A celebration of friendship with a hermit monk
By Michael Boover
It is not everyone who has a Trappist monk as one of their dearest friends. It would be nice, however, if everyone did, for the benefits of having such a friend are many and wondrous. I have such a friend in the person of Father Edward Steriti, OCSO (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance). Father Eddie was a monk and a priest, a rare personage in our busied and distracted age. He was additionally a hermit, a farmer, a rosary maker, a feeder of birds, a gifted intellect, a lumberjack, professional at prayer, a story-teller, a grand lover of people and so much more. Even though Eddie died a year ago last spring, he remains one of my personal best friends, as well as that of my Catholic Worker community. While Eddie’s passing signals a further hiddenness, our friendship endures — much like the one we long enjoyed with him despite his being a recluse.
After years of life with his brothers in the quiet yet more populated cloisters at Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, Eddie was permitted to lead an even more solitary life as a hermit in the backwoods. He had entered Spencer in 1951, drawn to the sanctified life as was Francis of Assisi. He took the name Bonaventure and was ordained a priest in 1957. Eddie helped found new monastic settlements in Snowmass, Colorado and in Azul, Argentina, returning to live in the Spencer community before becoming a full-time hermit in 1969. Ironically, perhaps, a “standing room only” congregation assembled for Fr. Eddie’s funeral Mass. So crowded was the abbey church that the abbot remarked at the beginning of Eddie’s eulogy: “Just imagine if he wasn’t a hermit!” The friendship of this holy man was and remains one of the signal blessings of many lives.
We then young Catholic Workers first met Eddie in the early 1970s when he delivered loads of zucchini squash from his secluded garden for us to share with the poor in our town of Worcester, Massachusetts. We became quick friends and were invited to visit him at his trailer hermitage.
I was taken by its intentional sparseness. One wooden placard hung on the wall with the challenging message of the French Catholic writer Leon Bloy communicated in bold lettering: “The only failure is not to be a saint.”
Those words struck a nerve then as did Eddie’s exemplary faith witness over many years. Much as we were regular friends with Ed, he stood out as someone distinct from most folks we knew or interacted with. He gave singular attention and priority to the quest for sanctity in a very marked way.
There was an unmistakable aura of holiness about him, even though a member of our community once described him as really very much like “an Italian truck farmer.” He often wore work clothes akin to ours — jeans, a plain white T-shirt, a kerchief on his head that also gave him the appearance of his being a pirate and/or an old hippie. He was very down-to-earth and yet his heart was simultaneously and perennially set on the things above.
Eddie’s trailer was soon replaced by a free-standing, well-built cottage that whenever we visited, Eddie would first invite us to “make a visit” to his little chapel to the left of his main room. Eddie said Mass on a rustic altar, and he had a wooden chair in the back with a folded-over grey wool blanket where he prayed and meditated.
One evening after we too left more humble beginnings (for us leaving a storefront for a full house of hospitality) Eddie and a few other monks came to visit. We shared tea and prayed Compline, the Church’s night prayer, together in a rather speeded-up guitar rendition of their slowly chanted version. The Catholic hippies and the monks discovered we held something beautiful and mysterious in common despite our vast cultural divides!
Some years into our labors at the house, Eddie asked if we would like to receive something more than zucchini! We immediately compiled a list of vegetables and were soon growing an acre of corn and an acre of mixed vegetables together to share with the poor who share meals with us. This concrete act of charity was taking flesh in us making visible and tangible a love that benefited many from this quiet source in these near hidden fields to several struggling low-income neighborhoods.
Each spring, we would de-rock the gardens again, as in New England you grow rocks during the winter months — or so it seemed.
We spent summers working the land with Eddie, getting up to the abbey in time for morning Mass and then heading over to the hermitage for a bit of coffee and a treat of some kind that Eddie had absconded with from the monastery kitchen. Brother Richard, the cook, initially wondered where his culinary delights went! In time, he grew sympathetic and fond of us too.
Eddie was sought out by fellow monks as a wise spiritual guide. We, too, went out to see Eddie for these purposes. When I was in crisis, Eddie drove me around in his Jeep trying to get me to pay attention to frogs and nature in a valiant but then largely unsuccessful attempt to distract me from by my tired and depressed state.
He cared deeply for us and he sought to refresh our spirits. He told us stories, many humorous. One of the all-time great stories told us by Eddie was of a time when he was assigned to the Trappistine Abbey in Wrentham, where he was chaplain to the Cistercian women there. Earlier, when helping establish a monastery in Argentina, he had worked for a time alongside gauchos as a fellow cowboy. He learned the ropes, literally, with these horsemen caring for cattle on the pampas. When he returned to North America, life must have seemed tame.
One day, farm neighbors to the sisters at Wrentham had a cow on the loose which had wandered onto the monastic property, and they were frustrated, unable to get the cow back themselves. Eddie, coming upon the scene, asked if they had a horse and a rope. Miffed by his request (this was not the way things were done on farms in New England), they nonetheless provided horse and rope. Eddie, not revealing his background, rode high upon the borrowed horse heroically lassoing the errant creature and calmly returning the poor animal to its amazed owners. Legend has it that these neighbors told theirs: “You won’t believe what these monks can do.”
Once, Eddie told me, it was good to see how hard life was for us who were living among the poor and trying to help, because it helped him better appreciate the many difficulties (and also the privileges) of his own vocation with its particular and sundry challenges. In the light of our struggles that sometimes bordered on overwhelming in all truth, Eddie found some strange kinship. His challenges were certainly very different than ours, but they had a quality, I suspect, that Eddie knew we shared — he as a professed ascetic and we with our mission as Catholic Workers. Just observing him and his lifestyle included many lessons at many different levels. Often enough we brought men from the hospitality house who were regulars at the meals or who lived nearby in low-income neighborhoods out to the hermitage to help. One fellow asked Ed if he got lonely out there. He replied, “No, I live with God. It’s a wonderful thing to live with God.”
Near the very end of his earthly life, Eddie commented to friends who were nearby in the infirmary: “I’m dying. Isn’t that wonderful?” He was more than ready to meet his beloved maker.
Great blessings continue to descend upon us from above because of Eddie’s friendship. What a gift to have had and have such a friend as Father Eddie!