I was recently able to spend three days at the Clear Creek Monastery in eastern Oklahoma. I would recommend it to anyone.
The monastery was founded in 1999 by the Abbey of Fontgombault, in central France, although it’s now an independent foundation with its own Abbot. It’s on a thousand-acre site, in a very isolated spot about an hour east of Tulsa. Most people think of a flat desert when they think of Oklahoma. But this is only true of the west of the state: eastern Oklahoma is green and hilly.
The monastery says the traditional Mass and office (all eight hours of it). About forty-five monks live there. I would say the average age was the mid-30s, though some looked as young as 20, and the oldest was about 70. Most of the monks are American, but there are a few from the other Anglophone countries, and one or two from continental Europe. I don’t know how many of the monks were also priests, as they don’t change their habit when they’re ordained. Based on the numbers saying Mass, I’d estimate it at between a third and half. Many of the older monks had studied at the University of Kansas, under Prof. John Senior, who had, from the late sixties to the late seventies, taught a course on the great western classics, and in doing so had converted (it’s estimated) about 250 people to the Faith. The monastery wouldn’t exist without his efforts.
(The course’s name was the ‘Pearson Integrated Humanities Program’. More information athttp://www.clearcreekmonks.
org/_pdf/EOC-June-2013-IHP- Catholic-legacy-endures-born- in-wonder.pdf.)
I was picked up from Tulsa, and on my arrival was greeted by Fr Guestmaster. Soon afterwards, I went to Vespers. I arrived on a evening, and there were quite a few laypeople present. After Vespers, we went for supper. The Abbot ceremonially washed my hands before supper, as I was a newly-arrived guest.
The monks were sitting at about three long tables with fairly plain furniture. The Abbot was on his own. We guests – there were about four of us, all male of course – were at our own table. During supper, there were readings from the Rule of St Benedict, followed by a passage from the Lives of the Saints, on St Bridget. These were chanted, and lasted for the whole of supper. The food was excellent, most of it grown, or grazed, on site. I believe we ate the same thing as the monks, though in greater quantity. Supper was quite short, though – I doubt we were sitting down more than twenty minutes. The monks were silent throughout supper, following the Rule.
After supper, the Fr Guestmaster took us four guests aside for what I later discovered was a twice-daily chat. This was a good chance to chat with the other guests. One of them was from Texas, and had just completed, with several other people, a walking pilgrimage in reparation for the black mass which was to be held in Oklahoma City the following weekend. Another guest was about to enter the monastery. The third was a Belgian layman in his seventies, who was staying there for three months. He spoke no English, but happily the Fr Guestmaster spoke French. I never established why this gentleman was staying at the monastery in Oklahoma rather than at Fontgombault, but in any case, his stated purpose in staying for so long was ‘to become a saint’. He was an interesting man. He dressed smartly without drawing attention to himself and had impeccable manners. He seemed to have all the virtues that I, at least, associate with devout Catholic Francophones of the older generation: true humility, respect for order and tradition, prudence, temperance and kindness. The culture that made good men such as these is now passing from history.
Strict silence followed Compline, and continued until the conclusion of the following day’s Prime. The next morning, a , I rose at 4.30 for Matins at 4.50. Although I pray the traditional office privately, I had never done so publicly before arriving. What’s more, my Latin is pretty mediocre and I was short on coffee, so I found Matins and Lauds (one followed the other without pause) pretty difficult to follow. I prayed along as well as I could, and thanked God for the chance to join these ancient prayers.
Prime and then breakfast followed an hour later. Breakfast was a less formal affair than lunch or supper: the monks ate it standing, and there was no reading aloud, though we still observed silence. After breakfast I had some free time. In fact, free time was wonderfully plentiful, so over the course of my retreat I read Belloc’s Crisis of Civilisation cover to cover, read several chapters of Garrigou-Lagrange’s Three Ages, and systematically prayed and thought through some decisions I’m facing. Silence wasn’t quite so strict during the day, but they still strongly encouraged it, so serious and concentrated reading was easier than in the outside world. So was prayer, above all devotion to Our Lady, to whom the Abbey is dedicated under the title of the Annunciation.
I discovered at lunch that the monks brew some astonishingly, extraordinarily good beer, some of the best I’ve ever had. Really, it was wonderful. I suggested to Fr Guestmaster that they bottle and sell it. They only served beer at the lunch, so I would recommend that anybody going there on retreat bear that in mind. In fact, all the food was excellent. I was told their cook learnt his skills in France. It certainly shows.
The rest of the days followed a similar pattern, with the hours being sung at roughly the times you’d expect. After Terce every day was a sung Mass, which was well-attended by the local lay community. I should say a word about the community that has grown up around the Abbey. It’s about 120 people who have moved from other states (especially California for some reason) with the specific purpose of being near a traditional monastery. I met engineers, IT people and other professionals, and they either telecommute or travel several days a month back to the metropolis. Some of them farm instead, or as well. They don’t live in one place, but are scattered around the surrounding countryside. Nonetheless, people all seemed to know one another, and get on. They were pretty welcoming to me. I met a very recent convert in his late twenties, who had been baptised and received in Easter this year, along with his parents. There were lots of children, as you’d expect, and lots of dads attending mass. What an encouragement it must be to live in such a place!
Unfortunately there wasn’t time to travel to anybody’s home, but anybody interested in finding out more about the community would be well-advised to contact Fr Guestmaster, who knows most of the people.
I didn’t get to low Mass, which was held every day in addition to sung Mass, until the day of my departure. It was said in the crypt at about . The crypt had about eight side chapels with altars, as well as a high altar. A monk was saying Mass at most of these. It was wonderful – the kind of thing that used to be quite frequent, but is very hard indeed to find nowadays. Silence reigned, as you’d expect for a private Mass, otherwise the various celebrants would have been talking over one another.
I’ve been to only a few private Masses during my short time as a Catholic, and never had the privilege of being present when several were being celebrated simultaneously. Although the trad community, quite rightly, emphasises high Mass, the polyphony, the major feasts, and so on, this shouldn’t be done at the expense of low Mass. There is something unspeakably beautiful about a solo priest making his morning sacrifice to God, standing in the person of Christ, communing with God in the most intimate way.
It was fascinating to see a traditional Benedictine monastery, in many ways the cradle of Western culture. More importantly, it gave me great encouragement in my devotion to Our Lady. I would recommend anybody who gets the chance to visit. Women and families are also welcome. They can stay in the on-site guest house about half a mile away, but can’t eat with the monks, or attend matins, lauds or compline.