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Community of the Beatitudes

By David Scott

This Catholic contemplative community in Colorado is one of over 70 in the world where single and married people consecrate their lives to God.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

Consecrated Community
An International Movement
Making an Impact
Disarming Simplicity
Realizing God's Love
Accepting an Invitation to Denver
Fragmented Family
Demanding Work
Making Adjustments
Simple Living
Growing in Faith

Communiry of the Beatitudes
  Photo by James Baca

OUTSIDE, the old neighbor lady pokes her head out the door. Clutching the sweater she's pulled around her nightgown, she shuffles to the end of the porch and peers down the alley, calling for something. A fat white cat emerges in a slow trot and moseys around the base of the porch, up the steps and into the house. The old woman follows.

A car eases itself out from the row of vehicles parked alongside the curb. A man strides up the sidewalk as though he's late for his bus.

From the first-floor window in this brick house across the street, it all unfolds like some urban morning ballet, set to the score of minor-key polyphonic chanting and swells of organ, the oily smell of incense in the air.

In here, a tall man in a thin white cowl bends deeply at the waist, straightens himself and intones: "In the beginning of this day, Lord, we sing your praise...."

He is answered by more organ and rhythmic chanting from five other cowled people in the room: "Create in us the heart of a child...."

They all face an altar, behind which is a simple gold tabernacle. Three red roses in a tiny vase sit before it on a shelf. Off to the side, seven candles burn in a menorah.

There are icons on every white wall. Saints surround us: John Vianney, the famed Curé of Ars; Seraphim of Sarov, the 19th-century Russian Orthodox monk and mystic; Joseph the carpenter; the Little Flower, Thérèse. The eyes of Christ are here, too—cosmic Byzantine images, the holy face in negative from the Shroud of Turin.

Consecrated Community

Welcome to the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes, easily the most eccentric household in this working-class neighborhood in northwest Denver, Colorado, and perhaps in all the Rockies.

Living under the roof of this 14-room former convent are three nuns and a laywoman. Frequently, members from other countries join them for a few months. Until recently, a husband and wife with young children lived here. They now live in a small house nearby.

This is what they do pretty much all day: work and pray as monks do. At 7:15 a.m. it's Morning Prayer. Mass is celebrated at 8. Then at 8:30, members read their Bibles. They work from 9 to 11 a.m. Then it's an hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by the rosary, midday prayers and lunch. In the afternoon it's more of the same. The day ends with Night Prayer at 8:30 p.m.

An International Movement

This radical experiment in Christian communal living is a branch of an international movement founded in France in 1973 by a charismatic Catholic deacon with a mystical appreciation for Israel and the Jewish liturgy, and a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Today, the movement has the blessing of Church authorities in Rome. There are more than 70 Beatitudes households in countries throughout the world, including Germany, Hungary, Lebanon, Peru, Djibouti, Zaire and New Zealand.

But this is the first outpost in the United States, founded in late 1998 at the invitation of Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap.

Making an Impact

With their radical living arrangements, their monk-like daily routine, their simple habits and beautifully ethereal liturgies, community members are attracting a small but loyal following. They are changing the way Catholics think about prayer and life in this boomtown of the new global economy.

"I call it my weekly retreat," says Mary Camacho, a pensioner who drives across town to join the community for Mass and other services. "Spiritually and emotionally, the way they treat people, they are an inspiration to a lot of people. From them, I've learned the joy of the Resurrection."

Bob Sherwin, a young husband and father who is director of youth ministry for the archdiocese, often takes his lunch here, where he enjoys the fellowship and the serenity. He says the pure joy of the community members is beginning to have a real influence, especially on Denver's young Catholics.

"They have such a real love for young people and the Church," he says. "The kids seldom see this kind of enthusiasm and real joy in the practice of the faith. And the Beatitudes Community lives with this joy all the time."

Disarming Simplicity

At first glance, these don't seem to be impossibly holy people. In fact, they're disarming in their simplicity.

"We are a family living like monks," says Christine Meert, a small woman in her mid-40s with a big smile and short, tousled hair.

She and her husband, Christian—the tall, lanky man in the cowl at Morning Prayer—are the co-leaders of the Denver community. Married in 1977, they have five children. They began living this way—as married monastics, parents vowed to a life of prayer—in 1990 in France.

Asked how it all began, they tell a long story of drift and despair, of heartbreak and a mystical sensation of divine care.

Both were born and raised Catholic, he in Morocco and she in France. Christian had an uncle who was a priest and an aunt who was a nun. He can remember, as a child, carrying baskets of food to the homes of the poor each Sunday after church with his mother.

By the time Christian and Christine met in their late teens in the south of France, neither of them was going to church anymore.

"We started living together and I found myself pregnant," Christine offers a quiet, frank summation, her eyes turned down. "I was 19 and I was very afraid of telling my parents. Christian was not ready for that. He even told me that if I kept the baby he would leave me. I was very afraid, so I had an abortion. And it was terrible. That's how everything started."

