approximately 25 families from across the United States, especially California and the Midwest, have bought property near the monastery and now live there, including a family that has a business making textbooks for home-schooled children. The influx of these families and their many children has substantially increased the population of the area, which is becoming a kind of village.

Quiet, prayerful lives

The rising numbers visitors and transplanted neighbors, however, are not what make Clear Creek Abbey the special place it is. The monks and the strict style of their lives are what make the place a special one. They carefully observe the Rule of St. Benedict. They are cloistered. They do not assume the pastoral care of parishes, although they are available for spiritual direction and to hear confessions, and they do not have schools. The Divine Office and Mass are celebrated in Latin and sung in Gregorian chant.

A calf is fed by one of the Benedictine monks living at Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma. Courtesy photo

The essence of their life is prayer, starting at 5:15 a.m. with Matins and Lauds, with low Masses at side altars in the crypt starting at 7 a.m., then Prime at 8 a.m., followed by a meager breakfast of coffee and a little bit of food, taken standing up. High Mass, preceded by Terce and a procession into the cloister to a shrine of the Blessed Mother, is at 10 a.m.

Sext at 12:50 p.m. is followed by lunch, which, after several minutes of praying in Latin, is taken in silence with a monk’s reading religious or secular literature. Some days, there is wine or beer, which the monks make. The monks fast and abstain from meat every day during Lent and Advent and at other times during the year.

After lunch, the monks have a period of recreation, often a long walk. Later, the Divine Office None held in the afternoon with vespers several hours later, and then a light meal about 7:30 p.m., standing up. Compline is at 8:35 p.m. after which there is what the French call le grand silence, required by Chapter 42 of the Rule of St. Benedict, entitled, “That No One Speak After Compline.”

The monks have gardens, a vineyard, cattle and hundreds of sheep guarded from coyotes and other predators by Grand Pyrenees dogs. They make excellent cheese, which may be purchased in the gatehouse.

The monks make their clothes and shoes. They do not snack between meals; they do not have radios or televisions. The monks go up and down four flights of stairs all day long, going to and from the Divine Office, Mass and work. They do not use the elevator in the guests’ side of the monastery. Monks who have attained 65 years of age may use the elevator but choose not.

In February 2000, Bishop Slattery of Tulsa at the inauguration Mass spoke of “a new American civilization coming from this place.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, monasteries, the father of which was St. Benedict, became centers of Christian life, learning and culture. Clear Creek and other places like it may very well become beacons of Christian culture now needed in the cultural decline in America today.

Ted King writes from Oklahoma.