In Japan, a Minnesota monastic community thrives

Father Thomas Wahl O.S.B. photo by Adam Minter

By Adam Minter

FUJIMI, Japan — At 8 a.m. prompt, a single soft electronic bell rings once and the eight men assembled in the small, sunlit chapel rise in unison. Dressed in the black habits of Benedictine monks, they are a sharp contrast to the blonde wood that surrounds them, and upon which they rest their missals. “Kami yo, watashi o chikaradzuke,” they intone, softly, in Japanese. “Isoide tasuke ni kite kudasai.” Then they pause briefly, just long enough for someone to think these lines in English.

God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.

Seated behind me, Father Thomas Wahl, a spritely 78-year-old native of St. Cloud, Minn., is hunched over his lectern, joining the prayers in mumbled Japanese that he fist undertook to study at Saint John’s Abbey, in Collegeville, 50 years ago.

Then, he was a young man fired with the possibility of establishing a Japanese monastery in Tokyo; today, he is a former prior and the senior member of Trinity Monastery, Saint John’s remaining priory.

But unlike many if not most Catholic monasteries, whether in the West or elsewhere, Trinity is thriving and growing. This month, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, it welcomed an unprecedented four new candidates into its modest ranks, re-energizing its ranks and — by extension — this little-known outpost of Minnesota’s biggest, and most famous, monastic community.

The Benedictines can trace their history back 1500 years, to Saint Benedict, and his compact “Rule” for men or women living as Catholic religious in community. However, unlike, say, the strict Cistercians who also follow Benedict’s “Rule,” the Benedictines do so with flexibility. So, for example, the “Rule” requires eight daily communal prayer sessions; at Trinity, the monks engage in six, including a daily mass. They are not silent, and they are not aloof from the world: during the several days I passed at Trinity, I spoke with monks about current events, popular culture and the Stanley Cup finals.

Long process
Father Wahl, a well-traveled man who counts the late novelist J.F. Powers as his brother-in-law, is no different. Grandson to a former mayor of St. Cloud who — he tells me proudly — was a socialist, he nonetheless grew up in the powerful religious firmament that swept Stearns County in the 1940s. As a teenager, he decided to be a monk, and after completing college at St. John’s, he began the long process of becoming a professed Benedictine in Collegeville, then the world’s largest Benedictine monastery.

“There was a German Benedictine monastery in Japan before World War II,” he tells me by way of introducing the long story of how he ended up in Fujimi. “And after the war, some Saint John’s folks helped to re-open Saint Anselm’s Parish Priory in Meguro [a suburb of Tokyo].”

By Father Wahl’s memory, it was either 1955 or 1956 when some of those monks ventured back to Collegeville and offered a presentation to several of the younger monks, some of whom they hoped would follow them to Japan. Father Wahl, a widely traveled man, was ready to accept the challenge, and with the permission of his abbot, he undertook Japanese, as well as advanced theology, in preparation for his mission. But St. John’s ultimately had other plans for him (including a distinguished stint teaching in the School of Theology) and, despite his early professed interest in Japan, Father Wahl didn’t arrive in Tokyo until 1993.

It was not the mission that he had expected in the 1950s. Instead of establishing a Japanese monastery in Japan, Saint John’s had inadvertently succeeded in establishing an American monastery in Tokyo with some important Japanese characteristics (such as a Japanese liturgy). English and Western ways defined the community. And though Saint John’s played an important role in the local Catholic community, especially in its role of ministering to local parishes, it was lost on nobody that, during its then-46-year history, it had attracted only five professed Japanese monks (of those, only two persevered in their vocations).

Meanwhile, during the same period, Japan’s 450,000 Catholics (approximately .5 percent of the population) appeared to have reached an equilibrium point, neither growing nor shrinking (a stasis which continues). In fact, there are now more foreign Catholics in Japan — perhaps 550,000 — than there are Japanese, and for most of its history in Japan, St. John’s has spent a significant amount of time and resources ministering to immigrants, including significant Brazilian and Filipino communities, and not evangelizing (at least not on a large scale).

In the mid-1990s, the decision was made to move the priory out of Tokyo, to rural Fujimi, where it was believed that the monks could better focus on a monastic lifestyle, serve local communities and — hopefully — better attract candidates for the monastery itself. Father Wahl — then in his late-60s — moved to the future site, 3,200 feet above sea level, and lived in a shed “with a good stove” for a year in advance of the new buildings.

They were worth the wait: designed by Tokyo architect, Ken Takagaki, Trinity’s rooms, corridors, and exteriors explicitly invoke the red brick of the early Collegeville buildings, and the concrete brutalism of the more recent and renowned Collegeville chapel designed by Marcel Breuer.

