It was a cold dark stormy night.
No, really, it was a cold dark stormy night. It was the beginning of January 1989 (January 13 to be precise) and we had been driving all day from Denver to Missouri, taking the long and relatively boring drive across I-80 through Nebraska then I-29 down to the Missouri border. The strange bleak landscape was foreign to me, broken nubs of corn stalks peaking above a dusting of snow, looking a lot like a post apocalyptic world.
Dad had wanted to drive the trip in a single day, and that was certainly doable, just required sitting in the car for 9 hours across the relatively bleak winter landscapes. It gave me time to sleep, try to contain the nervous energy. My mother sat in the front seat of the car, praying, reading, dozing and snoring softly. Dad and I chatted off and on about the importance of the mission that I was under taking, joining the ministry. We talked about the welcome dinner that we had all attended at a small Catholic Church in Denver hosted by the Archbishop of Denver, then Archbishop Stafford. I was glowing from the attention I had received from my family, the odd looks that I had been thrown by my friends. All these things had happened quickly, and like a branch thrown into a fast moving stream I sailed down the river of ministry to seminary.
I was smug. I was smug in the honor that I was bestowed; the process for entry into the seminary had taken nearly 6 months. Time in interviews, physiological examinations, tests to determine my intelligence, writing essays, exploring my faith, assuring the Archdiocese and its vocational department that my desire to be a priest was sincere, that it was my desire, not my parents. Thinking back now, Mom and Dad didn't over encourage me, they wanted me to make the decision myself. But when I told them I was 100% certain this was what I wanted to do, they could not hide the joy, the pride on their faces. My father was especially proud and offered me unending encouragement. He truly was a firm supporter of mine, and receiving his love, his pride for the vocation that I was going to explore was so rewarding, I glowed in his praise. I became even more smug, and certain that the vocation I was entering was meant to be. I even believed that it was God's will. I was special, I was chosen by God. He noticed me.
We arrived at dusk at Conception Seminary College, off Highway Vv, and pulling into the roundabout that circled the front of the Abbey, the Basilica, I remember the rush of blood to my head, heart pounding as I looked at this magnificent building sitting almost all by itself in the rolling fields of Missouri. This huge church, absolutely amazing in its simplicity, more special because it sat alone, more special because it existed for the prayers and faith of the monks and students called to join it there in praise to God, in servitude to mankind. My boyhood was a boyhood full of fantasies about medieval castles and kings, I had for a long time imagined myself the king, Arthur, occasionally Lancelot, always the hero. Here, nestled amongst corn fields and cow pastures was this marvelous structure and institution that feed those fantasies, here I heard God's voice calling me, beckoning me, summoning me out of the billions of men on the planet to be his voice, his servant, his king.
It was dark by the time we arrived, sometime in early evening, and the campus, while not sprawling, was intimidating. The monastery sat right next to the large basilica, and large oak trees, naked from the winter's cold created shadowy darkness that was mysterious, it made the arrival all the more grand. Dad kept asking me, "Thomas where are we supposed to go?" I had clutched in my hand the acceptance letter that the college had sent me, signed by a Father Daniel Petsche, O.S.B. and the letter referred to places at the monastery that didn't mean anything to us. "Dad I don't know." We drove down the small road passing some building that looked like student residences. As we drove we spied a man dressed in all black, a black hood pulled over his head, black garments swirling behind him in the biting Missouri wind. "Dad, stop!" I jumped out of the car and ran up to the man who was walking faster than anyone I had ever seen before.
He held up his hand, "Brother."
Oh right, I remembered from my time spent in retreats at the Trappist monastery in Colorado that not all the members of a religious house were ordained priests. "Um Brother.....I'm Thomas Burkett, I am a new seminarian."
He held up his hand again, then motioned that I should follow him. I turned back to the car and looked at my mom and dad still sitting there, I looked a little desperate I'm certain. My pleading eyes must of struck my father because he and mom quickly jumped out of the car and into the windy, January cold night and we all followed this monk as best we could. His robes covered his feet, and his legs moving were not discernible, it was like he was gliding, floating on the air. He lead us back to the monastery and to a small side door set next to a large garage. We were cold, I was nervous, and mom and dad were very excited by the whole adventure.
He opened the door, and the warm light and smell of bread wafted out to us. This entire time, beyond the words, "brother and follow me", this monk hadn't said a word. He seemed angry, I would later come to love this little monk very much, Brother Aaron, a psychologist who taught at the seminary had a great sense of humor, dry, but funny all the same. As we entered the small room, a kitchen, several monks sat at a table apparently eating. Br. Aaron approached another monk, a smiling bald man, he leaned in a said something to him. Turning to me with a smile a mile wide, this monk exclaimed, "Thomas! Welcome, we've been expecting you!" He speed across the room, shook my hand, "I'm Father Kenneth, welcome to Conception." He turned to my mother and father, extended to them greetings. He offered us food and drink, we declined.
The rest of that evening is a total blur in my memory. I was so enamored of the church, these wonderful monks, the mystery, the joyous experience of meeting so many other people I was drunk on the joy. It was for the first time a place I felt completely and totally at home. I was for the first time swept into a wonderful, exclusive home that gave me so much. That first night at Conception I didn't know what to expect, but what I received was a dream come true. It was the most amazing entrance into a religious life I could have asked for. It was the start of a journey that I'm still on to this day.
It was a dark and stormy night, but the storm passed.