Living day to day we might not always be aware of God’s call or activity in our life. We may not see how these key themes and characters of Advent have any relation to the faith life we are trying to lead. That sentiment is often expressed by those who find themselves unexpectedly involved in meaningful efforts and which almost always deepen their own faith.
“Mary said, ‘Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:38
When the Benedictine Monks began building Blue Cloud Abbey in the 1950s, they could not have imagined that someday they would need to determine what to do with the buildings and adjacent land. But with few vocations and aging members, the determination was made to close the Abbey.
That’s when six couples, some talking to each other, some thinking about it independently, but eventually all six together felt the call to preserve the Abbey as place where the faith could continue to be shared and passed on.
Chad Campbell was a successful officer with the Sioux Falls Police Department. Because of his work with the homeless he got involved in the planning for what became the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House. He was surprised when he felt the nudge to apply for the job of running it.
Kris Sees did not have ministry on her mind when she completed her hospitality and food services degree at Mount Marty College, Yankton. She wanted to run a hotel. She took a route through Illinois and cancer before finding her way to Broom Tree Retreat and Conference Center where she is now the administrator.
Jim Heller was trying to answer a question posed to him by his wife Michala, “what was his passion in a job or career or ministry?”
“…I felt that I had been living out this passion in my years of teaching and coaching at Aberdeen Roncalli,” Heller said. “But after spending some time in prayer with this question I was drawn back to my formation of faith…first through my family growing up in Watertown, SD and then during my time at Northern State where I was involved with the Newman Center and a vibrant SEARCH retreat program,” he said.
“My passion and desire to continue to seek out and stay involved with retreat ministry came to the surface. My connection to these core friends from these time periods, the example and strength of their faith lives and values, and the timing of Blue Cloud closing started to form a direction for me to pursue.
He shared these thoughts with a group of friends. “Unknown to me, they also had felt the tug to look into the possibility of doing something at the Abbey,” Heller said.
Today’s Abbey of the Hills came about from that tug, felt and acted upon by Val and Paula Rausch, Wade and Cynthia Van Dover, Deacon Paul and Julie Treinen, Dan and Michelle Moberg, Roman and Carol Taffe, along with Jim and Michala Heller.
Campbell said he has always had an active faith but had to rely on spiritual guidance from others and much prayer and reflection when considering leaving the police force to run the newly created Bishop Dudley Hospitality House.
“As the process evolved I started to contemplate if I was in the right place and if I could do more. I think it was the Holy Spirit.” Once he had the job there was some anticipation and fear of what was to come.
“This is a big endeavor and it takes patience. You are dealing with people’s lives,” Campbell said. BDHH provides overnight emergency shelter, daytime programs and serves as a connecting point for the myriad of services needed to help people struggling with homelessness. .
Sees and her husband had been in Illinois for his job for seven years, always with at least some intention of returning to South Dakota. She heard about the new retreat center being built and applied to be the cook.
“Fr. (Jim) Mason walked me through the not completed building, and later hired me over the phone. Soon after I discovered I had breast cancer,” she said. Through a lumpectomy and chemotherapy, the family decided to stay the course of their plans and move back.
“It didn’t make much sense at the time,” Sees said. “We had no place to live, I had cancer and my husband had no job. But looking back now I can see God leading the way,” she said.
Deacon Treinen now serves as director for Abbey of the Hills Inn and Retreat Center, set up as a non-profit organization. How did the group know they could trust what they perceived as a call from God to get involved?
“I believe that when the unexpected happens, such as the Abbey, it involves a couple of key components,” Deacon Treinen said. “First, it is bold, it is challenging. It comes in a way that, frankly, I would not EVER have thought up. I believe God wants to challenge us in our faith—to jolt us out of our unbelief—and grow in our trust in him.”
“Second, it involves prayer to come to realize (at least partly realize) that this is of God. The prayer for the Abbey didn’t give us a sense that it would be easy, but that we should trust Him,” he said.
“Finally, I believe an absolute essential component of trusting this call; this decision was the sense of peace we had in doing it. Yes, it seemed crazy for sure, but we had peace in the end in moving it forward.”
Julie Treinen said, “Our trust in God was developed by taking baby steps in faith throughout life. I don’t think God asks us to take giant leaps.”
“At least for me it started small like using NFP and homeschooling and then the next thing He asked was a little bigger like Paul becoming a deacon and then buying an abbey. Obviously there were a lot of other things happening in between, but the idea is God leads us in our faith through baby steps, usually, so we’re ready for the next step. Each step has been scary and sacrificial and by the world’s standard a little crazy, but it has always brought blessings too,” she said.
Because of deadlines, the group did not have much time to develop detailed plans for the future of the Abbey before completing the purchase, and Dan and Michelle Moberg got the Advent sense of waiting with expectation after the deal was done.
“The plans we had for the Abbey were not as great as God’s plan and this was a hard lesson in humility. None of the thoughts that we had for the Abbey have been born out. What has happened has been far greater than we imagined. The way the Abbey has touched so many people has been incredible,” they said.
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. Matthew 1:24
Both Heller, involved in the Abbey, and Campbell, running the Dudley House, said trusting, like Joseph, even when it doesn’t make sense resonates with them.
“My parish recently had a slide on the screen which said ‘let hope prevail over fear’ and I found that so meaningful. This is a key message for me. This has been a journey of faith,” Campbell said.
And joyful too, especially when people are able to move on, Campbell said, like the man who he knew from back in his police days and through the first two years of the Dudley House, who now has his own place.
“I think about that on the bad days,” he said.
Heller said “As much as I would like to say we were ready for all of this to happen I would be lying. When I was thinking that retreat ministry was a passion that I would like to stay connected to, never in my wildest imagination did I think that that meant that God would make an entire Benedictine Abbey available and that a group of my good friends would be part of the deal.”
