Faith rules: Inside the Clear Creek Monastery
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008
11/13/08 at 3:59 PM
Inside Clear Creek Web site: Go to the series site that includes all the stories and an audio slide show of pictures taken at the monastery.
Related story: Clear Creek has its roots in France, Kansas
Some people say the world is slipping into a new Dark Age. Some might say the world has been in the Dark Ages for quite a while already.
In morality, in architecture, in craftsmanship and art and literature, the 21st century is a long way from the Renaissance, and many self-described “traditionalists” would suggest that it’s a long way down.
Less than a generation after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a growing number of Catholics want to restore Latin as a regular part of worship. But for them, it’s not just about language. It’s about reversing the decline of civilization itself.
In their eyes, the loss of Latin represented a much wider crisis in the modern world — a rejection of tradition, a defiance of history, the severing of cultural roots and a loss of faith in general. In bringing back old-fashioned prayers, they hope to bring back old-fashioned values, too.
In this worldwide effort to “reform the reforms,” Tulsa has stepped to the forefront because of a place called Clear Creek.
For three days in February, the Tulsa World gained unprecedented access to the only contemplative Benedictine monastery in the United States. And it offered a glimpse of what life might be like in a world where . . .faith rules.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about the Clear Creek Monastery. In Monday’s World, part two: “Keeping the faith.”
The bell ringer comes outside an hour before dawn.
No light escapes from the open door. No stars peek through the cloud cover. The remote landscape offers nothing but darkness for miles in every direction.
Wearing a long black robe with a hood pulled over his head, this solitary monk seems almost invisible, silhouetted like a shadow against the crypt’s bare concrete wall.
In the strict silence of the monastery — so quiet that the monks can lie awake and meditate to the sound of their own heartbeats — his footsteps seem subversively loud, crunching on the gravel path. A few steps from the door, he reaches out with both hands to pull on a rope that dangles down the side of the crypt.
The bell tears through the cold morning air, echoing for miles across the wooded hills that surround the north side of Fort Gibson Lake. Inside, the monks descend into the crypt in a long, solemn line, black robes brushing lightly across the concrete floor.
Heads bowed, hands clasped together, they can see their own breath in this chilly, underground chamber, lit only by a few dim bulbs and candles flickering from the altar.
“Gloria Patri,” the monks begin to sing, “et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto . . . .”
Outside, unseen by the monks, a pair of headlights appears on the crest of a distant hill. Then a second. Then a third.
Snaking along the dirt road and across a small, stone bridge, the outsiders pull into an unpaved parking lot, tires crunching on the gravel louder than any monk’s footsteps.
A couple climb out of the first SUV. Three kids and their mother emerge from a minivan. A second SUV unloads half a dozen passengers, men, women and children.
With the first subtle hint of dawn shading the sky, they all file through a side entrance to the crypt, the heavy door — its hinges squeaking — slamming shut behind them.
The Benedictines came to Oklahoma looking for solitude; to escape from the rest of the world, protected by muddy roads and low-water bridges and the sheer distance from any main highway.
Now the world is coming to the Monastery of Clear Creek.
‘Set a standard’
The iron comes out of the fire glowing red, sending sparks across the cluttered workshop as George Carpenter pounds it with a mallet.
Starting out as a thin strip, the metal twists and folds into the shape of a door hinge for one of the new monastery’s grand entrances.
In a more philosophical mood, Carpenter might reflect on the way religion shapes a man’s life, bending and twisting, folding and turning. A younger man, with a soul that is still red-hot and malleable, might question his faith.
Does he really believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection? Or is it like believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Is he Catholic because he really embraces the church? Or just because his parents are Catholic?
“I was looking for some kind of spiritual connection,” Carpenter remembers now that he’s approaching middle age. “Something solid. Firm. Something permanent, that didn’t need reformed.”
Part of the first generation born after the Second Vatican Council, Carpenter grew up hearing Mass in English instead of Latin. Since the council in the 1960s, most Catholic services have been in a country’s common language.
Whether the changes sparked a crisis or simply coincided with it, that’s a matter of debate. But church attendance has dropped, seminaries face shortages of new priests and millions of Catholics openly dissent from church teachings.
Now a growing movement is trying to “reform the reforms,” bringing back Latin in hopes of bringing back faithfulness in general. The pope himself recently changed church rules to encourage a broader use of Latin in services.
For Carpenter, “the renewal,” as the movement calls itself, began several years ago when his father-in-law showed him a video of an old Latin service.
“I was drawn to it immediately,” he says, pausing for a moment to pound another red-hot piece of iron.
