An Odyssey to Christ: Abbot Michael-John’s Journey

To those whose eyes and hearts have found their way to this page, peace and more peace be yours. It is my hope that these few words might help you if you have found yourself wandering about, looking for something to fill the empty space within you. If you [like many] have tried volunteering yourself to the many ministries that parish life extends and you still feel like something is missing, maybe you have wandered onto the right page. 


If you have mentioned this “emptiness” and your local parish suggests that you may have a “calling” to ordained ministry, stop before going any further and ask yourself some important questions:

  1. Is there more than ordained ministry that is authentic, and true to the definition of “calling”?
  2. By the time you complete your training, will there be a parish large enough to call you and help pay for your education? The average size of an Episcopal parish outside of a metropolitan city is 45 and aging.
  3. As the church continues to struggle with its identity within the 21st century, where best can I survive and grow that will make a difference within me and the world? 
  4. Why do I still have this emptiness within me having done everything the church asks me? 
  5. Why do I keep searching for and yearning for the holy and sacred? Why is it that I can only find “peace” in the presence of the Sacrament? These are important questions and they need answers. 

Questions and maybe answers

It is clear that there will always be a church for Scripture states that nothing shall prevail against it from the outside. The reality is that the church we know today will not be the church of the 22nd century for there are enormous forces offering a different set of values that are not community minded. Ask yourself this question: “Who/or what is setting individual values for our children? Is it the parents, the church, OR cell phones, tablets/pad and computers? What vehicle is used most often to communicate, share feelings, receive feedback and reinforce self-credibility/worth? It is social media via electronic devices. This is our new reality.

What’s this have to do with me?

So what does all of this have to do with me and Christ’s call to prepare and return to him? Everything!!! All of the above are calling cards seeking ratification, authentication and self awareness. All of these are a call from God to enter into his spiritual army, to combat negative forces, offer a different option for this reality; to once again engage each other at the human level, inspire each other in the spiritual realm, to be more than we currently are. All of this is about faithfulness to a set of ideals, living those ideas with real intention, making sacrifices when required, holding the other person with all their diversity as golden chalices before God.

This is not the typical message that one hears or reads when contemplating Religious life, but it is where we are as a people, the church and the world.

My odyssey, my journey

I am Michael-John, abbot and superior of the House of Initia Nova, OSB [Order of St. Benedict]. This is my second founding of a religious community, the first one being the Companions of St. Luke, OSB. 

I wish to add some clarification here about Religious Life. Religious life is not owned by any denomination. It is not Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, or any other expression of the divided church. Rather, it is a life-style/commitment with extraordinary implications under various spiritual umbrellas within the church at large. Each denomination has a process of recognition, some orders seek this recognition and others not. Benedictines have always been independent of the church, while voluntarily seeking association through the Abbot Primate to the church in Rome. Benedictines of other denominations may also seek association through various Benedictine Congregations.

The Constitution and Customary of Genesis Abbey – House of Initia Nova is Anglican/Episcopalian at heart requiring all vowed members to be Anglican/Episcopalian. We have a Bishop Companion – The Right Reverend Michael Garrison who walks with us.  Our Oblates and Contemporaries are Anglican and are from other denominations. According to the Canons of the Episcopal church the first requirement of a religious community is having a relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head of the Anglican communion. When visiting our website: you can see the letter to our House from  + Roman of Canterbury – Archbishop. 

Clarification made, journey continues

But what about my own odyssey to Christ? My parents now gone to God, told me that at the age of 5 I pointed to the man in a black robe standing at the altar and said that I wanted to be him. It is not clear to me what impressed me about him at such a tender age. What I can say is this, that desire has never left me, I want to be that person standing next to the altar. God’s vision for me is greater than what my eyes can see or mind understands.  My adoptive parents sent me to a private religious school for most of my life. I think that their action only strengthened my inner desire. 

It is my spiritual belief that God has called you/me to religious life prior to creation. He envisioned us as we are today before the foundations of the universe were made. At an appointed time he called us into being and instilled his vision of us within our souls. As events and circumstances occurred there was an awakening of the Spirit within the soul calling us from before time into our individual calendar of time and space. There was an “awakening” of sorts, a call to be more than what we are, to delve into the inner secrets of God himself, to become alive in more ways than just breathing.

This call can be certain for some or nebulas for others. We are all on a journey, seeking God’s will and asking “why” I feel this way, why am I different from those around me who know what they want to be: bankers, lawyers, plumbers, builders, architects, poets, musicians and the like. The truth is God is not confined to just one thing or his creation; he is all things and that means that we can be more than we can imagine, we can become more as God revelations unfold.