“But there is no denying that God spoke and that He had asked each of us to listen and to act – I wish I could say this is how I live every day of my life (I can’t) – but like Advent helps to teach us. It’s all about allowing God to work — preparing our hearts for the journey,” Heller said.
Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Luke 1:18
Zechariah was already a religious man, taking his turn serving in the temple. But when told that he and Elizabeth would have a son, his questioning of Gabriel revealed his focus on himself, not God. It wasn’t until after the birth of John and his muteness ended, that he was able to proclaim his great canticle, completely focused on God and which is recited daily as part of the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours.
“The one Advent character that resonates with us is Zechariah, because of his initial doubts,” said the Mobergs. “We had doubts and we needed to learn and listen and be willing to shift our plans to God’s plans and trust that His plans are so much greater than ours.”
That shift of focus has meant “a 180 in faith life, a conversion and a deepened living out my faith in daily life,” said Sees of her experiences at Broom Tree. “We were faithful people – regular church attendance and praying the rosary, but now, you witness what happens here and you feel the Holy Spirit.”
Zechariah also has meaning for Deacon Treinen. “I suppose I relate to Zechariah in that I all-to-often have this, ‘Yes, I’ll do whatever you ask,’ but when things actually happen, I question God a little too much, instead of trusting Him. I think He’s trying to mold me more into Joseph, who I believe still didn’t understand things completely, but was so patient and trusting that he, instead of complaining or questioning, earnestly took his concerns to the Lord…trusted and acted out of faith. This Advent I’m going to pray to both of these great saints for the gift of trust and to act out of faith.”
… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. He went throughout [the] whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3:2-3
Campbell is surprised to find himself in a bit of the John the Baptist role – often turned to as an expert and a voice for the issues surrounding homelessness.
“It’s a humbling and overwhelming experience to be able to speak about the plight of the homeless, to be listened to about issues of poverty, substance abuse, mental illness and more,” he said.
At the same time, Campbell said allowing the Spirit to continue to guide is essential, especially when dealing people who often have so beaten down.
“Trusting is huge. Jesus talked about the faith of a mustard seed moving mountains. Sometimes I feel I should be able to move the mountain myself – but of course I can’t without faith.”
The very presence of the Benedictines and Blue Cloud Abbey in northeastern South Dakota was a bold proclamation of the faith. Though not connected to the Benedictines or even formally to the Diocese of Sioux Falls, the stewards work hard to maintain the historical connections.
“While we are not monks, the Benedictine spirit is in the very motor of the Abbey,” said Deacon Treinen.
“From ‘welcoming all as Christ’ to our dedication to prayer, work, and reading, the Benedictine spirit is a voice that is part of what we strive to be. Again, we don’t wear black robes, and do not try to pretend we are monks. We are different. We have spouses/families, other jobs, and we don’t live in community on site at the Abbey,” he said.
In particular, prayer remains an essential element of the work of Abbey of the Hills. It’s what led the group to act in the first place, and continues to motive all that they do.
“We continue to pray together and there is prayer daily at the Abbey at 3 p.m. where staff and whoever is available prays in the lower chapel,” said the Mobergs.
Adds Heller, “I believe those that have come back to the Abbey to participate in retreats or events and those who have done so for the first time realize that the essence of the Benedictine tradition is still available in this place. We have worked hard to stay connected to these roots and I believe that is what is drawing more and more back to the abbey once again.”
Deacon Treinen said everyone can have a role in helping themselves and the Abbey in two ways.
“First, prayers. We would very much appreciate people remembering the work of the Abbey in their prayers. A kindly priest friend of mine once told me, ‘Every fifth decade of my rosary is lifted up on behalf of the Abbey.’ That still brings tears to my eyes,” he said.
“The second, I ask folks to come back and bring their friends, their family, their church group, book club, painting group, quilt group. You get the idea. Again, the Abbey is a gift from God. For some crazy reason he’s asked these 12 stewards to step out and keep it going, but in truth, the Abbey is a gift to the people of the prairie that is intended to be used. And if it is, the gift is His peace and His holiness,” said Deacon Treinen.
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Luke 2:19
Sees said those who minister at Broom Tree remind themselves of the mission statement regularly and that it is a place where “we provide the environment and the needs find us. God does the rest. That can happen anywhere, but what we see is the environment allows them to receive the graces and from here they go home with those graces.”
“The mission of the Abbey is unfolding,” Deacon Treinen said.
“As I said, we certainly didn’t understand it at first, and I don’t pretend to fully understand it even three years later. But God choses the weak to allow His power to be more seen, more proclaimed.
“Perhaps it’s like Mary too, in that, while being called to be the Mother of God involved trust, it also involved a lot of sacrifice and work. Again, we’ve done nothing compared to Mary, nothing. But this call to be Stewards of the Abbey has certainly been more challenging and more work than I think any of us had imagined,” he said.
“Yet, I’m quick to add that no one can out give our Lord, and He has been so faithful–especially during the most challenging times. And this has typically come from the many, many volunteers who have stepped up at just the right time to offer their talents–and time–in ways that were ‘right on time’ and just what we needed. Pretty cool, actually,” Deacon Treinen said.
“Looking at the Abbey today, we feel God is doing great things leading people closer to Him through the Abbey and all the people who have been and still are part of the Abbey,” said the Mobergs.
“I have realized that God is calling everyone to say ‘Yes’ to something He has in mind for us,” said Julie Treinen.
“It is almost always hard, sacrificial and scary, so most people try to ignore it. But I always think of a quote from Pope Benedict, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.’ I love that quote. I try to live by it so I don’t focus too much on doing what I want, but instead try to live a life focused on doing for others,” she said.
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