Director of Communications
Michael Patrick O’Brien felt so appalled by the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals that he considered leaving the institution to which he had belonged all his life. But then Michael received word that a facility close to his heart – Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah – would soon be closing. It was at that Trappist monastery that Michael, during his childhood, had formed friendships with monks who shaped his life in a positive way at a time when he needed male role models due to his parents’ divorce.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview about his memoir “Monastery Mornings,” Michael told me, “As I was wrestling with my anger [about] the scandal and coverup…I had this burst of memories and recollections about these wonderful men who had cared so much for me and taken care of me as a boy…I ended up writing a book as a form of spiritual therapy.”
Michael first discovered Holy Trinity Abbey during a drive with his mother and sister when he was 11. The Trappists who ran it were contemplative monks who followed the motto “Ora et Labora,” which is Latin for “Work and Prayer.” Michael explained, “The Utah Trappists had an 1,800 acre ranch…They raised cattle, raised chickens, had a dairy. They baked bread. They had a beehive and produced honey. And every bit of that they considered to be a prayer. When the bells would ring…they would stop whatever they were doing…and go chant the Psalms seven times a day and pray to God.”
Both the environment and the down-to-earth friendliness of the monks attracted Michael to spend as much time as he could at the abbey. ”I don’t know if I was a surrogate son or if they were surrogate fathers,” he recalled, “but whatever it was, they took me under their wings.” Not only did Michael benefit from being around the monks, so did his mother, who was enduring her marital breakup during the late 1960s/early 1970s, when a divorced woman was often looked down upon or condemned. The monks gave her compassionate support, noting the breakup was not her fault and she could still be a good Catholic and good mother.
There was one especially devastating event in Michael’s young life. While riding his bike home from baseball practice one evening, a stranger grabbed him and began sexually assaulting him. Michael instinctually started praying the “Hail Mary” out loud because he believed this might be the end of his life. ”I said it loudly enough that I think the assailant heard me,” recalled Michael. “And for some reason…he stopped and let me go.”
Michael continued, ”I told my family about it. Today they probably would’ve sent me to a therapist, but in the early 70s, therapy for 11-year-olds wasn’t common. So my mom turned to the resources that she knew. She said, ‘You have to talk to a couple of Catholic priests.’ She sent me to a Paulist priest who was a family friend, and to the Abbot of the monastery. They provided comfort and understanding and friendship and rescued me from a very difficult moment.”
Michael hopes that readers of “Monastery Mornings” find light in his story. He concluded, “It [shows] all these people, in whom God was incarnated, taking a moment to care about me, to show me light, to show me the way. So my story is a wonderful example of [The Christopher] motto, which is how important lighting that candle can be, despite the overwhelming amount of darkness that surrounds you.”
For free copies of the Christopher News Note BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org