THE FAMILY BROTHER PROGRAM
In the 1970’s Wally Kendrick asked permission to build a hermitage on monastic land in return for which he would work with the monks. Later Paul Jones became interested in the monastic life and became a regular visitor under the direction of Abbot Robert. In 1989 he became what was called “a Family Brother,” and in 1992 made a life promise to spend one week out of each month as a monk at Assumption Abbey, and the rest of the time in a hermitage on his own property. During the 2010’s, when we were needy of additional labor, Fr. Jones and Br. Francis were asked to develop a version of the Family Brother idea as a Program open to others. The following is a description of what was consequently instituted.
A Family Brother is someone who translates our Cistercian spirituality into his own lifestyle, alternating life in the monastery with his own home life, having his own source of income. The Inquirer will schedule a FIRST VISIT at the monastery, living the life of a monk within the Cloister, having his own cell and participating in the seven Daily Offices, Mass, Chapter meetings, Refectory meals, and daily work. During this time he will be given material to read, and meet with the Coordinator for formation. If mutual interest continues, the Inquirer will begin to develop a personal Rule of Life, applying our Cistercian spirituality and the Rule of St. Benedict to his life when apart from the monastery. If mutual interest continues, he will submit three letters of Recommendation -- from a family member, a friend, and one’s local pastor. A background check will be made. If all is positive, the Inquirer will schedule a SECOND VISIT of 4-5 days, during which work on the Rule will deepen. When the Rule is completed and approved, a THIRD VISIT of 4-5 days is scheduled. Copies of his Rule will be distributed to the monks, and the Candidate will meet with the full monastic community for an interview. If approval is given, the Candidate will make his FIRST PROMISE that week at Vespers -- promising to be held accountable in faithfulness to his Rule for a period of SIX MONTHS. Two copies of the Rule will be signed by the Candidate and the Superior -- one copy retained by each. As part of the Rule, a visitation rhythm for time at the monastery will be indicated. As symbol of this Promise, a Smock will be given to the Candidate to wear when at the monastery. After these six months, he may make ANOTHER SIX MONTH PROMISE. After this, a ONE YEAR PROMISE can be made. This may be followed by renewable promises of one, two, or three years. After SIX TOTAL YEARS, he may make a LIFE COMMITMENT, if he chooses, as a Family Brother of Assumption Abbey, given an appropriate symbol to wear. A monthly Newsletter will be sent to all Family Brothers. Life Family Brothers have the right to burial in our monastic cemetery.
With the death of Br. Francis in 2023, who served as in-house coordinator, our shortage of monks prevented replacement, the Family Brother program has halted, at least for the time being. However, the right of burial remains in effect for the present Life Family Brothers, of whom there are six:
Fr. W. Paul Jones
John Paul Douglas
By Richard A. Ortez
Recently, in a conversation with a friend who had lost his wife, as the subject turned to the concept of "moving on," I surprised myself when I uttered these words: "I was not able to 'move on' until I found a new identity." Now, I don't mean to imply that one ever really "moves on," but one does adapt, and what I suddenly realized was that, in my case, that process had been aided by finding a new identity. Now I have been many things in my short life, and continue in many of them: a human person, male, son, husband, father, teacher, researcher, farmer, cook, etc. But, to this list I must now add a new one - monk.
Let me explain! A couple years after Mary died I went on retreat to a monastery in New Mexico. This was not something new; I had gone on retreat regularly when Mary was alive and in good health. But towards the end, her health did not let me get away so easily, and it had been a while.
While there, I discovered a little book in the gift shop entitled: The Inner Room: A Journey into Lay Monasticism, by Mark Plaiss. The concept of monasticism was not foreign to me; I had been in seminary before Mary plucked me out to make me, in her words, "a father of a different kind." I found this concept of somehow wedding secular life with a monastic one very intriguing. So, on returning home, I wrote to over twenty men's religious houses within a days drive of Glencoe, OK inquiring if they were familiar with any such programs as described in that book; and if yes, was there something available at their institution. To make a long story short, only three of the twenty replied and only one of them positively - Assumption Abbey, Ava, Missouri. That was in 2004, and that marked the beginning of a journey that reached a high point on May 31st, 2009 - and shows no signs of letting up. On that day I made temporary profession as an "Family Brother" to that abbey; vowing to live the life of a Cistercian (Trappist) Monk "in the world." And that is the new identity, which now shapes everything I am and do. The picture below was taken on the occasion of that profession, the moment when I received the habit of a Cistercian Family Brother.
A word about monks in general and Trappist monks in particular! Perhaps the broadest definition of a monk is simply: one who seeks God through some level of withdrawal from the hustle and bustle of the world into one of greater quiet and solitude. A narrower definition is: one who seeks that quiet and solitude within a community of like-minded persons, within an enclosed structure called an abbey or monastery. Such are the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappist) monks who founded Assumption Abbey; they seek a particular balance in life between prayer and work (often agricultural). However, Assumption Abbey has become value-added, supporting itself by making and selling fruitcakes (125 a day, six days a week, and 11 months a year). As an Family Brother, I have vowed to live a comparable life style while remaining "in the world." However, two or three times a year I make two-week visits to the abbey where I live within the enclosure, and follow the daily routine of the core community. These are periods of great spiritual growth as I meet frequently with a spiritual advisor to discuss: where I am, where I'm going, and how best to get there.
I have been reluctant to share this beyond a small circle of very close friends and advisors for fear of appearing arrogant; but now I feel I must, and hope everyone will understand. The reason I must now share it is because I have reached a point beyond which I can not grow without making some significant changes in my daily routine. You see, secular life and monastic life run on very different clocks, and seek very different ends; and, eventually come into conflict with one another in someone trying to live both. I am at that point, and have decided that some of my secular activities must give way to allow for expansion of those more closely associated with the monastic/contemplative life style.
I plan no abrupt change; I will continue to farm, cook, and run the business; and I certainly have no plans to "leave the world" entirely (fleeing permanently into the desert of full monastic life). However, I do plan to gradually withdraw from many other current activities in order to make more time and energy available for prayer/reflection/contemplation. You will begin to see less of me, and I want you to understand why. Know that I love you no less, in fact more; and that this withdrawal from the world is to allow me more time to pray - for you, as well as for myself.
Please pray for me, you will be in my prayers always.