PIFFARD — In his poem, "Starving Artists," Brother Isaac Slater, OCSO, alludes to the scriptural tale of the multitudes being fed by Jesus — only after they willingly surrendered their bread and fish to him to bless and multiply.
"(T)he treasure is kept by abandonment and multiplied by trusting sacrifice, the meager scraps of bread and fish relinquished in humble offering, secure, by surrender, the Banquet," he wrote.
Brother Slater has taken his own advice and abandoned himself to God, professing his solemn vows July 11 as a monk at the Abbey of the Genesee, home of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
In a literal manifestation of his poetic sentiments, Brother Slater is among those monks multiplying loaves of bread in the abbey’s famed bakery, where Monk’s Bread is made. In addition to his bakery duties, Brother Slater helps care for monks in the abbey’s infirmary and also works on plumbing and landscaping. Among his current projects, he is working on the monastery’s Zen garden. It’s no accident that the Catholic monastery has such a garden, he said, because monks of all faiths have much in common, with their devotion to simplicity and meditation. Cistercian monks are involved in Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, he added, and Zen Buddhist monasticism and Cistercian monasticism are both devoted to "deep silence."
Brother Slater has enjoyed the deep silence of Genesee since New Year’s Eve 1999, when he entered as a postulant. At age 31, he is the abbey’s youngest monk by 12 years. He was born John Slater in Unionville, north of Toronto, and grew up a Congregationalist. His father, who had left the Catholic Church at one time, decided to go back to it when Brother Slater was 12. Long interested in things religious, Brother Slater said that his father’s renewed interest in Catholicism spurred his own interest, which was heightened when he accompanied his father on retreats. A silent retreat particularly moved him as a teenager, he said.
"It freaked me out and appealed to me at the same time," he said of the silence.
However, without going into details, the monk said that for several years he went down a self-destructive path that led him away from God, "bottoming out" while in college. Yet, even in his worst moments, he said his love of literature kept bringing him back to the creator. In particular, he said he remembered reading an interfaith anthology of sacred poetry that "zapped" him and reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famed Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov. The novel’s protagonist is an acolyte at a monastery who works to keep his family from falling apart over its differences. Brother Slater said he has reread the novel at significant moments in his life, including just recently before he took his final vows.
"It gives several examples of deep conversion," Brother Slater said of The Brothers Karamazov, adding that the book’s "image of God as absolute mercy" also appealed to him. Brother Slater said many monks, like himself, have, at one time or another, experienced a powerful realization of God’s mercy in their own lives.
"You’re aware of your own (sinful) misery in a deep way, perhaps for the first time, and aware of how absolutely loved you are by God just as you are," he said.
Brother Slater said he knew he wanted to become a monk before he became a Catholic.
"It was only because the monastic tradition existed in the Catholic Church that I began to take Catholicism seriously," he said.
Having traveled the self-destructive path for so long, he said he knew that if he was going to have a relationship with God, he would have to go to the other extreme and forsake all other pursuits. Monastic life — with its simplicity, work, study and meditation — was the best way, he said, for him to keep his new Catholic faith.
He added that the example of Thomas Merton, the famed Kentucky Cistercian and author, influenced his decision to enter the Trappist order.
"He was a writer all the way," Brother Slater said, noting he has published poems in the past. "Seeing that a person like him could live a life like this fruitfully was a real inspiration to me."
The Cistercians are devoted to "reading and loving the Word," he added, noting that a historian once wrote, "the first Cistercians renounced everything but the art of writing."
Brother Slater said that he dropped out of college after three years and became a furniture-mover so he could pay off his student loans, freeing him to then pursue his monastic calling. He formally entered the Catholic Church in 1996, and spent three years at St. Basil’s Parish in Toronto, regularly singing with the choir, a duty for which he volunteered because he knew monks spent much of their time singing and chanting. During this time, he also made several retreats at, and hoped to join, a Cistercian house in Orangeville, Ontario.
"They had to close, and Genesee was the next nearest geographically," he said. "Providentially, too, about 15 minutes after I learned that Orangeville was closing down, a friend handed me a brochure for Genesee."
Making his solemn vows was important, he said, but even more important is his belief that God has somehow vowed himself to him.
"It’s him promising his faithfulness to me more than I promising faithfulness to him," he said of the July 11 ceremony. "My own gift of self is simply the overflow of his gift of love to me, my fidelity the echo of his faithfulness."