Brother Israel Sánchez lies covered during a vows rite Sept. 12 at Mount Angel Abbey. The mystical burial signifies death to worldly ways and death to self. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Brother Israel Sánchez lies covered during a vows rite Sept. 12 at Mount Angel Abbey. The mystical burial signifies death to worldly ways and death to self. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
ST. BENEDICT — His day starts at 3:30 a.m. with an hour of prayer, the Bible in one hand, a stout cup of coffee in the other. En route to the coffee pot, he meets kindred souls who also praise God before dawn; they do not speak but nod in warm greeting.

“There is a sense that I am not waking up alone,” says Brother Israel Sánchez, 26. “I don’t need to pray through the night on my own.”

In one of the rarest of church rites, Brother Israel on Sept. 12 professed vows as a Benedictine monk of Mount Angel Abbey.

Like all new monks, Brother Israel took temporary vows for years while he pondered abbey life and abbey leaders pondered him. What he did Sept. 12 was profess solemn vows; that’s akin to a wedding, a lifelong commitment to Christ and the hilltop monastic community.

“I am a real monk now,” he says with a laugh.

A small voice

He began at Mount Angel as a seminarian for the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona. But on his very first drive up the hill to the abbey, before he had seen any buildings or heard any church bells, he sensed a small voice: You are never going to leave this place.

“There was a deep sense of home,” Brother Israel said. “A sense that this is where I belong. This was where God was going to meet me and where I was going to meet God.”

He would slip out of his seminary dormitory in the wee hours to join the monks for prayer, something he now does from inside the cloister.

The first community prayer of the day, vigils, starts at 5:20 a.m. After 30 minutes for more quiet prayer, the monks convene again for the second prayer, called lauds. Breakfast follows. Mass begins at 8 a.m.

Brother Israel sees his mornings as akin to the moments his parents spent together before dawn in the family’s small house in Yuma, Arizona. His father would rise at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and his mother would get out of bed to make her husband a meal and send him out the door. Their young son sometimes watched quietly, unconsciously aware that the dawn ritual was a sacred act as his parents lived out their vows to each other.

‘My life is hidden with Christ’

Brother Israel now has his own vows to keep.

The vows of Benedictines are unique in the church. Here is how St. Benedict described the reception of a monk in his “Rule,” written 1,500 year ago: “When he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. This is done in the presence of God and his saints.”

The later expression of the evangelical counsels — poverty, chastity and obedience — are included in Benedictine vows, with the addition of stability, meaning the monk is bound body and spirit to the community where he makes his profession.

While many people compare solemn vows to a wedding, the rite has features of a funeral. At one point Sept. 12, Brother Israel lay prostrate before the altar where his brother monks lay a large black cloth over him — a mystical burial.

That signifies the monk’s death to the ways of the world and to self.

“I have died and my life is hidden with Christ in God,” the monks chanted as Brother Israel was covered. “I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of the Lord.”

Under the cloth, called a pall, Brother Israel felt he was not alone, but had brought the prayers and sacrifices of many people from his life. “The vows are for me but also meant for the whole church,” he said.

Brother Israel understands the mystical burial as a beginning, not a completion. The act of renouncing worldly ways and selfishness is continual in a monk’s life, proceeding little by little, he explained. Included is accepting the need to be at prayer every day, same place, same time. Also gone are 10 p.m. runs to Taco Bell and other habits of youth.

A young monk gains stark self-knowledge. Brother Israel gamely admits that, like many men his age, he has work to do when it comes to considering others. “The community confronts you,” he said.

‘Accept me, O Lord’

Brother Israel’s spiritual director warned against the notion that solemn vows transform life suddenly. “After vows you go back to what you were doing before,” Brother Israel said. “My day looks much the same.”

But at key moments, especially when he and the monks walk into church for prayer or during the consecration at Mass, he recalls profession day, when he strode slowly down the aisle, arms open wide, singing three times: “Accept me, O Lord, as you have promised, accept me and I shall live.”

The morning of Sept. 12 was sunny and quiet on the hilltop. The profession liturgy included chant in English and Latin, most of it pleading for God’s mercy and help.

It began with the candidate processing in slowly, lovingly enveloped by fellow monks. On his folded hands he balanced a small scroll, a document he read to the assembly and then signed with the abbot at the altar.

The liturgical action began with Brother Israel on the move toward God and then, in the Eucharist, God moving toward Brother Israel and accepting him, Abbot Jeremy Driscoll said during his homily.

The reading from Genesis chosen for the profession told the story of Jacob wrestling God at the Jabbok River, winning the day but gaining a limp and a new name — Israel. God does not overpower his disciples, Abbot Jeremy said, but the divine encounter can leave a mark, a transformative wound.

He may teach

Brother Israel’s work now consists of attending class at the seminary or teaching the Benedictine novices, men who are preparing to profess temporary vows for the first time. He uses his literary knowhow to teach the young men about monastic classics like “The Life of St. Anthony” by St. Athanasius and the sayings of the Desert Fathers. He also works at the bookstore, making coffee for guests, shelving books and cleaning up. No monk is above menial labor.

As for Brother Israel’s future work, that is up to the abbot, but is formed in dialogue with the monk. Brother Israel said there is a sense that he will be suited for a seminary professorship.

His family supports his monastic calling, but that came only after passage of time. They had imagined him, as the only son, carrying on the family name. Then they figured he’d be a parish priest not far from their home. But they have accepted, helped along by the stunning profession rite.

Jovany Sánchez, a sister who is only a year older, admitted that the family was surprised when he chose monastic life, but everyone is getting used to it. Over bells pealing at the conclusion of the Mass, Jovany shouted in the abbey courtyard: “I am really happy my brother followed this path.”