Set in a delicate wood and residential neighborhood on a hill overlooking mountains and villages, the site would appear to be ideal for those attracted to the monastic lifestyle. However, despite the best architectural and geographic intentions, the new Fujimi complex did not result in new vocations. To be sure, candidates were attracted to the site, but as Father Wahl and others conceded to me, they’d often “disappear” early in their candidacies.

“When they [the Japanese candidates] first come and see the English, they think, ‘Oh that’s neat,’” explains Father Wahl. “But after a while, it’s not their culture. Think of joining a Buddhist monastery in the U.S. Of course, you’d want some Oriental people there. But after a while, you really do want somebody who you can relate to.”

Cultural changes
To outsiders, this may seem obvious. In fact, it was obvious to insiders, too. But it’s one thing to suggest that a culture needs to change, and another matter altogether to actually change it. Nonetheless, last year — with great effort, and after much discussion — the monks at Trinity made the decision to shift the monastery’s culture — especially in the dining room (second in importance to the chapel — which had benefited from a Japanese liturgy for years. Japanese cuisine became a more regular facet of the Trinity dining experience; chopsticks began to appear at the common tables and, most significantly, conversations were translated from Japanese into English, and not — as had long been the practice — from English into Japanese.

Father Edward Vebelun, 41, Ohio native who was trained for priesthood both at Saint John’s seminary and a Japanese seminary, describes the transition as a revelation. “From there, the flood gates really opened for us.”

Father Edward Vebelun O.S.B. photo by Adam Minter

In November 2008, three young Japanese men began year-long novitiates at Trinity. And on June 20, the 10-year anniversary of Trinity’s presence in Fujimi, four candidates entered the monastery for six-months, each, in order to determine whether they’d like to continue with a formal novitiate. Whatever the reason for the renewed interest in the monastery, there’s little question that the new members are transforming it in unexpected ways. Francisco Shimose Toshisha is a very youthful 40-year-old novice, and former sound engineer and musician. At prayer, he plays the organ and sings with the choir (in his habit, looking like nothing so much as a Japanese art rocker). Since joining, he engineered and produced two CDs of the monks in prayer and song, and brought a new energy to the daily prayer cycle that is such a critical component to the Benedictine experience.

When I asked him what, precisely, attracted him to Trinity, he shrugs. “I read a book published by Saint John’s on monastic life. So I came to see it. And my first impression was that this is the place.”

But now that the issue of new monks has presumably been settled, the question becomes: a place for what? Father Wahl, sitting in the library late on a Saturday afternoon smiles when I bring up the issue. “To develop a strong monastic life true to the Japanese culture,” he says sincerely, if a bit by rote. “Develop a strong theology informed by awareness of strong Catholic tradition.”

During another discussion, though, he became a bit more reflective, and — by preface — told me that he’ll soon be returning to Minnesota to check in with his relatives in Stearns County. His own health, he concedes, may be a factor as to when he returns. His eyes briefly turn to the shelves of books. At St. John’s, in Collegeville, he reminds me, the monks are all buried in a cemetery reserved only for them; when they join, they know that’s where their journey will end. It’s an important symbol, both to the Trinity community itself, and to the lay people who surround it, of commitment.

Powerful vision
So far, however, most of the monks at Trinity and its forerunner in Tokyo have returned home to die. “I think it’s important that some monks live and die here,” he adds with a shrug of the shoulders. “It says something about who we are.”

It’s a powerful vision, if a bit dour, and it’s not one that’s expressed by younger monks like Fr. Edward Vebelun O.S.B., who serves as the formation director for the new novices and candidates, and who joined me on a train back to Tokyo one Sunday afternoon. “My real dream is to see us become a major retreat and renewal center,” he says. “People can travel to us from Japan, the U.S., wherever. That’d be ideal.”

Novice Francisco Shimose Toshisha photo by Adam Minter

As it happens, the 10-year-old Fujimi complex already hosts guests on a regular basis. As all Benedictine monasteries, it places a special emphasis on hosting guests, and its four-room guest wing is open to all-comers, Catholic or not, who want to experience Catholic monastic life. But four rooms isn’t close to being large enough for fulfilling the vision that Vebelun has for Trinity, and it’s unclear if or when the monastery will ever have the funds to fulfill his ambitions.

Outside of our train, the lush rural Japan that Vebelun and his brothers have come to know so well is passing us by. In recent years, he’s spent significant time ministering in some of these small and mid-sized communities, and he’s keenly aware of the challenges and rewards that his ministry — as a Japanese-trained priest affiliated with a Minnesota monastery — offer him.

“Whatever else it is,” he told me. “This is a whole lot more exciting than the average parish back home!”

At that, he laughs and mentions that he’ll be getting off at the next stop to catch a train to Yokohama, where he’ll be ministering all week.

About Br. Aelred Senna, OSB

A monk of Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.
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