Remembering the Monk Who Wrote About Grace

Last week Father James Behrens, OCSO died suddenly. He was 71 years old.

Father James had been a Catholic priest for 45 years and a Trappist monk for 25 years. He was a talented man — a gifted photographer, a thoughtful preacher and an insightful writer. He had a beautiful singing and speaking voice, and even though he was a smoker, whatever effect the tobacco had on his voice only seemed to deepen it.

I met Fr. James in November 2005 — on the first day I worked at the Abbey Store of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit where he lived. I was there on a temporary assignment to help the store install a new computer system (I ended up staying almost eight years). I was excited to be working at the monastery, even though at the time I thought it was only for a week or so. I was a new convert to Catholicism, and associated Trappist monks with authors I admired (Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating), and, of course, with contemplation and mysticism.

It’s fair to say I had a very romanticized idea of what monks were like — and Fr. James, perhaps more than anyone else, helped me to bring my understanding of monks down to earth.

Carl McColman, Rhiannon Wilburn, and Fr. James Behrens, OCSO, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, spring 2009. Photo by Fran McColman

To begin with, Fr. James was the first monk I ever met who was not, at the time I met him, wearing the traditional black and white habit of the Trappists. We met during a work session, and he was dressed in ordinary jeans and a t-shirt. He looked more like the guy hired to mow the grass than like a monk (or, at least, like what I thought a monk should look like). When we were introduced, my supervisor mentioned to James that I was a writer — as was he, since he had three books published at the time (and would go on to publish three more).

“You’re a writer,” he observed noncommittally. “Are you published?”

“Yes,” I replied shyly. This was in 2005, when most of my books were decidedly not Catholic or even Christian in focus. I hoped he would change the subject, but no such luck.

“So what do you write about?”

Worried that I was about to lose my job before the first day was out, I muttered, “Well, actually, most of my books are about paganism, Goddess spirituality, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, really?” he said. Then after a pause, he mused, “I bet we have them in our library.”

I wasn’t sure if he was making a joke or not, so I let the matter pass. But for the rest of our relationship, James and I saw each other as writers, first and foremost.

That led to another conversation, about a year or so later. At the time, Fr. James was the monastery’s guestmaster, which meant that he oversaw the monastery’s retreat house and the scheduling of directed retreats. Many of the monks — along with a small number of lay persons — directed retreats on topics such as prayer, Bible study, meditation, even yoga.

One day I ran into James at the bonsai center, and I said, “Why don’t you have a retreat for writers?” He replied, “That’s a great idea, let’s do it.”

And that was how I became a retreat director. Almost by accident — since I was looking for a retreat I could participate in, not direct! But I was flattered by his apparent faith in me, and the thought of working with him was too good to pass up. So we wrote up a blurb for the retreat and got it on the calendar for the following year.

Since it was my first time directing a retreat, needless to say I was both excited and nervous. So about a month before the retreat, I emailed Fr. James to see about getting together to plan the retreat.

No reply.

Grace Revisited

A week later, I re-sent the email, “Just in case you missed this.” Still no reply.

The retreat was now only about a week away, and my nervousness had graduated to full-blown anxiety. I called Patti, the woman who ran the office at the retreat house. She gently explained to me that Fr. James rarely bothered to reply to emails, and my best bet would be to call him. She gave me the direct line to his office.

I called, and he answered straightaway. Relieved, I asked him if we could get together to plan the retreat. “Sure,” he replied in his normal deadpan voice. “Why don’t you come over to the retreat house for lunch one day next week?”

We compared our schedules, and the only day that worked for both of us was Friday — the day the retreat began. I wasn’t thrilled about cutting it so close, but there wasn’t much choice. I told him I would put together my notes for what I thought we could cover, and would see him that Friday.

The day of the retreat came, and I dutifully walked over to the retreat house. We all grabbed our food and moved to the dining room where conversation was allowed (the retreat house, like the monastery, maintains silence in most of the building). As it turned out, a couple was at the monastery who were old friends of Fr. James — but there were just passing through, they were only there for lunch.

So of course, Fr. James all but ignored me as he visited with his friends. I could hardly fault him for this, but I nervously eyed the clock, knowing that soon I would have to return to work and our chance to plan the retreat would pass us by.

