By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
KERENS — Here and there on this former ostrich farm, monks in black habits tend free-range chickens, tidy rose beds and mend fences on an overcast April day.
A wooden sign says “St. Maurus” near a pasture where cattle graze with four companionable “guard” donkeys—mellow by day but loyal night-time protectors of the cows from coyotes.
Down a dirt road and around a bend, a monk prepares a garden destined to produce a medley of vegetables, including squash-like bitter melons that some call an acquired taste.
But seven times a day, the 14 members of the Benedictine Monastery of Thien Tam, or Heavenly Heart, turn from their tasks and unite to pray in one of two chapels on their 297-acre property, located about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.
At Thien Tam, prayer and work structure a life centered on a spiritual path but also rooted in a Texas-style working ranch.
The monks abide by the Rule of St. Benedict, which dates to the sixth century and prescribes a daily regimen that emphasizes a balanced life of prayer and work.
Recalibrating a sixth-century rule for a 21st-century world might seem imponderably hard, but not to Father Dominic Hanh Nguyen, OSB, the Prior of Thien Tam.
“The Rule of St. Benedict has a great influence on those who search for God,” he said. “That is our Benedictine mission. We bring the Rule into modern times by faithfully observing it to the best of our ability.”
The prayer sequence, including the Liturgy of the Hours, and designated periods of silence reflect the Rule, as does the practice of having a monk read aloud during meals and later eat his supper with the two monks who serve the meal.
True to The Rule
The monks abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Meals include eggs from the monastery’s hens and vegetables from the gardens. The Prior gives a commentary on a chapter of the Rule each day.
No blue jeans or work shirts have replaced the black habits that the monks wear for ranch duties.
“It’s a very structured life,” Father Nguyen said. “Everything we own, we own in common. All activities take place within the monastery, except medical appointments and some shopping. We promote manual labor, but we don’t work until we drop.”
Here is consecrated life in a supremely natural setting: no TV, no frills and no nearby neighbors.
But the monks, who range in age from 33 to 86, have several golf carts to get around the property. They also have access to internet service and cell phones to stay in touch with their mother house and for emergencies.
It feels much farther than the 12 miles between the monastery and downtown Kerens, which is home to about 1,600 and perhaps best-known as the birthplace of Big Tex, the State Fair of Texas’ emblematic presence.
“It might not be the perfect place here, but it allows us to be far enough from a Metroplex or urban area so that we are not disturbed,” said Father Nguyen, whose monastery was founded by a New Mexico Benedictine abbey in 2009 with six Vietnamese-born monks. “We are surrounded by nature. The environment and the spirit help us to meet our goal of our search for Christ.”
Father Nguyen, 46, said that the monastery welcomes everyone, and now has two American monks.
They have outgrown their living quarters and await the arrival of a trailer that will provide sleeping rooms and office space.
But needed facilities can’t arrive all at once, Father Nguyen said.
The monastery, which is not a commercial enterprise, relies mainly on donations and generous volunteers, Father Nguyen said.
When the monastery’s pear and peach trees mature, they might supplement the hay crop as a means for Thien Tam to receive donations.
Campgrounds provide a chance for visitors to experience Heavenly Heart. Father Nguyen said campers, particularly scout troops, make donations and help maintain the property.
A fringe of pecan trees provides a halo effect above the pond near the monks’ residence, which includes a spotless kitchen and a “house” chapel in addition to the nearby Holy Relics Chapel, where Sunday Mass draws 20-40 from outside the monastery.
“I love it here, spiritually,” said Anthony Hoang, who arrived from Houston in January and is in the “observation” stage of discernment. “It’s very good for me. We learn all of the duties and rotate them. We work with our hands and feet. It is about energy, not about heavy duties.”
At 12:45 p.m., work stops and the monks gather in the house chapel for “Sext”—their mid-day prayer session in English. Seated on opposite sides of the altar, they sing the prayers in a reverent cadence.
Lunch follows the worship interval.
On April 23, a Vietnamese lunch featured soup; salad; rice; fish, and meat.
Preparing for a crowd
Father James Tuan-Anh Do, 42, who was a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati before he professed his vows at Thien Tam in February, said that it took several years to prepare to say his vows.
“It was a long process, but it was delightful,” he said. “It was a beautiful day. About 120 people came. I had family here from Houston, Ohio and Kentucky.”
His morning duties on April 23 included heading up the eradication of chiggers in preparation for the monastery’s annual Blessed Sacrament observance and celebration on June 4-7.
Chris Richmond, the volunteer assistant to the Prior, said that the event drew almost 6,000 last year and could attract up to 10,000 this June, when the monastery will host the United Nations International World Apostolate of Fatima Pilgrim Statue. All are welcome, Richmond said.
She said that the event will offer conferences in English for the first time. (For a complete schedule of the Blessed Sacrament celebration, please visit www.thientamosb.org).
Father Nguyen said that he remains eternally grateful to Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell, who read a decree following a Mass of Dedication at Thien Tam in September 2009 that granted permission for the monastery’s establishment.
And now, here in the Texas countryside, the Rule of St. Benedict prevails 15 centuries after its inception.
“The focus is on the monastic daily routine,” Father Nguyen said. “We are praying for everyone. We welcome everyone. We are thankful for our volunteers and grateful to Almighty God.”