Searching for God: For Benedictine monks, a life of stillness and bustle brings balance

Grace Turner | Special to The Michigan Catholic

Benedictine monks pray together during the silence of a December morning in the chapel of St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford. The norther Oakland County Community is a refuge and a place of solitude and prayer for the eight monks who live there, and also for the hundreds who visit the Subiaco Retreat House during the year to seek and grow closer to God. Courtesy of Bro. Marty Singer, OSB Obl.

Benedictine monks pray together during the silence of a December morning in the chapel of St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford. The norther Oakland County Community is a refuge and a place of solitude and prayer for the eight monks who live there, and also for the hundreds who visit the Subiaco Retreat House during the year to seek and grow closer to God.
Courtesy of Bro. Marty Singer, OSB Obl.

Oxford — A daily routine of chaos and silence brings Benedictine Bro. Marty Singer closer to God.

Bro. Singer has been a monk at St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford since September 2000. He’s busy; he cooks for his brother monks four days a week and teaches religion classes at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Pontiac, and on weekends, he runs retreats for high school students.

“I like a bit of the insanity,” Bro. Singer said.

But there is a balance. Bro. Singer participates in as many of the prayers and Masses as he can, and there are times for silence.

Caught at a quieter time, Bro. Singer wore moccasin slippers, jeans and a flannel shirt and sat on a brown couch with his arms flopped over the cushions. He considered religious life as early as he can remember.

“When you have a vocation, it really is there,” Bro. Singer said. “Something’s nudging you somewhere.”

It took a while to fulfill his calling. He got married, had two daughters and was an executive chef at restaurants in the area. After a divorce and an annulment, he met a priest who introduced him to the monastery.

“And somehow I just started coming up here,” Bro. Singer said. “It just got very comfortable.”

He moved into the monastery in 2000 and started teaching at a local Catholic school while keeping in touch with his daughters.

“I was able to see much more of them” after quitting the restaurant job, he said.

Because of this past, Bro. Singer is not a usual monk. He is a cloistered oblate — he hasn’t taken any solemn vows, so he can permanently leave the monastery at any time and isn’t required to attend prayers or Mass there. His paycheck doesn’t go to the monastery, since he has to help support his daughters.

But that doesn’t stop Bro. Singer from living like a monk or working for the monastery. He runs Subiaco Retreat House, a part of the monastery that hosts retreats for high school students.

Bob Doppel, a volunteer youth minister at Our Lady of La Salette Parish in Berkley, takes a group of students to the monastery every year.

“They come away with a sense of how they can use their faith,” Doppel said, adding students from different parishes get to know each other and go to Mass together. They get a chance to unplug — no electronics are allowed.

The retreats are tailored to high school students — they allow students to stay up late around bonfires, sleep in and explore the beautiful grounds.

“You can’t help but just kind of take a deep breath,” Doppel said.

The 280-acre property has a certain holiness to it. A wall of windows in the chapel looks over a forested area, and Bro. Singer said the space allows for quiet reflection.

“This gets pretty spectacular,” he said of the fall view.

The chapel looks modern, with outside walls featuring contoured sandstone interrupted by rounded glass sections. A cross tops the tallest glass tower.

Inside, the tabernacle is built within four pillars that support the building, so that architecturally, Christ is holding up the church, Bro. Singer said. The tabernacle was built on the highest natural point in Oakland County.

A mausoleum is tucked under a hill. The door is a rainbow of stained glass, and the white marble walls inside whisper the names of deceased monks who helped shape St. Benedict Monastery.

“When a Benedictine enters that monastery, that’s where he’ll live and be buried there eventually,” Bro. Singer said. Sometimes Mass is celebrated in the mausoleum.

Students stay in the retreat house. There’s a dining area, rooms with bunk beds and a recreation space in the basement. The second floor is a tangle of rooms and balconies that overlook the first floor.

While some monasteries rely heavily on donations, Benedictine monasteries, which follow the teachings of St. Benedict, generate their own income as monks work within the community, Bro. Singer said. The Benedictine motto is ora et labora, “prayer and work.”

The retreat house generates much of the income for the monastery, but the monks also print envelopes, flyers and labels for churches in the area. In the past, they’ve also had an apple orchard and cider mill and used to raise cattle.

One of the monks, Bro. Antony Maldonado, OSB, creates and sells paintings in the monastery gift shop. He also paints murals in the monastery’s buildings and plays the organ during some Masses.

Bro. Maldonado, who joined the monastery in 1993, likes the “rhythm of prayer and work.”

“It’s a very balanced way of life for me,” he said. “It’s the perfect middle point.”

Fr. Gregory-David Jones, OSB, vocation director for the monastery, said becoming a monk later in life, like Bro. Singer, is not just commonplace, but encouraged. Ideally, monks take their vows when they are 25 to 45 years old, when they are mature enough to be sure of their decision, and switching to monastic life won’t be difficult physically or emotionally.

Bro. Jim Locke, left, and Bro. Mark Orcutt pray in the chapel of St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford. Courtesy of Bro. Marty Singer OSB Obl.

Bro. Jim Locke, left, and Bro. Mark Orcutt pray in the chapel of St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford.
Courtesy of Bro. Marty Singer OSB Obl.

If someone is interested in becoming a monk, Fr. Jones sets up a time for them to visit and guides them through the steps. Some join the monastery.

“Others I’ve had to tell them that they are not called,” Fr. Jones said. “Sometimes a person is trying to run away from the world in a sense. Often the things they’re trying to run away from they’ll find here anyway.”

Joining a monastery because someone is angry about materialism or trying to escape a bad family life is the wrong reason, he said.

“Being here is not about what you do,” he said. “It’s about what you’re called to be.”

Fr. Jones was on the younger side when he became a monk. At 16, he started looking into religious life, and at 19 he became a missionary, but didn’t find what he was looking for.

“I desired more of a community life, more of a brotherhood,” he said. At age 24, he joined the Benedictine monastery.

Monks are much busier than most people realize, but they also do traditional “monk things.” They wear robes to Mass and prayer (“They’re uncomfortable,” Bro. Singer said), chant psalms in the evening and have set times for silence. Once a month, they are silent for an entire day.

While monks don’t have personal incomes, get married or have children, those interested in monastic life are well aware of the sacrifices before they take vows.

“What people often see as negatives are positives for us,” Fr. Jones said.

The eight monks at St. Benedict work together to maintain the monastery and own two black Labrador retrievers — Duke and Daisy. They go to Mass together and play video games.

Fr. Jones said the monks’ goal — to search for God — is much easier with a group of brothers who work, pray and live together.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than that,” Fr. Jones said. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than that.”