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Issue Date:  August 11, 2006

The hidden life of a monastery


Television stations in upstate New York are broadcasting “The Everyday,” a documentary about a community of Benedictine monks known for their hospitality to people of all faiths. Set on 1,200 acres of the hillside country of southern New York state, Mount Saviour Monastery has drawn thousands of guests since Fr. Damasus Winzen founded it in 1951.

For all of these years, and under the watchful eyes of numerous guests, the monks of Mount Saviour have remained private people, public only in the prayer they offer seven times a day. Part of their philosophy of hospitality is to welcome guests but not to intrude upon the quiet that enfolds those who come in the beauty of the monastery’s fields, flocks of sheep and birds and all sorts of living things. While individuals seek temporary solitude for reasons of their own, they have been left to wonder what has brought this community of almost a dozen men together.

The recently completed documentary holds some of the answers as the monks describe with candor their lives and the choice that sets them apart. The disclosures reveal a holiness that sparkles through the humor and humility of their everyday life. The monks open their hearts in the way they open their home to all seekers of faith and calm in the midst of life’s turbulence.

For most viewers, “The Everyday” is a revelation of a hidden life.

For me, “The Everyday” is one more entry in the mystery of God’s providence. It’s the exclamation point on time-tested maxims like: “Bidden or unbidden, God is present” and “Life is what happens when you’re planning something else.”

Although the DVD was five years in the making, for me, its origins go back to May 1993 when I faced a Brooklyn College senior who had come close to winning a six-week internship with the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences in California. “Close” though didn’t make his dream come true. As the professor who had encouraged Matthew Kells in his pursuit and commiserated with him in his disappointment, I let him describe the vacuum in his summer left by his exclusion from the opportunity he desired. What would he do with the six weeks he had reserved for California?

“Perhaps you’d like to spend it exploring something the polar opposite of what you had set your heart on.” His attention captured, I told him of a new summer program for men between the ages of 18 and 35 that would introduce them to monastic life by living, praying and working at Mount Saviour.

Matthew’s expression revealed incredulity. Had his professor lost her mind? But two days later he asked for a phone number to learn more about the program. He contacted a Brooklyn priest, Fr. Michael Perry, who with his longtime friend, Dr. Tony Cernera, president of Sacred Heart University, had designed the summer program.

To his astonishment, Matthew took to the experience like a fish to water. And, indeed, the swimming hole on the property offered recreation to the five young explorers of an ancient form of spiritual life hitherto unknown to them. In addition to the physical work and regular prayers, there was a happy camaraderie. Matthew was the proud victor in an ice cream-eating contest. But, most important, the monastery proved to be the environment that redirected his professional aspirations.

Mount Saviour’s prior, Fr. Martin Boler, invited the young men into a meeting of abbots and priors attending a conference on their property. They sought direction for their recruitment efforts. Why, they wondered, were so few men attracted to religious life? At length, Matthew spoke from the discipline of advertising. He had studied this field and set his sights on what he imagined a lucrative career choice.

Nothing, he opined, offered more contradictions to religious life, above all to the monastic tradition, than the values projected in commercials. These promoted materialism, superficiality, competitiveness, self-centeredness and the commodification of everything, sex included. With those attractions permeating the culture, nothing could stand more in opposition than the life of a monk.

For Matthew Kells, that became a defining moment. Afterward, he would write that hearing his own words and realizing he had intended to enter the industry he decried before the assembled monks, he felt as if he had been moving toward the edge of a precipice. Unsettled, he knew he needed to back away from advertising.

Deciding instead to become an independent filmmaker, he got his first job in television working for PBS in New York City. The work at PBS led to a project with a New York-based cable station. There he hooked up with a superb photographer, Sean McGinn. Matthew had been working on “The Everyday” by himself. It proved a tough project to undertake alone. He invited Sean to accompany him to Mount Saviour. After a few visits, Sean was taken by the life and agreed to join Matthew on the project.

A friend at PBS introduced Matthew to Catherine O’Shea whom he married in 2004.

None of this would have occurred had Matthew Kells not taken a risk as he faced what could have been a disappointing summer.

“The Everyday” is available for purchase by calling the Mount Saviour Bookstore at (607) 734 1688 or online at

Mercy Sr. Camille D’Arienzo, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is the founder of the Cherish Life Circle.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2006

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