The Beginning (not really but close enough)
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
It was a dark stormy night. Well, maybe not so stormy. In fact I’m not sure it was dark, or for that matter nighttime.
Hmm, okay, let me start over.
It was a winter’s afternoon, the setting sun was low on the horizon.
Ah yes, that’s better - though in mind’s eye it was still a dark stormy night. I can call it how I remember it I guess, this entire endeavor has been a story in the works for nearly fifty years now, and it’s my story.
Well wait, that’s also not entirely true. It IS my story, but it’s more than that, I cannot tell my story without telling the stories of the lives of others who have interacted and influenced my story. I guess what I am saying, I cannot tell my story alone, as my story has been written not just by myself, but by those people who’s lives I’ve known. I’ve told my story in segments over the years, often with an emphasis on a single moment, or event really in my life, but really, the story of my life is better to remember the journey part, not just the destination. We love arriving places, though this I think is also not entirely true, we love the idea of arriving, but the reality is we love the going as much as we love arriving, in fact for most of us, for me at least, it has always been the journey. The point of destination is ultimately an act of ending, once reached, the getting there cannot be re-enacted.
This is the story of one man, whose life has been created by the people along the way, family, friends, lovers, enemies, strangers, historical figures, fantasy figures, hope, despair, loneliness and community. I’ve been always on the journey - the arrival for me is something I’ve yet to really discover. Sure, there have been lots of little road markers along the way, indicating to me moments of arrival, moment of “oh, so this is where I am going” which are inevitably followed by, “and now, next?”
Such hubris to think that my story, my journey out of billions is interesting enough that someone else will want to travel along with me, if only in written word. But funny enough, when I start to tell about my story, my journey, most folks tend to say, “hey, that’s an interesting story, you should tell it.” So here I am, ready to tell my story, mostly.
This story will be the brave act of remembering and a practice in really working hard to be honest, remembering context, an attempt to give narrative to my story and fill in the gaps (which as you can imagine, in fifty years, there are lots and lots of gaps. Look, I cannot promise “exactitudes” in my journey, but I can promise it will be as accurate a representation of my story as possible. Fortunately a lot of my journey is documented in pictures, notes, journals, other folks retelling (thankfully a lot of people I still know today were part of my journey) and I shall of course pull upon the historical epigenetic power of my Irish roots, the gift of gab (also maybe a dash of malarkey - I am mostly Irish after all).
So let’s go back......
It was a dark, stormy night........ yes I’m sticking to this version.........it was a dark stormy night and following long hours of driving hundreds of miles on icy, winter blown roads, my parents and I were ready to arrive. We had traveled these last few days from Steamboat Springs then via Denver to that remote, rural part of Missouri, for here we had traveled, arriving at a monastery, a place set in the rolling hills of Missouri, a cathedral of worship surrounded by corn and soy dedicated to the quiet work of monks and the education of young men who wished to be dedicated to the worship of the Christian god.
You know how some memories seem super implanted on the brain? Like the first time you touched a hot stove, kissed a girl (or a boy, or another person), like when you got pulled over by that cop for going 45 in a school zone and you just knew that you were going to get a ticket even if you showed the cop your chest........ yeah, that kind of memory. This was one of those for me, pulling up on that dark stormy night, at the monastery in the middle of no where, I remember.
It was getting dark, and the grounds of the monastery were littered with the last leaves of summer, their golden color fading into memory, leaving only the brown of winter decay in their veins. We, my parents and I, had been driving for nearly 12 hours from the Queen City of the west, to the heartland. As we struggled to read our maps (this was 1988 after all) we searched an unfamiliar country for a sign post, an indicator that we were on the right path. Finally, after a few miss stops and turns along the way, we fell upon the monastery.
It’s not as hard to find as you might think, after all, in the backroads of rural Missouri life is mostly about corn, soy, cows and farming. In this part of the Midwest, it was the only such structure and institution of its kind. But, finding this place, in the dead of winter, set against the pressing cold of an anticipated January, was not so simple. So as we did find the monastery, the memory was set. As we pulled onto the roads that led to the property, the first thing that appears, rising like a monument was the main church, a huge building built in the baroque style, two huge towers framing the entrance to a cathedral, looking very medieval in it’s design, and unusual moment lying on a hill in cornfield literally in the middle of nowhere Missouri, seeming to have been built just for me.
