Saturday, February 20, 2010

Becoming an Oblate

I was ten years old when my maternal grandfather, Walter Cizewski, Sr., came to Terre Haute, Indidana, to take me for my first visit to St. Meinrad Archabbey to be invested as a novice oblate by the Oblate Master, Father Jerome Palmer, O.S.B. The investure took place in the abbey guesthouse chapel to the best of my recollection and I was given the scapular of St. Benedict and a small purple prayer book for oblates with portions of the daily office and the Rule and other Benedictine prayers. I believe the cover of the book had an imprint of the Medal of St. Benedict.

My immediate family of my mother, sister and me were living in Terre Haute where my mother had received her bachelor's degree in nursing from Indiana State University and was working for the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration at St. Anthony's Hospital, Terre Haute, Indiana. Sissy and I attended St. Patrick's Grade School and at the time I was likely in 5th grade and I believe my teacher's name was Mrs. Marsh. The teachers were mostly lay teachers at this time (1975/1976) but St. Patrick's had been staffed as a mission of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary's-of-the-Woods for many years. We had a home room teacher for each grade, but in anticipation of secondary education, they would have us change classrooms for various subjects including religion and science among others.

My religion teacher was Sister Rose Ellen, S.P. My sister and I both received First Holy Communion, First Confession and Confirmation at St. Patrick's in Terre Haute. This is the geographical location of my body when my spirit opened to the world of monasticism and to the sanctity of Our Holy Father Saint Benedict. In St. Patrick's library which was staffed at the time by a Sister of Providence that was retired from teaching and still in the original habit but whom I often ran into at the library or in the parish church and walking to or from school sometimes. I believe she was caring for an elderly relative somewhere near the parish and that is how I would come across her en route. Anyway, in the grammar school library I found and read and re-read a young reader's version of the life of St. Benedict. I remember spending hours in my room reading the stories about his great penances and his miracle working and how he, too, had a sister, St. Scholastica.

Of course, I had discovered something. Perhaps it wasn't the uncovery of the mystery to the meaning of life but it was certainly significant for me. Early in life I felt the call of God in the stillness and the quiet that my life afforded to me then and I was sure that I was meant to leave for the monastery shortly. As you may suspect, the monasteries in the United States are not regularly in the habit of accepting child vocations. However, somewhere the notion of the oblates came up through some correspondence with St. Meinrad's monastic community and poor, sainted Father Jerome would meet me and, nonetheless, clothe me with the scapular at ten years of age. This, too, must have been completely out of the normal protocol of the time as I later discovered that there was no record of my investiture as a novice oblate and that oblates were generally older. What can I tell you? My grandfather, Father Jerome and I were there! I alone live to have the memory brought to the present moment.

As it turns out, Benedict was looking out for me all along. In his life story, the reader will encounter two child oblates who become saints in their own rights, St. Placid (whose picture is above) and St. Maur. Seven years later, when I was a freshman at St. Meinrad's College I became friends with Brother Placid McIver, O.S.B., through our mutual labor in The Scholar Shop, the seminary/monastic bookstore. Again, I believe that Benedict had arranged this act of God's grace on my behalf as well. For many years in my journey, I would correspond with Brother Placid who convinced me that no one was beyond the mercy of God.

On the more familial side, there was great laughter between my grandfather and I on the journey to St. Meinrad that year. If you were acquainted with Southern Indiana roads (off the interstate) at that time, they were two lanes and not always in great repair. We come across a sign that said "Bumps for the next few miles." Indeed there were bumps for many miles beyond a few. It was like driving on a washboard. With each bump, my grandfather and I would howl with laughter. I called my grandfather, DziaDzia, a diminutive of Dziadek which is Polish for grandfather. In any case, DziaDzia was none too pleased with the monastic accommodation which we were afforded. Don't get me wrong, my grandfather was not accustomed to the good life but he just could not understand how they expected us to stay in a room without a TV! The hospitality arrangements for us had been swung together by Father Jerome despite the fact that the guesthouse was full with some retreatants, so we were housed in one of the college dormitories vacated for the summer by the seminarians. I remember that it was very HOT, the kind of hot that there was no escape from in Southern Indiana at the time. Air conditioning was not to be found, although I believe the library and the dormitory had air conditioning by the time I was a student there.

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