By Anthony Barich
New Norcia’s new Abbot, Father John Herbert OSB, is not your model monk. He freely volunteers the information himself.
I’m not your standard monk who arrived at the front gate and followed the path that a good, obedient monk would,” said Fr Herbert, who was elected by two-thirds majority vote as the New Norcia Benedictine monastery’s new Abbott on January 22 and was installed by Abbot Bruno Martin, president of the Subiaco Congregation to which his monastery belongs.
Fr Herbert always knew he was drawn to the “monk thing” since a young age, but as his parents encouraged all their kids to try a career first, he “fell into” being a chef for 10 years and ended up running his own restaurant in St Kilda for two years.
He was first drawn to the Carmelites, but as their work in Australia mainly consists of work in parishes and schools, he looked to the Benedictines, who ran Australia’s only monastic town, New Norcia.
Even then, he got caught up in the monastic life’s structure and whether they were praying often enough, so much so that he left to “look for a better monastery” and found himself in Ireland, where the local Abbot gave him advice that has stuck with him since: “If you can’t hack it in your own monastery you’re not going to hack it in anyone else’s.”
Luckily, Abbot Placid Spearitt, the man whose death last October led to his own appointment, believed in Fr Herbert’s vocation, and knew he’d be back. He just needed to “get it out of his system”.
In hindsight, he realised he was so caught up in rules and schedules that he was not focused enough on whether he was actually praying.
Now, his guiding prayer remains that belonging to the Carmelite tradition: St John of the Cross’ poem called The Dark Night of the Soul, which refers to ‘going into the dark night’. Fr Herbert interprets this as entering the mystery of God every day through his monastic vows, with no other light to guide him but the one inside him: Christ.
He leads a monastery with a handful of professed monks, the oldest a 98-year-old Spaniard, plus a novice who’s about 30.
Fr Herbert, the seventh Abbot of New Norcia, is 45, and while the global Benedictine community tends to elect men of more experience, New Norcia has elected at least a couple of Abbots in their 30s.
The monastery, he says, is fortunate that, while not bursting at the seams with vocations, always has at least one novice discerning.
He appreciates his previous experience in the secular world, and in fact would prefer applicants to have done what many lay people have done – struggled financially, fallen in love (“thank you very much”, he adds, intimating that he too fell for to the fairer sex before returning to his original plan of becoming a monk) – though it’s not mandatory.
Since then, in his 14 years at New Norcia he has been director of formation, served the community in the garden, as coordinator of liturgy through spirituality ministry in the guest house, as Prior and parish priest, the latter role he will continue in.
Now he has three advisors, two of whom were elected in the past fortnight – Frs David Barry and Bernard Rooney, a former Abbot, and Dom Chris Power, who is already advisor as Prior and procurator.
Obedience in monastic life, he says, is not about obeying the superior monk, as he listens to the other monks and, indeed, the whole community. This is what his predecessor, Abbot Placid, was big on. “He was the ultimate obedient monk,” Fr Herbert said.
Abbot Placid was so successful, he said, because he said yes to the monks’ ideas often.
He also left New Norica in a financially comfortable position, with varied investment portfolios and initiatives. But the monks do not live lives of luxuries. They live in cells, and aren’t even allowed to bring the morning paper back to them so they can get on with their daily work. They can read it, though, and watch the evening news.
As Fr Herbert’s predecessor was a temporary Abbot, however, there were many things that were put on the backburner while the Abbot worked to stabilise the community and promote the monastic town’s treasures, including its museum, to the wider public. These things will finally be given attention.
In continuing to build on the legacy his predecessor left, he sees truth in Pope Benedict XVI’s urgent message to the world’s Religious congregations to get back to the original charism of their founder to renew themselves, as many are falling away.
“My understanding of what he’s saying,” Fr Herbert says, “is to focus on people. St Benedict received everyone into his monastery in the sixth century regardless of status, age or background.
“He said ‘bear one another’s weaknesses in body and character’. He’s not saying put up with it, but hold them up.
“So the Pope is saying let’s be true community, love one another, and community life is inviting us to do that all the time.”
“Abbots aren’t meant to be popular,” he says, and to further this sense of community he will encourage strongly the weekly community meetings that, under Abbot Placid, were voluntary.