Editor's note:Jinu Thomas reflects on his
experience in the Benedictine Scholars Program, which offers
college men a chance to live, study and participate in the life of
Saint Meinrad's monastic community for eight weeks during the
summer. Find out more at: www.saintmeinrad.org/bsp.
To write about the Benedictine Scholars Program in the length of
a typical blog is like trying to fit an elephant in the typical
dorm room. Though only two months in length, it was filled with
experiences, some ordinary and others not quite.
One might find it ordinary that a bunch of college kids joined
the monks for prayer, unless they knew that we sat in the choir
stalls, which is an honor rarely conferred and almost never to
students like us. One might find it ordinary to sit down and have a
conversation about life with family and friends, but to do so with
Benedictine monks is not quite so ordinary.
When I first saw the flier for the Benedictine Scholars Program
(BSP), I had just finished watching a BBC series called "Cadfael."
"Cadfael," a fictional creation of Ellis Peters, is an English
Benedictine monk in the Middle Ages operating as a watered-down
version of the Sherlock Holmes of his times. Because of its
monastic setting, the show from time to time would give us a peek
into the monastic life of the Middle Ages. It got me interested
enough to randomly Google "monasteries" and, to some extent,
daydream about visiting one.
So the flier, to me, was like a jackpot. It gave me the
opportunity to live in the monastery for free, with a stipend and
also take a graduate course in theology. What more could I ask for?
Or, frankly, did I know what I was asking for? Probably not. But a
slight desire was there. Plus it was only a summer.
We were five in total (chosen for the program). An engineer,
historian, ace-photographer, philosopher and theologian (all
"aspiring to be's," of course). Except for one, we were on the
grounds of Saint Meinrad for the first time.
It was like stepping into a forgotten age. Every now and then,
for the first few weeks, we couldn't help getting excited about the
stone walls, the dark corridors and the unusual serenity
surrounding the Hill. For the three of us from Chicago, this town
in southwest Indiana, which had the same name as the monastery, was
basically no-man's land.
Our rooms, though not in the monastery itself, were in the same
hallway. We were to join the monks in prayer (and sit in their
choir stalls, a rare honor to be offered to five college students)
and meals throughout the day. In the morning we had our assigned
jobs for the weekdays and in the afternoon we were to have classes.
We also were to join the monks for other recreation times and be
free the rest of time.
Hogwart's is what a friend of mine called Saint Meinrad, and I
can pretty much say all of us, though unsure of how the next eight
weeks would be, were excited to be there. What attracted me the
most was how we were received by the monastic community. We were
five strangers, college kids, who were to interfere in their
privacy for two months. Yet they were exceptionally warm and
considerate to us, which did relax my nerves.
When you think of a program like BSP, I believe it is common to
have reservations, especially since the program almost completely
benefits the participants. But we were made aware from the
beginning that the hope of the program was to help us encounter
monastic life more profoundly.
Morning prayer at 5:30 a.m. was a challenge. Coming from college
where you rarely see bed before midnight, waking up that early
meant you were back in bed and sleeping like a log by 9 p.m. Yet
the schedule itself was not hard (with plenty of free time for
naps). All five of us were assigned jobs and mine, in particular,
was to be the electrician's aide.
This meant I worked with Renus, who has been working for the
Archabbey for over 50 years and who also happens to be the politest
man I know to date. We changed filters and light bulbs on a daily
basis. Sometimes he worked with the elevators and I just wore my
tool belt and looked cool.
Being on a schedule meant you were really hungry when lunch or
dinner time rolled by. The afternoon class was more like a
distinguished lecture series given by different monks on various
aspects of monastic life and communal life, including history, art
and spirituality. Our excitement was still high to experience this
new way of life.
To the college interns who were on campus for Saint Meinrad's
"One Bread One Cup" program, we were the inside men with access to
all cool monk things. We even made friends with some of them, who
coined for us the term "wannabe monks." Being introduced as the
Benedictine Scholars often raised a few eyebrows among other
visitors in the monastery, especially since most of us had probably
never seen the Rule of St. Benedict before.
The Places You Might Go
You would think that at a monastery you would pretty much be stuck
doing nothing but pray all the time. If the "Mythbusters" were to
take this as a challenge, I could save them time by pointing it out
that it isn't true. "Come to the monastery and see the world" is
what one monk told us.
We, too, had plenty of outings, including a visit to New
Harmony, a detailed tour of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, a tour
through one of the woods the Archabbey owned, a visit to Bardstown,
KY, an outing to Jasper, IN, and, beyond that, the journey that we
each took separately - the one into our own selves.
This was different for each of us and, if you choose to come, it
will indeed be different for you as well. The pace of life, the
witness of a community and consistent prayer meant that we were
challenged to go deep into ourselves. I will confess that, of all
things I have written above, this was the greatest blessing and the
The silence on the Hill, which began as a retreat experience,
became a nagging loneliness after the first few weeks. To me, the
reality was that I had erased all possible distractions and all
that was left was me. This was what the program referred to as the
fruit of an extended visit. If the first few retreat-weeks were
like the excitement of being in a gym for the first day, the next
few weeks were the discipline of going to the gym regularly.
But the story isn't complete yet. The final summit was that, in
being constantly challenged to see myself, I was being challenged
to see God. I don't know how I can convey this better. I understood
finally what the continuous conversion to holiness meant; it
required first knowing yourself and knowing God. It was hard; it
was always in progress but I understood that God needed to be in
the center of it.
I can firmly say that something awakened inside me during my
eight weeks - a desire to stay connected to God in the manner that
I had experienced at Saint Meinrad, which has kept calling me back
there even to this day. I cannot say all of us had a similar
experience. Yet I know for certain that all of us at least had some
answer to the choice of remaining as "wannabe monks" or taking the
plunge and applying for the monastery. For me, it was the