The Great Books, Okie Monks, and John Senior
By Jim Furr, Seminar Host
The Original Home Book Group Takes a Trip to Clear Creek Monastery
OnlineGreatBooks.com all started with a home book group of less than 10 members that still meet on the third Thursday of each month in Scott Hambrick’s home. The members of the home book group in Tulsa are as diverse a group of people as OGB overall. We vary by age, from 22 to 66, and by occupation, from engineers, internet business people and celebrities, retirees, and students.
One of the more interesting things about the home book group is that of our various religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. We have Roman Catholics and Mormons, atheists and agnostics, and a couple of former evangelical protestants. We have one or two for whom no label quite applies.
To say that our religious beliefs affect our world view would, of course, be an understatement. Everyone has a palate that is affected by the addition of salt- how much one uses varies by individual taste. In the end, we all enjoy our food in our own way. Given the variation in our religious experience, it is a testament to the spirit of inquiry and the respect we share for each member of the home book group that allowed almost the entire group to make their way to a common retreat at a Roman Catholic Abbey last September.
Several years ago, Scott and I were introduced to Clear Creek Abbey. Founded in 1998, this Benedictine Abbey has an interesting history with direct links to the Great Books and the idea of a liberal education.
Clear Creek’s unlikely story began at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. John Senior, born in New York in 1923, was a professor at KU who developed the Integrated Humanities Program there in conjunction with his associates Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick. Senior had an interesting background, dabbling in Hindu spiritualism and a brief flirtation with communism. At Columbia, Senior studied under Mark van Doren, who founded the Great Books Program at St. John’s College along with Stringfellow Barr.
Senior had become disenchanted with the Eastern US, particularly the philosophical modernity that was blossoming at the time. In his view, this was a dangerous departure from reality. He began observing an increasing estrangement from society and organized religion, from education to the arts. He ultimately left the East, and after a period at the University of Wyoming, settled at KU.
One would not think that the University of Kansas could have been a hotbed of classical thought and liberal education; however, Senior’s gifts for educating his students produced tangible, meaningful results at the Integrated Humanities Program.
Under the tutelage of Senior, a number of the male students visited Notre-Dame de Fontgombault Abbey in France during the course of their studies. Several of these students, not all of whom were originally Catholic, decided to stay as Benedictine Monks.
Years later, in 1998, a number of these men, now experienced in monastic life, established Our Lady of Clear Creek under a charter from the Abbey in France. During the course of just twenty years, the original monks developed an incredible, self-sustaining community that now has over 50 monks.
The contributions of the cloistered life, with its silent army of individual contributors, unknown and long forgotten, are inextricably linked to the things we read and our ability to read them, thus advancing the history and development of Western thought and culture. If you have been to a museum and seen pre-Guttenberg texts, you doubtlessly will have been amazed at the meticulous effort required to reproduce these texts by hand; the toil of lifetimes committed to ensuring these books are available to us today.
To visit Clear Creek is like entering a time machine. Life there is much the same as it would have been 600 years ago. The monks live under the Rule of St. Benedict, requiring a commitment to humility, obedience, poverty, and silence. The Abbey is allowed by Papal authority to use pre-Vatican II rituals and rubrics. This means everything, including the Liturgy of the Hours, is conducted in Latin. Gregorian chanting, and its ancient, beautiful, and spiritually uplifting music, resounds throughout the lives of these men many times each day.
The men eat in common and in silence, committing themselves body, mind, and spirit to the exaltation of God. A typical day will include work, prayer and contemplation, as well as time devoted to reading and study. All members of the home book group had an opportunity to engage the brothers in conversation about our project and found them well-versed in the Great Books, and supportive of our goals. They are, in effect, operating a book-based liberal arts program themselves.
I believe it is safe to say that everyone in the Tulsa home book group was affected by our visit. It is remarkable to all of us that today, in a world devoted to cupidity and self-promotion, the men of Clear Creek follow the lifestyle of self-denial and obscurity practiced by their brothers for some 2,000 years.
A good friend in the group asked me, “what is the point of this type of lifestyle, solitary and removed from the world?” In other words, what does it accomplish?
I am reminded of a quote from Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist Monk and writer:
Why do monks live in seclusion? That is asking why does a scientist work in a laboratory, or why does a sailor go on a ship or why does a duck swim in water. Why does a man go to his bedroom and get in bed when he wants to go to sleep? Why doesn’t he lie down in the middle of the street? A monk seeks silence and solitude because there his mind and heart can relax and expand and attain to a new perspective: there too he can hear the Word of God. . . . An apt saying of the Muslim Sufis comes to mind here: “The hen does not lay eggs in the marketplace.
The lives of these monks, if they accomplish nothing else, provide those of us unwilling or unable to commit ourselves wholly to anything, with a point of reference. If these men can devote an entire life to an ideal, can I not improve myself in some way? Can I not devote myself to the things I believe, if not wholly, at least in some measure?
The Home Book Group in Tulsa is profoundly thankful to Abbot Philip Anderson and the brothers at Clear Creek Abbey for allowing us to share their remarkable lives, if only for a few days.
If you are interested in further reading, may I suggest:
“John Senior and the Restoration of Realism” by Fr. Francis Bethel, O.S.B. a monk of Clear Creek Abbey
For more information about Clear Creek Abbey, including photos and a marvelous bookstore, you can visit: https://clearcreekmonks.org