Why Are We Starting a Monastery? (part 1) #theordersf

What happens when we seek our life in God?

In the early 1880’s there was a man named Joseph Dutton who turned up in Memphis Tennessee after years of drinking and gambling. Dutton had been a Union soldier from Vermont whose colorful life became the stuff that legends are made of when he entered the novitiate at the Abbey of Gethsemani nearly thirty years after Gethsemani was founded. Dutton was one of the first American novitiates of the new monastery in Kentucky. The Trappist Monastery, which sixty years later would welcome Thomas Merton, was just beginning to see some interest from American-born men. The pioneer stage of the founding of a new Trappist Abbey had now passed and the question that was beginning to be asked by the brothers in Europe was whether or not Americans could ever be able to be converted to contemplatives. 

Joseph Dutton was a new convert (to Catholicism) who had begun his instructions in faith with the view of marrying a catholic girl in Memphis. He suddenly disappeared from Memphis, and was later discovered to be the new postulant at the Abbey of Gethsemani under the care of Dom Benedict Berger, Gethsemani’s Abbot, who was a stickler for the Rule. 

Joseph Dutton spent 20 months as a Novitiate. He was just a few months shy of taking his final vows when a runaway horse came galloping down the road carrying a young girl. The girl fell off as the horse went by. Joseph Dutton picked her up and carried her to the monks’ school. When he left the monastery a few months later, the rumor went around that he had gone off to marry her. 

In reality, Joseph Dutton went off to join Father Damien (who was later canonized by Pope Benedict XVI) on the island leper-colony of Molokoi in the pacific. There, Dutton became a close friend to Father Damien and lived on the island (now part of Hawaii) for over 40 years, caring for lepers, and later, beginning a school for boys. Caring for lepers turned out to be his true vocation. Joseph Dutton became a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. 

The vow for monastic vocations has historically been a life-long vow. And true to form, a great number of men and women have given their lives to prayer, study, and manual labor. Most of them do this quietly, with little renown. The men and woman we read about are ones who write, like Thomas Merton, who devotes a page to Joseph Dutton's story in his book The Waters of Shiloah. The people we read about are people like Father Damien, who ended up dying from the same disease that killed so many for whom he had cared.

But then there are men and woman we never really hear much about–men like Joseph Dutton. There are men and woman who start out exploring the contemplative life and they end up stumbling into another calling, or charism, as we like to say. They begin with saying, “Yes”— to the invitation to silence and solitude and prayer—and they end up putting their hands and feet to a courageous work, even once they have left their vows behind. There are countless names listed in the records of entries and departures found in monasteries all over the world. We never hear about their lives because the season they may have spent in the monastery, (or traveling with a mendicant order), was historically insignificant. 

But it isn’t. 

Even those who leave the monastic life before making their final vows—or even after they’ve made them—these men and woman take something with them that never finds its way into the historic record. 

Something happened to Joseph Dutton during his 20 months as a novitiate in Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsamani. He came in after having tried everything else to fill and mend a broken life. He left with a determination to go and serve and love lepers on a far-away island. 

I wonder what would become of some of our lives if we had a season to get at the heart of what we truly want?

We are beginning a missional monastic expression because when men and woman make room for silence and solitude, when they leave behind everything to seek life in God, something happens.