A priest who was a friend of Christine's parents heard her confession and absolved her of her sin. But she couldn't forgive herself, she explains.

Christine and Christian got married. Then he immersed himself in his high-stress job as export manager for an international irrigation-equipment manufacturer based in the United States.

The trauma of the abortion and Christine's feelings of guilt cast a long and deepening shadow over their relationship. "After each child was born, I had a lot of anguish," she recalls. "I was kind of mad at him still, even though I had played my part. He was traveling a lot and it was very hard."

Realizing God's Love

At the suggestion of her sister, she attended a charismatic Catholic healing service. "It wasn't like firecrackers or anything," she says. "I realized that God loved me, even though I had done bad things. I knew he was loving and that he loved everybody, but I didn't think he could love me personally. And that changed everything."

Christine began going to Mass every day. She also prayed the rosary and read the Scriptures. Turning her eyes toward her husband, she recalls without a laugh, "He thought I was going nuts."

Two years later, in 1984, the couple attended a five-day retreat at the Community of the Beatitudes. There, during a reconciliation service, Christian says, the Blessed Mother appeared to him in a vision.

"She was watching me with a pretty, sad smile," he recalls. "And then she presented me to Our Lord and I had the experience of being before the source of life and of love. It was a very, very strong experience. I thought maybe everybody in the room had it, too. I didn't talk about it for a year to anyone."

Over the next several years, they drew closer and closer to the Beatitudes Community, attracted by the radical lifestyle and the transcendent worship services.

"You could feel God's presence in the liturgy of the community," Christine says. "I could feel a door open on heaven."

After a long period of prayer and reflection, Christian quit his job and they sold all their worldly belongings to join the community.

"I called my boss," Christian remembers with a smile. "I said, 'I'm sorry. I'm moving to a monastery.' There was a big blank there on the transatlantic call."

Accepting an Invitation to Denver

The Meerts met Archbishop Charles Chaput at a Pentecost celebration at the Vatican in 1998. He invited them to migrate to Denver.

Archbishop Chaput is a big fan of new renewal movements like the Beatitudes, and he has invited as many as a dozen to set up shop in Denver in recent years.

The archbishop gave members of the Beatitudes Community a place to live, paid their rent and health insurance for the first year, and encouraged Catholics in Denver—priests and laypeople alike—to be open to what they might learn from this unique community.

"I think God uses communities like the Beatitudes to shake things up in a good way, to blow the dust off the gospel," he explains. "That doesn't mean they're perfect. It does mean they're very, very valuable to the life of the Church here. They're a great witness. And they have a lot of evangelical energy, which is why they're very attractive to Catholics who hunger for something more in their spiritual lives."

Fragmented Family

Karen and Deano González, young parents of five, had long felt that desire for the spiritual experience of "something more."

Deano is a tax collector for the I.R.S. and Karen is a stay-at-home mom. They say that, like a lot of young families they know living in the suburbs, they felt isolated and fragmented. Their life seemed to be a disconnected jumble of work, volunteer ministries and regularly scheduled children's activities.

Even in their parish they felt they had a circle of acquaintances but no deep ties, no sense of friendship in the faith.

When the Beatitudes Community came to town it was like an answer to all their prayers. With their children—ranging in age from toddler to preteen—the Gonzálezes join other families and individuals for a weeknight prayer service at the community house. Services are followed by a potluck supper. Then adults and children break off for religious instruction and faith-sharing activities led by community members.

"The obedience, the accountability—this is the intimacy that we were striving for," Karen explains. "This is a place where you do share your whole being—your weaknesses, your strengths, everything. So it becomes a place where you can love and learn what love is."

Last year, Karen and Deano renewed their wedding vows before the whole community, on their knees in the house chapel, as a visiting Beatitudes priest from France blessed them with outstretched arms.

Now they're engaged in a formal process of prayer and reflection with Beatitudes Community members to decide whether to become full-fledged family residents.

Demanding Work

Deano and Karen are under no illusions about the life they are considering. Whatever mystic heights they might scale in prayer, members of this community are down-to-earth and frank when it comes to describing their limitations and the daily struggles of their common life.

"We did not choose each other," stresses Sister Marie-Liesse, who was a Beatitudes nun in France for 18 years before moving here. The community was drawn from volunteers in France, and many of the members weren't well acquainted before embarking together for Denver. "It is every day a school of holiness and sanctity."

"School of holiness," which comes from the Rule of St. Benedict, and a similar phrase, "school of love," come up frequently in conversation here. It's like a code they use to tell visitors and to remind themselves that this isn't easy. It's a demanding and draining work. They're enrolled in a lifelong learning course in the toughest subject of all, the surrender of self in order to truly love God and others.

Making Adjustments

When Christian and Christine talk about raising children, they sound not unlike the overworked parents of any large family.

