By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 3, 2018 | En Español
CONYERS—Having graduated from college with a chemistry degree, Father Matt Torpey, OCSO, was enjoying a beach day back in 1950 when his girlfriend handed him Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which had just hit the market. To his own surprise, the book set the 22-year-old on the spiritual hike of a lifetime.
“I read it, and I loathed the Trappists and wanted nothing to do with this ‘creep’ Merton, nothing to do with that,” recalled the 90-year-old Trappist monk in a phone interview from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.
Later that year he saw a French movie about St. Vincent de Paul and woke up the next morning with a profound sense of Jesus calling. And when he volunteered with the Catholic Youth Organization he discovered a booklet in the wastebasket about contemplative, cloistered life, “The Powerhouse of Prayer,” by the novice master of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
Indeed, his plans for graduate study were evolving.
“I said (to God), ‘What the hell do you want?’ but I knew what he wanted, it was me. I simply had to respond to it,” said the priest. “I really wept, wept about the pain this would give to the woman I was in love with.”
He first applied to seminary for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, having been raised Catholic in Jersey City. But the summer before starting the program, he rediscovered that pesky pamphlet on contemplative prayer in his sock drawer and finally read it on the subway to New York City.
“It was like Uncle Sam from the first and second World Wars wants you,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Take it and be done with it!’ That’s a guy who is threatened by this book and he doesn’t even know what’s in it. It gives me great confidence that the steps and moves that I’ve taken during my life as being led and being carried.”
So in September 1950 he entered Gethsemani, the only monastery he knew of, and was ordained in 1956. He will celebrate his 62 years as a priest on June 9.
“It was very Trappist, something of an aberration in my view, but it worked for me. I found Christ there, and he found me,” he said. “As I look back over these 90 years I was born into a very loving family that I grew up in. I’m not saying I haven’t had painful experiences. I’m saying they have all been abundantly redeemed. They were relatively short episodes in a life of great joy and gifts. I’ve been carried through all these hard times, and I’ve been carried through everything, carried along. I don’t know how to put it differently, full of peace.”
In those booming post-war days of vocations of the 1950s, Trappists were like the Marines of religious orders with three Masses daily and barrack-like dormitories sans doors where men slept head to head, some 18 inches off the floor on straw mattresses atop plywood boards.
But following the Second Vatican Council the order gradually shifted the emphasis to acceptance rather than pursuit of austerity. “The word penitential does suggest a certain hardness and poverty. We’re not poor, I’m not poor; I just don’t own anything. You take a vow of non-ownership and trust in the community to supply your needs. The penitential thing is turning away from superfluities. The Trappists got overly preoccupied,” he reflected. “It’s living together and loving each other. That doesn’t say you have to like each other. If you have a peaceful family you might not like one of your siblings because he might be obnoxious. But to love somebody is to say with your heart and your being to that person, ‘have life, become all you can be and live forever.’”
Father Matt lived from 1957-67 at the Our Lady of New Clairvaux Monastery in Vina, California, and arrived at the Monastery in Conyers in 1967. He brought light to all the monasteries as the resident electrician, learning electronics in the Navy Reserves. In California and Kentucky he also labored outdoors, whether plowing behind a mule, cutting hay or tending orchards. Receiving a licentiate in philosophy in Rome in 1962, he served as a philosophy teacher, in vocations screening and ministry and as a spiritual director to monks and laymen. Among his ministries, he has led a discussion group for lay Cistercians since 2005 on living Cistercian spirituality. And he directs in sentient terms, talking about God’s spirit with words about seeing and feeling, hearing and touching.
“The one who gets the most benefit is me. I put out images of what’s going on, the mystery that is going on in us, deep stuff. God has given us a share in his divine being. We are pretty mysterious beings even and especially almost to ourselves,” he said. “Everybody get a little help to be more aware of, more discerning of movements in themselves. Otherwise you’re so busy that you don’t have a sense that there’s anything to be noticed and be filled.”
He encourages the faithful to seek out sacred solitude. For his own quietude, he writes in a prayer journal.
“I tell them to stop praying and talk to him. I clarify that real quick by saying when you’re in a group on Sunday, then pray to God in Christ, but when he tells you to go into your chamber and close the door he cheats a little bit on you,” explained Father Matt. “He slips in there and your solitude is then the two of you in your solitude. Talk to him and have a conversation.”
Abbot-emeritus Francis Michael Stiteler, OCSO, praised the priest as a holy man who has dedicated his life to the church. And Father Matt profoundly influenced his own spiritual outlook with his practical focus on Jesus’ incarnation as a Jewish man. Arriving at the monastery in his early 20s, he received challenging spiritual direction for years from Father Matt, a big, clear-headed “man’s man.”
Father Francis Michael recalled once fretting that another monk didn’t like him; his frank director advised him to stop trying to be an angel and win everyone’s favor.
“Matt has a particular gift for spiritual direction … If you really want to see yourself and try to understand and really face yourself I don’t know if you can find a better person than him. It’s not always going to be nice, but he does it lovingly and compassionately,” Father Francis Michael said. “When it came to the spiritual life, he had an insight and clarity I haven’t met in many people … Over his lifetime he did a lot of spiritual direction in the retreat house.”
Through the decades Father Matt said he has always felt full support from the archdiocese—minus a sprinkling of Conyers residents who don’t know the monks exist. But overall, “lots of people in Conyers know us and are very welcoming when you go into the store. We’re well received in Rockdale County and in Atlanta.”
In June, Father Matt concludes a two-year lay Cistercians group, joking that it’s time to “relieve them of me.” The nonagenarian still awakes to the bell at 3:45 a.m. but now mostly receives Communion in the infirmary, having faced various ailments in recent years. Yet through aging, he looks back cheerfully on his “very strange love affair” with God with all monastic life’s mystery and contradictions. It’s been “very fulfilling” and “a happy enhancement of my ability to touch the world with Christ’s healing grace.”
He cited the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ acclaimed book, “Gratitude,” noting the author’s atheism.
“Let’s accept the idea that there is no God. But that would give me a very big problem. I’ve had such a beautiful life, so many wonderful people given to me to love, and I have to find somebody to say thank you to for all of that,” said Father Matt. “This life has been between me and the man God, Jesus, and Jesus is the face of God for me. God is this oceanic thing called love.”