Finally, Fr. James turned to me and said, “So what are we doing this weekend?” I pulled out my notes, organized into outlines for each of the five conferences (sessions) of the retreat. He glanced over them, and listened to me as I stumbled through my lesson plans.

He handed the papers back to me and said, “This is very nice, but why don’t we do this — I’ll share some initial thoughts with people tonight, and then you can follow up with your ideas tomorrow morning. In the afternoon we’ll grab some of the other monks who write, and we’ll have a panel discussion. Then in the evening we’ll watch a DVD I have about Anne Lamott, and Sunday morning will just be open for conversation. What do you think?”

And that was the extent of our plan. I realized, somewhat to my horror, that James intended to direct this retreat without a script — and he expected me to do likewise.

Portraits of Grace

I showed up at the retreat house that evening. We had a full house — forty retreatants. It seemed like Fr. James already knew half of them, so busy was he greeting folks and inquiring about others. Finally we gathered in the conference room for the first conference of the retreat. Fr. James began by telling a story or two from his experience as a writer. Nothing fancy, nothing polished. But he was honest, and candid, and vulnerable. And everyone was hanging on every word he said.

Fr. James was not one to make a show of piety. He tended to avoid using overly spiritual or religious language. He allowed the presence of the Spirit to shine through his down-to-earth storytelling, without making airs or fuss about it. In this way, he truly modeled humility.

Even though I had been ready to wring his neck that Friday afternoon, by the end of the retreat I was simply in awe of his ease, his presence, his focus on storytelling, and his recognition that the best kind of spiritual direction is really simply spiritual companionship. A detailed outline might be comforting to a control freak like me, but it really matters very little for a retreat — where the focus needs to be on listening for the leading of the Spirit, in the moment, and responding to that leading (as well as to the needs of the retreatants).

I must have done a halfway-decent job as Fr. James’s assistant, for I was invited to co-lead another retreat, with a different monk, six months later. After that I was invited to direct retreats on my own. And that began what is now a significant part of my full-time ministry.

Eventually Fr. James left the position of guestmaster, and I left my job at the Abbey Store to write (and direct retreats) full time. We did not see each other as often. I stepped back from the writer’s retreat, which as of 2019 is still going strong, now co-directed by four of the monks (it was, in fact, Fr. James’s final retreat before his passing).

He was a letter writer. The mail drop used to be located in the Abbey Store, and he would walk in and drop a handful of cards at a time. He corresponded with many people. After my daughter died in 2014, I received a lovely handwritten note from him, expressing his condolences.

He also was a photographer. He took many beautiful photographs, of nature, architecture, and people; his work was collected in two books including the award-winning Portraits of Grace. My all-time favorite photo of his was an image from a solemn profession in 2006, when the Abbot at that time, Dom Francis Michael, was censing the altar. The marble altar glistens with reflections of flowers set before it; the cloud of incense billows about the monk, a cross clearly visible in the smoke. The Abbot himself seems lost in reverie, as if receiving a vision. It’s a luminous image, and Fr. James gave me permission to use it, which I have done many times. Here it is once again.

The Abbot censes the altar, October 2006. Photo by Fr. James Behrens, OCSO. Used by permission.

But as wonderful as Fr. James’s photography was, for me he will always be first and foremost a writer. He preferred to write short non-fiction pieces: vignettes of everyday life, stories drawn both from his own experience as a monk or a priest, as well as insights into people he encountered over the course of his life. He wrote about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a tired woman falling asleep on a bus, a monk discovering that his eyesight is failing, that sort of thing. But in writing about the ordinary, Fr. James always managed to find something truly extraordinary: the surprising presence of love, a sense of eternity in the here and now, and — always — the subtle and mostly-hidden work of grace in our lives. This is perhaps why most of his books have the word “grace” in their title, and why the compendium of his best writing is called Grace Revisited.

Fr. James brought grace into so many peoples’ lives — through his words, his photographs, his quiet presence. I will miss him, as I know many others will as well. But I can’t begrudge his leaving us so soon. For you see, James had a twin brother who was killed in a car accident during their senior year in high school. That was over fifty years ago. We will miss him on earth, but as for heaven, I can only imagine how joyful the reunion of these two brothers must have been.

 

Enjoy reading this blog? Take a second to support it on Patreon!
Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.