OAKDALE, Neb. — The road to monastic seclusion is narrow, anything but straight, and paved all the way with ruts, mud holes and jagged, oil-pan-bending boulders.
"If you can't make it up to the monastery, stop off at my farm and borrow the horse," suggested Dick Childs, in all Nebraska seriousness, at the gas station in town.
The car bogged down, but Father Clifford Stevens, the founding--and so far the only--monk at the Monastery of Tintern, came to the rescue in a muddy front-wheel-drive vehicle.
"The county promised to improve this road, but I'm not sure we want better accessibility," Stevens shouted over the engine knocks as the barn-like monastery came into sight around the last tortuous bend. "Our aim is to keep the world at a distance, not because it's evil, but because solitude to a monk is freedom, the freedom to pursue God with the intensity of a lover seeking a rendezvous with his beloved."
The silence of the deep surrounding woods was broken only by a great blue heron lifting off with powerful flapping wings over the dove-shaped pond.
Americans, Stevens said with regret, have always looked down on the contemplative life as a waste of human resources. But he summoned Albert Camus, the French existentialist, as a witness for the defense of solitude:
"There are no more deserts. There are no more islands. Yet one still feels the need of them. To understand this world, one must sometimes turn away from it; to serve men better one must hold them at a distance."
Stevens, a former Air Force chaplain who has flown at twice the speed of sound in an F-104 and once applied for astronaut training--"They never even answered my letter"--spoke enthusiastically of the joys of living a life of silence as he showed off the tiny, 8-by-12-foot rough pine cubicles where the monks would sleep on slat-board beds and straw mattresses that would stir the inmates of Attica to bang their mess trays against the bars.
"If Hugh Hefner can found a Playboy empire, I can help recover a tradition that has been lost for 700 years," Stevens said. His Monks of Tintern would be America's first monastic order and the first new order anywhere since the servites in the 13th Century.
"Our community will be built on the four pillars of solitude, study, the chanting of the Psalms and the celebration of the Eucharist," he continued, leading the way up a spiral staircase to the library and skylight-roofed chapel.
"The monks will engage in no business or commerce. There will be none of what Thomas Merton called, 'Holy Jesus, buy our cheeses.' The contemplative life is primary. When you have a business, it becomes secondary and the monks become employees.
"The problem with many monasteries today is the economic side has become the dominant side: selling wines, jellies, vestments and even shaving lotions. Some European nuns work in breweries and chocolate factories, and there's an American monastery turning out 15,000 loaves of bread a day."
The 59-year-old priest sees modern Tintern, born again from the ruins of 12th-Century Tintern Abbey in Wales, as a theological think tank.
However, instead of hovering over an illuminated manuscript in the Theologiae Sacrae Sanctuarium--the reading room--the modern monk of Tintern would be bent over a computer terminal inputting data into a theological bank specializing in the works of Thomas Aquinas. The information stored would be made available to scholars around the world, "who could code into our network."
Stevens envisions a community of scholars, sculptors, poets, potters and--above all--theologians. For 25 years he has been compiling his order's constitution. It outlines a 10-year training for the monks in philosophy, theology, research methods and Latin, Greek and Hebrew, the Biblical languages.
Even after taking final vows and his ordination as a priest, the monk of Tintern would pursue advanced theological studies with videotapes, lectures and a tutorial system "similar to St. John's at Annapolis."
"I've had 300 inquiries already," Stevens said enthusiastically. "Young people are weary of the materialism of the world and turning to God. It's not an escape; they're fleeing toward something."
At that moment, the phone rang. A priest from Atlanta, a specialist in Canon Law, was interested in joining the community. "Within 10 years," Stevens was telling him, "there will be monasteries like this in every state. We are witnessing a vast explosion of the ascetic life."
Over coffee, the founder monk, awaiting his first novices, admitted: "Realistically, only one in 20 will stay. It's like medical school, but requiring greater commitment. The monks will spend the rest of their lives here. I have a lovely graveyard picked out in a grove of cottonwoods near an old Pawnee burial ground."