Life as a Monk Is a Constant Temptation

This week's statement from the Vatican reaffirming celibacy for priests prompted an essay from commentator Peter Manseau. Manseau grew up in a household where his father, a former Roman Catholic priest, taught him that celibacy was damaging to faith and to the men of the clergy. Yet as an adult, Manseau finds himself irresistibly drawn to a life as a monk.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This past week, the Roman Catholic church reaffirmed mandatory celibacy for its priests. The Vatican rebuffed a campaign for dispensation from celibacy by an African archbishop who married and was excommunicated. The Vatican's stance prompted this reflection from commentator Peter Manseau.

PETER MANSEAU: When my father married my mother in the late 1960s, he did so with the hope that it would help change his church's policy of mandatory celibacy for clergy. He was one of about 100,000 priests who believed the celibacy requirement was damaging not only to those obliged to live by it, but to the faith itself. The last thing he expected was that his youngest son would want to embrace it by becoming a monk.

He shouldn't have been too surprised. Despite their one flagrant violation of ecclesiastical authority, my parents remained devotedly religious and intended their children to be the same. I memorized the Mass before I could read and came to love the liturgy the way a child loves his first storybook.

Years later, when I learned that not far from my university in Massachusetts there was a Trappist monastery, a bastion of the kind of Old World faith my father had fled, I felt drawn to it as if it was a homeland I had never seen. After a few phone conversations with the monastery's vocation director, I arranged for a trial visit.

When I arrived at the monastery late one evening, I found myself surrounded by monks chanting in candlelight. For the week that followed, I lived by their schedule, rising each night to the 3:00 a.m. bell that called us together to pray. In the daytime, we worked. Whatever the tasks assigned, the brothers tackled them happily. I had been raised to believe enforced celibacy was a misguided practice, an artifact of medieval papal politics. And yet here were men who rejoiced in it.

When I went back to my dingy undergraduate apartment, I was surprised to find myself afflicted with a kind of spiritual jetlag. At three in the morning I'd wake with a start, jolted by imagined echoes of the monastery bell. For an hour or more I would lie awake thinking, the monks are singing, why am I in bed?

So at the end of the semester, I returned. Once again I fell easily into the monastic routine, and when I heard the monks say, welcome back, brother, I felt I had come home.

But home is never so simple. One night in church, when the evening's chanting was done, I remained as the others filed out the door. Kneeling alone in the dark, questions crowded around me. How could I feel called to something that would shut me off from women, from fatherhood, from sex, from choices? Dear God, I prayed, couldn't you make this less complicated? Only my sniffling broke the church's silence, until I heard a say clearly, you don't belong here.

Wherever it had come from, it sounded like a divine reprieve. No, I thought, I don't. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw a monk smiling down at me. Sorry, brother, he said. No one allowed in the church after last prayers.

Now, 11 years later, when I wake in the middle of the night, it is to help my wife comfort our one-year-old daughter. Even so, there are times when I lie in the dark and wonder what my life might have been. At such moments I understand why my father and 100,000 married men like him to this day consider themselves priests. Regardless of the Vatican's reaffirmation of celibacy, they still hear the calling of bells.

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