"Because he is in charge, he doesn't have much time for the family," Christine says with a matter-of-fact nod toward her husband. "And when he has time for the family, he is tired and stressed. We find ways to adjust."

They say they have endured ordinary parenting struggles—moody adolescents, rebellious teens, kids who don't want to go to Mass—but that growing up in a virtual monastery was a positive experience for their children.

"My father was afraid for the kids," Christine recalls. "He thought that living this way, they would become disgusted with prayer and with the Church, that they would react against it. Now, if you asked him, he would say he is very happy. He is proud of his grandchildren."

Christine explains why the family recently moved into a nearby house: "We have more room in the convent to welcome visitors and the family has more privacy. God is good!"

The five Meert daughters seem well adjusted. Mathilde graduated last year from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is planning a June wedding in Denver that will be celebrated by the archbishop.

Jehanne, who was married last August, is attending art school in France. Recently, she had a miscarriage, which was very upsetting for her and her husband, Oliver. But it happened when her father was in France for community meetings so he was able to spend some time with them.

Another budding artist in the family is Marion, a senior at Holy Family High School in Denver. Upon graduation, she plans to attend the same art school in France as her sister.

Pauline, an eighth-grader at St. Catherine of Siena, is preparing for Confirmation. She enjoys playing the saxophone and has taken up fencing.

The youngest daughter, Charlotte, is a first-grader who received her First Communion in France two days before her sister's wedding.

Simple Living

All members of the Denver community live simply. "We need about $3,500 every month," says Christian. The community earns about half of that through various ministries: leading holy hours, school retreats and parish missions; teaching marriage-preparation classes and workshops on the Jewish roots of the faith; selling handicrafts and devotional recordings and books.

The other half comes from donations and the kindness of strangers. For instance, one man shows up every Friday, takes the household's weekly grocery list and buys every item for them.

As community members mind their own business, working and praying, they have become a magnet of sorts for strangers in need. Mostly people come at night, when all the churches are dark and closed for the day. They come because they have no place else to go.

There were the two teenage boys who stood in the doorway one night, their heads down, hands jammed in their pockets. They didn't want to come in. They didn't want to get very specific. They had a simple request: "Could you say a prayer for us?"

Their request was granted.

Another time, a distraught woman rang the bell late at night. "My nephew, Bobbie, is going to die," she said. "He had a reaction to some medication. He's on artificial ventilation. He's going to die. It's just a matter of time. I was just at the hospital and he doesn't have long to live. Could you pray for him?"

Community members sat her down in the chapel and prayed with her. The next night, the woman came back. Her nephew had turned the corner toward recovery. Everything was going to be all right.

Growing in Faith

"It's not my job to change the world—the Lord is the only one who can change hearts," says Sister Mary of the Visitation, who was a member of the Denver community before returning to France last September. She admits that their vocation might seem puny in a world of poverty, suffering and exploitation.

But, she says, they take their cues from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the late 19th-century saint of the "little way"—trusting that things are in God's hands and that their duty is to offer everything to him.

"The only reproach Jesus had to his disciples was for their lack of faith," she says in a soft voice. "Our main job is to grow in faith. If I'm here, if I'm on my knees, if I'm having a cup of tea or I'm ironing clothes or whatever—whatever I do, if I do that for God and offer that to him, it will bear fruit for God."

At 30-something (she declines to give her exact age), Sister Mary could be a poster girl for the next generation of vocations. With her big-sister-next-door good looks and a beaming, mischievous smile, she cut quite a figure tooling around Denver on her bicycle in full habit.

"The Lord calls us for happiness," she says. "He said, 'Blessed be the poor.' He didn't say, 'Blessed be the miserable ones.' When I was young, I thought that to be a sister you had to be very strict and serious—you could never laugh or anything. Those were all false images."

Ten years ago in Belgium, she was a loose-living broadcast journalist who had drifted far from the Church. Engaged to be married, two weeks before the wedding she called it off. She has been a nun in the Beatitudes Community for the last nine years.

Sister Mary sees a quiet desperation lying just beneath the surface of much of American life. "This culture is terrible—everybody is just running for material stuff that won't give happiness," she says. "I think people have a very hard life. They have many social activities, but no good friends. There is so much superficiality. How can you nourish your soul with that? So you need more and more things..."

She trails off, as if conscious that she's started to preach. But she and other members of the Beatitudes Community are aware that their lives are a kind of sermon. They are a daily witness to the possibility of other priorities and values, to another purpose for living, another way of life.

"Bearing fruit for the Lord is what matters," says Sister Mary. "We are just passing by. In a blink of the eyes—everything will change, like a trumpet blast. We don't how or when. We are just going and trusting."

For more information on the Community of the Beatitudes, visit http://www.archden.org/beatitud/.

 

David Scott was editor of Our Sunday Visitor from 1993 to 2000. Recently he wrote an introduction to the Catholic faith for Loyola Press and a study of Dorothy Day for Our Sunday Visitor Books.

 


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