The soft crunch of stones beneath tires still to this day reminds me of the arrival. In cold air, perhaps because it was dusk, sounds seemed to weigh heavier than normal. There was a quiet ferocity about the place, the grounds, accented by the chill pressure that winter was breathing upon us. This and the darkness settling upon us, and the fear that we were not where we were supposed to be. The challenge of a place like this, a monastery set in rural Missouri, is that signage, great lighting, and knowing what to expect in a place that is already 100% unexpected, well, the quiet bore down upon us in our car. We seemed almost afraid to speak for fear that we would disrupt the freeze that was coming, and the stones we drove over seemed to be screaming beneath the wheels, “hey, this cannot be right.” But then, the journey and arrival were promised by the many people who told me, told my family, we had to be there. I had to be there.
And so we went, the dark stormy night now no longer a literal thing, but truly a literal comment on the feelings that settled over me as we drove past the soaring cathedral monument dedicated by generations of monks to the worship of the son of god. We circled the grounds for a bit, my father nervously asking me over and over where we were supposed to go. And I, eager, excited, nervous, feeling the full effect of the dark stormy night, had my face pressed up against the nearly frozen glass of the car peering out into the darkness of grounds of my future home for four years whispering to my father, “I don’t know.”
Finally, as if created by a dime store novel, the night opened as we found a better lighted small parking lot just past the cathedral, surrounded by several smaller buildings, sensibility built in a practice manner. It was here we pulled in, turned the car off, looking at one another, shrugging to one another hoping that where and what we should do would be revealed. And again, as if written, we spied a smallish man, wearing long black robes, a hood pulled up over his head protecting his ears from the swirling cold. He had to be a monk, or at least some rando who was into cosplay in rural Missouri. I fairly leapt from the car upon seeing this first person that night, and as I fled the relative warmth and safely of my parents car called out after him as he quickly sped by, “Father, father, wait I think we’re lost.”
This small man, who was almost elf like in his stature, short, slim, narrow faced, dressed in the black robes of a monk, a hood covering his head and ears, turned towards the sound of my voice, a grating noise in the context of the silence of the monastery.
“Brother.” Was all he said as he slowed his near running walk pace so that I might catch up to him.
“Brother?” I stammered as I drew close to him.
“Brother Aaron.” No further expounding narrative would follow.
Oh, right, not all men of god were priests I reminded myself, for as a young man I’ve been around other monks before, Trappists who were living in the mountains near Aspen, Colorado. “Ah, oh sorry Brother, my name is Thomas Burkett and I am a student at seminary college.
Brother Aaron glanced at me curtly, “Fine.” His face was like a statue, no hint of emotion showing there.
“Um, well yes, my Mom and Dad and I are kinda lost, we were supposed to be here earlier in the day but because of the roads we were delayed a bit, I’m afraid we don’t know where to go.”
Brother Aaron, looked up at building he had been headed towards in his flowing, speeding walk. His hooded eyes glinted in the fading light, I think he might have smiled beneath his frown, then motioned with a nod that I should follow him. Glancing back at the car where my parents were still extracting themselves, I caught my father’s gaze, he waved and they quickly followed Brother Aaron and I as he lead us to a small wooden door set in the side of the practical building. By now the darkness was no longer a narrative element that I am using to tell a story, but was genuine and it was hard to see. But when we arrived at the door set in the building, the open door poured a golden light out upon his face and mine, and I could see him now. A middle aged man, thin of build with steel grey eyes set in a pocked marked face, youngish but not young. The brother held the door and simply indicated with his eyes we should enter the room.
And then, for the first time I stepped over the threshold of a door that would lead me down a path that to this day defines me. To this day haunts me. To this day was the greatest moment of life and worst moment. My parents, right behind me, seemed to disappear in my mind and the smiling, round face of another monk dashed up to us. He smiled at me, looked at my parents, and simply said, “You must be Thomas. Welcome to Conception, I’m Father Kenneth.” As we stepped in suddenly I noticed we were in a dining hall, quiet literally as a church filled with monks, sitting at several large tables, eating a meal in silence while another monk sat at the head of the room reading something to them all.
This moment, stepping fully from the cold darkness of winter’s night into the dining room of monks was the step of a journey I had been on for a long time prior, only I was I was not aware that the journey had already begun, in my mind this was the start of my journey.
This retelling of my life shall be an attempt to reconcile the true start of my journey in life with those moments that stand out in my life like a hand on a hot stove.
This is my account of my dark stormy night. This is the story of a boy born into a world of gods and priests, myths and legends, and how upon that journey I found “god”, lost “god”, found myself, lost myself, and now am just going back to assemble pieces of who I was, who I am and who I shall be.
It was a dark stormy night indeed.
#seminarian #seminary #priesthood #priest #family #missouri #monastery #college