Weston, Vt. From early childhood, many of the men were drawn to the prayer, rituals, and wisdom of the clergy; some aspired to be priests and to help others.
All have found their place at the Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery set on an old dairy farm in rural Vermont, where a small community of Roman Catholic monks live for prayer and working toward a better world. This summer, they are celebrating 50 years as a monastic community.
"People think you have to give up so much to be part of this life. I'm not aware of that," said Brother Philip, who, like the other monks at Weston, prefers to be identified by his first name. "I'm aware of how much I've received."
Weston Priory was founded in 1953 by the German-born monk Leo Rudloff. Today, 15 monks ages 31 to 81 live at the priory, eating together without speaking, meeting five times a day for common prayer, and working in the fields, gardens, woods and workshops of their 450-acre grounds.
Bonds to each other
The monks wear bands on their wedding fingers to symbolize their bonds to each other. Five were ordained as priests before entering the community; the rest were not.
At least two were married before entering; one has daughters. Another is a former U.S. Marine who worked on Wall Street. The newest member, 31-year-old Brother Lorenzo, joined in February; the longest-serving, 78-year-old Brother John, has been there since 1955.
Brother Elias, a Sayreville, N.J., native who has been at the priory for 39 years, felt alone and was searching for community when he entered an enclosed monastery at the age of 18. There, monks only talked to three other monks.
He spent two years there before visiting the Weston Priory and deciding to move.
"There was something about the monastic life that I loved -- the community, the prayer," said Brother Elias. He said when he arrived at Weston, "I felt something that I couldn't describe.
"It was a sense of really belonging; a long-lost place I had discovered. That was the moment; it was the beginning of a long, joyful adventure."
Making a living
The monks make a living through pottery, weaving, and several other crafts, and through 16 albums of religious music -- composed, played and sung by the monks, and even recorded at a studio on the grounds. All the money they make goes to the community.
The brothers dress in ordinary clothes such as shorts and T-shirts most of the day but put on their traditional gray robes for prayer. They are silent from the end of evening prayers until the next morning.
"St. Benedict encourages (us) not to waste words," Brother Elias said. "(He says) we tend to stumble when we use too many words; we stumble in our relationships with one another."
The monks deter personal questions; they seem shy. Yet they are warm and open to the many strangers who visit, and see themselves as a voice for oppressed people.
The community, which opposed the U.S. war in Iraq, also strives to show the world by example that peace is possible in the world.
"Peace is a choice; we take the steps to make a peaceful climate," said Brother Philip, 53, a monk from Buffalo, N.Y.
Eighteen years ago, the monks took in a family of Guatemalan refugees; the family's five children have grown and left, but the parents are still with them. The monks work with Benedictines in Mexico on social issues in that country, traveling there and hosting visitors.
The priory also has opened its grounds to plantings from local groups in memory of people who died from AIDS, and an Alcoholics Anonymous group meets in a common room there every Sunday. Groups of inner-city children visit each summer and stay on the grounds.