Trial and error…or second chances

In the late 80s a friend and I entered into a Religious community. It worked for him and not for me. Prior to Profession a wise community determined that I was not a good fit. This was a difficult period for me. What was I to do with my longing, my yearning for God? I spoke with my spiritual mentor of 17 years and parish priest. He said to continue to pray about it. During this time I ran across a book that changed my life called – Prayer and Temperament. This book helped me understand that I was and am a “contemplative” not a “active” person spiritually. The pieces started coming together. I had looked in the wrong place. I need to look for a Religious community that was contemplative, in other words a prayer community, specifically a Benedictine community.

With this new information I made arrangements to go to St. Gregory’s Abbey in Michigan. I loved the sacred space, the quiet, Prayer. But now there was another challenge; I loved community life but was not called to cloistered life. What to do?

New Beginnings

I spoke once again to my priest and told him my dilemma for there wasn’t a Benedictine House that wasn’t cloistered at the time. Again, he told me to pray about it. After more prayer, more exploration of what was available, I asked my priest if he thought I had a calling to found a new community of Benedictines. He said “yes” but was out of my mind considering all the obstacles ahead of me. His second piece of advice was to find a Bishop who would be supportive of the idea. It just so happened that Bishop John-Charles, a Franciscan friar was in Chicago as Warden to St. Ann’s at Ascension Episcopal Church. I asked to meet with him.

I met with Bishop John-Charles and explained to him my thoughts concerning a new community. He asked me to meet with him in six months at his Friary in Monmouth, Ill. He  asked me to bring to him all the founding documents essential to founding a new community. This I did. After handing them over to him, he said he would meet with me again in a couple of hours. At that meeting he asked me if I wouldn’t consider being a Franciscan. I said “no” that I had discerned that I was a contemplative. The Bishop said that the documents he had read looked like they had fallen down from heaven and if I wanted he would be  my Bishop Visitor. I accepted. The next step was getting the Diocesan of Chicago to accept his willingness to work with me. Bishop Frank Griswold approved Bishop John-Charles’ request. During the summer of 1992 I made my Profession to Bishop John-Charles at the Church of the Atonement, Chicago.

During the following years I submitted my formation program to Bishop John-Charles and Bishop Frank Griswold, which was approved, and then in 1995 made Solemn Vows to Bishop William Sheridan, Protector of the order. Following my Solemn vows I received into community the first of two members, one of which is still with me today, Dom Thomas Ferrell. 

The years progressed and Bishop Epting invited the order [Companions of St. Luke] to move to Iowa, this happened in 2000. Following national recognition by the Episcopal church (yes, it takes years), I was consecrated abbot at Conception Abbey in MO., presented to the Bishop of Iowa by the Right Reverend Gregory Polan, now Abbot Primate to Rome. In 2009 I resigned my position and founded yet another Benedictine community – Genesis Abbey – House of Initia Nova, OSB. Our current Bishop Companion is The Right Reverend Michael Garrison, retired, living in Florida.

What’s old and what is new

When founding these communities I had to ask myself “if Benedict was alive today what modifications would he make to the Rule”?  This took serious prayer, for who was I to modify a 1,500 year old Rule. The result of that prayer came to these conclusions: that NO THING ESSENTIAL to the Rule should change. The vows are to remain the same. Prayer life was to remain a requirement. Formation must be an ongoing education process, Solemn Vows doesn’t mean that you are fully formed, quite the opposite. 

It was important for me that the model of traditional monastic life should and must be retained. There must be a motherhouse, a place to call home and a place where spiritual stability is nurtured. At the same time not to recognize that we are now part of a global community and mobile at that, with the advantages of social media, could it be possible for people to have choices about where they live and who they live with. The answer to this complex question was  – we should have choices as long as we do not forget who we are and what we have been called to be.

Hence, people with the consent of the abbot can live their monastic vocation either at the motherhouse or within the context of their local parish. Formation is an ongoing process monitored by Formation Masters/Guides through the use of online training programs.

It is required that everyone come home every six months to a year. A monastic needs to touch base and once again be nurtured by the Sacrament, the Offices, Rites of progression, and one on one communication with his Brother and Sister. Oh yes, we are a blended Household, having both genders.

With that said, I need to quote Paul who reminds us that the New Jerusalem which we are now living is not made up of male or female, slave or master, Greek or Gentile, but are to be seen a spiritual beings in the process of returning home to the God who envisioned us.

So what is God calling you to?

Let it be said that ALL Christians are called to be heirs of a royal household, ministers and servants to all. All are called to live intentionally our Baptismal Vows. But a few have been called to live a more consecrated life, with extraordinary implications not only for their soul, but the souls of all whom God has envisioned and created. Our prayers may be the catalyst which can change the course of history. 

Religious life is unique, with special responsibilities that extend way beyond our imagination and comprehension. Religious life is about entering into a process of transformation; to become more and yet at the same time less to the point that nothing exists but your soul and God.

Blessings of every kind ….. Abbot Michael-John, OSB