Since making my home in Denton, Texas – a place that is nearly as well known for it’s hipster bona fide as it’s much larger neighbor Austin – an annual retreat has almost become a necessity. My escape from this strangely connected yet pseudo rebellious ecosystem found the perfect expression in visiting monasteries in the backwoods of rural Oklahoma. Typically a sure fire way to enjoy a change of pace, the latest experience left me feeling an ironic sense of deja vu.
At the conclusion of this particular drive, enjoying the last thirty minutes of steep hills, cattle guards, and long winding dirt roads I found myself parked in front of a behemoth of a building currently under construction. Expecting to be expected, I rang the doorbell. This frontier feels like stepping into another world from the rat race of big city life.
Yet there is an element that seems all too familiar. The front door opens, and I am greeted with a distinct smell. It is a mix of ripe body and incense. For a moment, I gather my bearings anticipating to see on the other side of the threshold the local farmer’s market where the community I just left behind like to gather. Here, I find nothing of the sort. Instead, there stands in front of me a middle aged tall wiry fellow with thick framed glasses and a high and tight military style haircut. Kindly, he points me in the direction of the property’s campgrounds.
In a well shaded, open field I spent my evening with crickets chirping and the comforting white noise of blowing wind. This is a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle that has only recently receded from sight. The following morning, anxious for breakfast, I put up my tent and find my way to the large Romanesque style building where I am greeted by the monks of Clear Creek. We are led through a winding stairway to the dining hall where we eat breakfast, as a community, of homemade wheat bread, raw milk, coffee and peanut butter. Again, I am overcome with a strange feeling.
This retreat seems so familiar yet so much more authentic. The meals have consisted of food grown on site and the delicacies are all handmade.
We retreat for a while from the daily routine to break a sweat while earning our keep. The community is tight nit where everyone shares in the fruit of their labor. Nothing is wasted.
Then a Eureka moment! It is as though I have stepped into a Jack Kerouac novel. The beatniks, hippies, and hipsters would be eating their hearts out. Home grown, organic, non-GMO are all unfamiliar words in this zip code. Here they call it life, food, and agriculture. Organic is just what they do. Hand sewn patches adorning well worn outfits are not the musings of some retro fashion highlighted as a lifestyle choice for all to see, but just clothes.
The mostly vegetarian meals are course and hearty, brimming with ingredients that have been ground out or bred away for efficiency in most places beyond the walls. They all work together in search for the common good. Their existence is communal, not a fleck of material is owned by any one man, but a shared economy. Life is simple. The men are free. The experience is like stepping backwards a thousand years.
I muse at the utterly hipster lifestyle I have found myself stepping into when I agreed to engage a prayer retreat at this local monastery. These monks who live beyond the cattle guards are cut from the cloth that many of my generation wish to embody – a simple, charitable, and tragically cool existence. During down times, among the silence, one can hear these men hammering away at the organ in the chapel among various other instruments.
They work hard, pray hard, and even play hard. When a friend stands on his soapbox and laments the proliferation of greed and a life disconnected from the earth then revels in the ideas of sharing and working towards common goals, monasticism is far from the example of life he imagines.
Yet here it is. The monastic life is one of harmony to all things beginning with a fidelity to God, that is achieved through communal celebrations of all that is good from the Holy Mass to the way they work and produce various items to sell in keeping the Abbey thriving.
Indeed, this is the life one only imagines when considering how to “go green” or “being one with the earth.” It is the life of those who prefer coffee black, glasses thick, clothes well worn, and deodorant natural. It is an existence taken for granted by the local sourced, hand made, organically grown, simple lives of our ancestors.
This communal spirit, a sharing of economy, blessings, burdens, and respect for all forms of life is one that my generation can only imagine. Just as well it is a deeply trodden path that is rich in history. In fact, it traces itself almost to the beginning of Christianity.
So, I guess what I am trying to say is, these monks are not hipsters, in fact they have been doing this since way before it was cool.
[See also: Behold, the Official Catholic Blessing for Beer]