“It was mysterious. Beautiful. Timeless.”
Using an anvil and his own linebacker-size muscles, Carpenter bends the metal into an “S” shape, forming another part of the door hinge. Blacksmiths used the same techniques in the sixth century, when St. Benedict was alive.
“When the metal is hot,” Carpenter explains, “it’s not much different from shaping clay. As it cools, the shape becomes firm.”
Growing older, Carpenter left his doubts behind and took his family to a traditional Latin parish in Texas. But in shaping his children’s lives, faith had to compete with modern culture.
He worried about the endless pursuit of consumer goods and what he calls “the trivialization of promiscuity,” even in schools and on “family” television shows.
“We wanted to raise our kids in a truly Christian culture,” he says, “a place where the church is the backdrop for everyday life.”
Four years ago, they moved to a small farm just up the road from Clear Creek, where Carpenter works part time in the metal shop.
Others have come from the West Coast and the East, the Midwest and the Deep South. From all across the country, dozens of families have moved to this obscure corner of rural Oklahoma to live within reach of the monastery bell. Like the monks, they want to “be ye separate” from the world.
“The monks set a standard for us to look up to,” Carpenter says, throwing more coals on the fire. “We’re the foot soldiers of the church, so to speak, but they’re the special forces. They’re the Marines.”
In the fight to reclaim traditions, Clear Creek is the tip of the spear.
‘Our cultural home’
The daily Mass ends just after 11 a.m., with each monk pausing in front of the altar and falling to his knees, bowing with his forehead nearly touching the floor.
Two-by-two, they stand up and march out of the crypt in perfect rhythm, left-right-left. Hands clasped, heads bowed, they don’t whisper a word. They don’t even glance at the people in the pews.
Careful not to make the slightest noise, Carpenter and the other laymen wait patiently while the monks pass. The last one out the door hits a light switch, leaving everybody else in the dark.
They must remember — this Mass was not for them.
Catholics usually genuflect before leaving a sanctuary. But here, most people follow the monks’ example — bowing on both knees.
The younger girls struggle with the maneuver, awkward in skirts that reach to their ankles, lacy scarves slipping off their heads. But their mothers make it look effortless.
In the vestibule, laypeople go out the door on the right, to the parking lot. No matter how close they live, no matter how often they come here to worship, they’re still outsiders. The monks never asked anybody to come and now they have to leave.
It takes special permission to go through the door on the left, then up a flight of stairs to a loggia. An arched opening leads to the inner cloister itself, a courtyard that would be strictly off limits if the prior himself was not serving as a personal escort.
Eventually, as construction continues, the monastery buildings will form a giant square with this courtyard hidden in the middle. But for now, the church remains nothing but a crypt, a kind of basement foundation where the monks gather to pray.
Only one side of the square has been finished — a four-story residential hall big enough for 60 monks to occupy.
“It’s an ambitious undertaking,” admits Father Philip Anderson, the prior of Clear Creek and one of the original 13 monks who opened the monastery in 1999. “If I was doing it over again, I’m not sure we would be so ambitious.”
The fundraising and the construction can become a distraction from what the monks came here to do — to pray. And to pray, specifically, the old Latin liturgy.
“You can see that civilization is in a crisis,” Anderson says, his robe fluttering in the breeze as he walks in the courtyard.
“This crisis has, in some ways, infected even the church. There’s a lack of discipline, a lack of clear moral principles.”
Society keeps trying to reinvent itself — political revolutions, sexual revolutions, technological revolutions.
“But every attempt at a solution only makes the crisis grow deeper,” Anderson says, his voice staying meditatively calm. “We’ve had all kinds of solutions — except tradition. We’ve explored many different paths — except turning back, returning to our cultural home, returning to the ancient faith.”
At Clear Creek, the ancient traditions aren’t history. They’re here. Now. And the monks are determined to keep them for the future.
Michael Overall 581-8383
Brother Floyd Ferguson’s breath is visible during prayers in the cold, damp crypt at the Clear Creek Monastery near Fort Gibson Lake.
Brother JosephMarie feeds sheep at Clear Creek, which technically is still a “priory,” or a branch of the Fontgombault Abbey in France.
Monks cross the Clear Creek during a short recreation period.
George Carpenter works part time as a blacksmith at the monastery. He brought his family to Clear Creek, “a place wherethe church is the backdrop for everyday life.”
The monks know that some Catholicshope that the use of Latin will spread fromClear Creek. Already, Gregorian chant can beheard in parishes across the Tulsa diocese.
Michelle Robinson, 8, is one of themany laypeople who come to Clear Creekfor worship.