Before Tom Abel was a husband, a father of five and a counselor, he was a Trappist monk.
Never mind that his post-monastery years number more than double the 20 he spent cloistered, his religious life remains a defining chapter for Abel even at age 81.
Wives of former monks have a saying, Abel writes, “Once a monk, always a monk.”
And that description applies accurately to him, Abel conceded recently while discussing his new book, “Once Upon A Monk.”
“It’s not derogatory,” he explained of the saying. “It’s simply if you live a lifestyle - as you know - for 20 years, something has to get into your psyche.
“You get into the routine of having quiet and tranquility and time to read,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle that is very strong, very routine and very rigid to some extent, and you don’t shake that very easily.”
One purpose of that lifestyle is to assist with what Abel calls individuation - the process of “becoming the individual we are meant to become.
“I think that is essential for us if we want to be happy in real life,” Abel said.
Such a process isn’t limited to those who take vows as monks, he said.
Others can activate what he describes as the monk archetype through making quiet time for prayer and meditation, he said.
“We have to work at it, but work at it in a very tranquil way that is not artificial,” Abel said.
“Some of the benefits, I think, would be putting our lives in order,” he explained. “Some people are very frenetic. They want everything now. Now is not always available.
“Activating the monk or hermit archetype can assist us in understanding better the basic concept of waiting - waiting for things to go in the direction we want them to in our work, our prayer life, our daily lifestyle, our family.”
Abel was 18 - “a pretty tender age” - when he entered religious life and so considers himself to essentially have been raised as a monk.
In addition to continuing a practice of meditation and prayer, Abel’s monkish characteristics include a fondness for Gregorian chants and difficulty digesting red meat.
“My whole body system is regulated to eat a strict vegetarian diet,” he said.
His personality is regulated to be quiet.
“Living the life of silence, we didn’t speak to each other in the monastery,” Abel explained. “We had sign language.”
He figures those silent tendencies have served him well in his career as a pastoral therapist. “Semiretired,” he still provides counseling services part time out of St. Agnes Parish.
“I like to listen,” he said, explaining he can do so without needing to rush.
Abel also figures those listening skills helped him as a parent, enabling him to hear out his children without being judgmental. “We have a very strong family bond of respect.”
But one’s silence can also be stressful for others, he said.
“I think at times it was somewhat frustrating for my wife to experience,” Abel said. “It seemed like - and well could have been - passive aggressive-type personality coming out of my own personality.
“I didn’t mean it to be that way, but it could have been interpreted, because I was kind of quiet, and I am kind of quiet. And I don’t talk a lot,” he said.
His book, in part, is meant to answer questions his family has had about the years he spent as a monk, mostly in the New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa.
“I wrote this for my children, sort of as a legacy for my children,” Abel said. “The five of them are adults now and they asked me through the years, ‘What did you do in 20 years at the monastery?’”
“Once Upon A Monk” is short - not much more than 100 pages including glossary and bibliography and two appendixes. It is available at Cottonwood Books, 3054 Perkins Road, and online through Amazon.com.
Abel labels the book as memoir essays and his prose is more contemplative than narrative.
In it, he spends about as much effort explaining his monk’s life of meditation, studying and farming as describing it. Chapters are devoted also to his tasks for starting a new monastery in Mississippi and later forming The Trappist Initiative Network or TIN Men, a support group for former monks.
Abel devoted only a few paragraphs in the book to his reason for leaving monastery life: a 22-year-old sister from a teaching order.
After meeting in Mississippi, they began corresponding, fell in love and then secured permission from Rome to leave their orders and marry.
“I knew through his handwriting his heart and soul,” Mary Ann Abel told The Advocate for a story in 1996, but she declined to be interviewed for this story.
Tom and Mary Ann Abel have lived apart for years, though they still get together frequently for family gatherings, he said.
In his book, he describes getting married as something he needed to do.
“I am a very affectionate person and realized I could not express my affection adequately in the religious state I had chosen,” he writes. “Becoming an individual is not an overnight occurrence and more frequently than not, serious adjustments are necessary.”
In his text he interrupts that explanation with the observation “that I am attempting to justify something I need not. ?
“The more I think about it, there is an element of mystery woven into my story. I refuse to play the game of ?what if.’ I am happy with this gift of having for so many years lived the life of a monk.”