Editor’s Note: It is our pleasure to share with readers this second of a series of posts chronicling the conversion and calling of Fr. Bonfice Hicks, OSB, one of our Avila Summit Speakers this past summer, and his explanation and exploration of Benedictine spirituality. Find part I here.
From Conversion to Vocation: A Monk??
My first visit to Saint Vincent Archabbey, the Benedictine monastery that is now my home, was an experience of transformation and growing trust in God. Led by our campus minister I arrived with some other college students on a Friday evening and enjoyed some pizza with the group in the novitiate lounge of the monastery. I had no idea what a monastery was aside from movies and fiction novels. I had no interest in being a part of the stereotype of monastic life I had in my head from movies like Monty Python’s “The Quest for the Holy Grail.” I felt a particular call to share the gift of prayer I had received during my studies in Germany, which I had rephrased in my mind as “evangelization,” and I did not imagine that that was part of the life of a monk. So I had rather low expectations of my first visit to Saint Vincent Archabbey, but I was open and willing to learn.
After a pleasant, social time on arrival, I slept quickly and got up early to join some monks for a time of Eucharistic adoration at 5:30am in a small chapel and then later followed the monks to morning prayer and Mass with the whole monastic community in the Archabbey’s beautiful Basilica. Then after some pleasant encounters with some monks throughout the day, followed by chanted Vespers and dinner, I retired to my guest room in the monastery. I had some time before the evening recreation and so I picked up the small Rule of Saint Benedict that was in my room. Looking at the table of contents my eyes were drawn to the chapter on humility, because it was a Christian virtue I had recently become interested in. Reading the chapter on humility, however, immediately summoned up in my mind all the scary stereotypes of a harsh, inhumane, medieval monasticism that belonged more to the “Dark Ages” than to our “enlightened” modern times. (Side note: I love those passages on humility now that I have learned the deeper meaning and context in which Saint Benedict teaches us!) Suddenly the reality that I was in a monastery came crashing down on me and I wondered what had happened to my life to bring me to this point! I was aghast and started plotting my escape, not wanting to spend another night in such a place. At least I planned to hide in my bed and sleep through everything until our departure the next day.
Catching myself, I took a deep breath and said a prayer: “Jesus, I need your help! I am going to make an act of faith and go to recreation, but you need to give me something to hold on to!” Jesus is faithful. I went to recreation and discovered a cribbage game with three players awaiting a fourth. I sat down across from one of the players who was wearing a t-shirt with the words, “Ich spreche, ich lehre, ich liebe Deutsch,” and when I read it out loud, that monk lit up and engaged me in German for a few sentences. When everyone departed after our cribbage game, I stayed for almost three hours speaking to this monk and sharing with him all the events that had led me to baptism, to discern a vocation and ultimately to Saint Vincent Archabbey. In the course of sharing my journey with him, the grace returned and I was flooded with a spiritual consolation as I saw how actively God had been guiding my life. It broke through my fears and renewed my strength to stay the rest of the weekend. I left Saint Vincent the next day with such a love for the place and the monks that I declared to my spiritual director that I would love to join right away.
God directed my decision
I knew I could not join right away because I had only been baptized for a week! More important for me was the fact that I could not say I ever heard God calling me to priesthood or religious life. I knew my desire for priesthood was strong and I believed my insight to share the gift of prayer (which I had reformulated as “evangelization”) was inspired but I could not say I had heard, in a time of spiritual consolation, God confirming my call.
That confirmation came at World Youth Day in Paris. During our trip to Paris, our group spent time at the parish of Le Trinite where I had the opportunity for an extended time of Eucharistic adoration. As I knelt in the silence and read the Gospel account about the call of the first Apostles, I was inspired to ask Jesus what He wanted from me. I said to Him in my heart, “I want to do whatever you want me to do. Do you want me to become a priest?” As everything became perfectly silent inside of me in great stillness and peace, I believed I heard Him say “Yes.” That filled me with a great joy that stayed with me the rest of the day and the intensity and concreteness of the memory lingered long after that.
At the same time, it was still on my mind that my call was to “evangelization,” and so I had started to abstractly exclude the possibility of a Benedictine vocation despite the powerful first visit I had had to Saint Vincent. I did not understand how Benedictines evangelize (I can write several books on that now!). I still returned for another visit however and on that visit, one of the monks told me about a Franciscan community that was trying to live the charism of Saint Francis more radically and they were devoted to evangelization. That led me to visit the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (the “CFRs”) in New York City. I spent a week with them and loved my visit. I loved the friars, I loved their radical zeal for the Gospel, I loved their courageous ministry to the poor and their fearless proclamation of the Gospel. I learned many things from them about how to live the faith. They helped me formulate some ideals that have stayed with me for over two decades now. To my surprise, however, that was not God’s plan for my life.
In what I planned as a final act of discernment, I divided up my spring break into several days with the CFRs followed by several days with the Benedictines at Saint Vincent Archabbey. In my days with the CFRs while I watched the postulants receive their habits as they became novices, I tried to picture myself in their gray habits. Despite my best efforts, I kept seeing myself in a black habit instead. Then as I participated in the Mass when the novices made their first vows, I tried to imagine myself kneeling there and making vows with the friars, but I kept seeing myself in the Basilica at Saint Vincent instead. Slowly an inner tension had formed during my visit to the CFRs.
In the discomfort of this inner tension, I was moved to make an act of surrender and I told the Lord that I wanted to do whatever He wanted me to do: “If you want me to go to Saint Vincent, I will go to Saint Vincent.” At that moment I was flooded with peace and all the tension was resolved. That communicated a clear message to me in spite of my preference to become a CFR at that point. But the spiritual consolation in that prayer of surrender moved me deeply and my mind quickly embraced the idea of becoming a Benedict at Saint Vincent Archabbey. A last vestige of my stubborn self-will pondered asking for the name “Francis”, but my surrender was complete when I opened to a Benedictine name and quickly remembered the name, “Boniface.” I had learned about St. Boniface during my time in Germany and remembered that he was a missionary Benedictine monk and the Apostle to Germany.
Following my visit to the CFRs I spent a few days at Saint Vincent and told the Abbot about my desire to enter the monastery. He was surprised, because I was still so newly baptized (I was Catholic for only one year at that point) and he wisely put a damper on my zeal saying that he would discuss it with the Council of Seniors. Even at that, I was not discouraged. In fact, it was a further confirmation for me because I discovered in that experience that I actually had total trust in whatever the Abbot, under consultation with the community, would discern was God’s will for me. There was a grace of obedience at work in my heart in that experience and I was already anticipating the way that God would work in my life through my Abbot. In the end, the community decided to accept me, as an exception to the general rule, only 15 months after Baptism. I entered the monastery on July 1, 1998 and I received the habit and the name Boniface a few days later.
(To be continued…)