Br. Brian O’ Dowd: An Irish Monk in Oregon.
Br. Brian O’ Dowd: An Irish Monk in Oregon.
I am a monk from Ireland and currently living in Guadalupe Abbey for over a year now. I have been asked to share some of my experiences which I am very happy to do.
It is surprising how often our first and deepest impressions seem almost the least significant. For example, back in Ireland my knowledge and interest in bird life was rich and rewarding. My first few walks in the beautiful hills surrounding the abbey brought home to me that I was recognizing nothing familiar in my winged friends in Oregon. So in size, for example, the North American Robin bears more of a resemblance to a turkey than it does to its European cousin! They both share a red breast but that is where the similarity ends. Back in Ireland spotting a bird of prey like a hawk or an eagle was a rare treat. Over here you literally just have to look straight up and you have a good chance of seeing one. When Spring came in I was thrilled to see the first swallows arriving from the Southern Hemisphere. I thought to myself, ‘At last, something I recognize from the ol’ sod!’ But when I got a closer look I could see that these swallows, although they made similar flight patterns, had subtly different colours and markings. This made me think of Darwin’s theory about the adaptation of species to their environment. It further helped me to reflect on how human beings are also called to adapt and change when it is clear that God is calling them to do so. The challenging part of Darwin’s Theory for us humans is that it is only those species that manage to adapt who continue to survive. The rest become extinct.
I also love the Autumn here in Oregon, because there is rarely a strong wind and the leaves remain on the trees for over a month, with beautiful rustic colours. Back in Ireland, the leaves have rustic colours for about two days as powerful winds from the Atlantic make sure they become compost sooner, rather than later.
What is also special about the Autumn here in Oregon is to see the low flying geese, hundreds of them, in V-formation. You hear them before you see them. They come out of the mist making barking sounds like a pack of dogs and sometimes pass so low overhead that you want to reach up and touch. Although they are a group you can see the individual personalities: the strong ones forge ahead, the less strong ones struggle to try keep up, and the ones in the middle are doing their best to keep the formation.
Enough about the birds, now for the humans! When I first arrived here in Guadalupe Abbey, I was initially struck that there is a good balance of younger and older monks. Back in Ireland the monasteries are more top-heavy with ageing members. I was further struck by the fact that there is a very good spirit of love and respect between the young and old. It brought home to me something of the visible unity of the Body of Christ and this continues to make a big impression on me. But you have to be continually amazed at the elderly. Some of them are WWII veterans, in their eighties and nineties, and not content with having ‘saved the world’ they insist on taking their turn cooking, washing-up, and doing important jobs like caring for the sick! May God reward them as they continue to edify us all.
I was also struck by the beauty of the architecture here in Guadalupe Abbey. I learned that the monastery had recently been rebuilt and renovated, a project that involved several years and much expense. So everything is new and everything works. This may seem insignificant but bear in mind that I come from a monastery in Ireland that was built around a 13th Century Norman castle and a 16th Century dwelling house and you can perhaps sense something of the novelty I am experiencing.
However, I am also struck, very deeply, by the unity in the Cistercian/Trappist Order. That a monk can move half way around the world, from a different culture and experience, and adapt to a new community (with just a few tweaks and minor surgeries), speaks a lot for the Cistercian charism and the unity of the Order. But it also speaks a lot for the welcome that Abbot Peter and the community have extended to me. It is true that they are probably suffering, what amounts to learning a new language, in trying to understand my Irish accent! Also when my turn for cooking comes around and I, for example, produce an Irish shepherd’s pie they all politely eat it even though they don’t know what it is! May God continue to reward their patience and charity!
I am also quite taken by the similar challenges facing monasteries in Ireland and the U.S. When I was in Ireland one of the major concerns was the one of supporting ourselves financially. Therefore, there was an ongoing concern for falling milk prices and rising costs in the agricultural sector. Here in Guadalupe Abbey the major concern is the dwindling book bindery industry as gradually more and more librarians, students and universities are changing over to digital media and so many valued customers are binding less. There is a sense of living in a rapidly changing world that is very hard to keep up with. So there are very similar challenges facing all our Cistercian communities globally. Our Cistercian brethren in the Middle Ages had to face even more dramatic changes through wars, plagues and revolutions. So it gives me much joy to see the same spirit of total trust in the Lord here in the community of Guadalupe Abbey and how the Lord is guiding us all according to his plan.
To finish on a more personal note, I really enjoy and appreciate the very well stocked library here in Guadalupe Abbey. It provides a source of much enjoyment and ongoing formation. I love to walk in the hills surrounding the abbey and you need to wear your sweats because you are sure to get a thoroughly good work-out. I also enjoy working with Br John who also provides an even better work-out with odd jobs that need to be done around the monastery. Abbot Peter, for the purposes of ongoing formation for the community, regularly brings in outside speakers who are experts in either theology, spirituality, or psychology. This is something I enjoy a lot and which is also much appreciated by the community. I cook in the kitchen one or two days a week and I enjoy this very much even though you have to be on top of your game to get it all done on time. I continually look to the octogenarian cooks in the community to learn how this feat is achieved with such unruffled serenity!
Finally, it remains only to thank Abbot Peter for the warm welcome he has given me to live with the community here in Guadalupe and his ongoing care. Also the same goes for the rest of the community who have been equally welcoming and caring. How can I forget Br. Dominique, who met me at the airport when I arrived and got me a most beautiful meal which probably did permanent damage to my cholesterol but that is okay! And lastly to thank Br. Chris who gently urged me… okay, perhaps not so ‘gently’… to write this little article and share my experience, which I am happy to do.
I ask your prayers.
+ Br. Brian O’ Dowd