|Mist-covered mountains of early morning at Clear Creek Abbey. Photo by Cyle Miller, mayor of Ramona, OK, and used with permission.
Upon awaking this morning, I can once again hear the distant sound of the sheep beginning to bleat, their own special way of greeting a new day. Looking out my window to the west, I see the familiar fog-covered hills of eastern Oklahoma, a site quite common for springtime in this area. It is beautiful and somewhat mystifying in nature. Sometimes the mist is so dense it’s easy to picture myself in a South American rain forest!
At 6:30 a.m., the intermingled sounds of chirping crickets and birds are abruptly broken by the even more prominent sound of a beep, beep, beeping sound—the sound of a massive yellow Caterpillar forklift backing up somewhere nearby, signaling the start of another work day here at the Clear Creek Monastery in Hulbert, Oklahoma.
Formally known as Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek, the beautiful monastery, where I currently reside as a resident-guest (not as a monk), is a Benedictine abbey in the diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The founding monks of Clear Creek were of the monastic community at Fontgombault, France, or of her daughter houses, Randol, Triors, and Donezan. Fontgombault, a medieval abbey in central France, is part of the Congregation of Solesmes.*
How I came to experience this Roman Catholic treasure is perplexing even for me to fathom--though I’m the one who lived the events which led me here. It all began about the time I was given a book to read while a “resident-guest” of a different sort down in Texas about five years ago. The book was titled, “When I Was in Prison.”
The book was authored and given to me personally by a man who not only became (and still is) my spiritual advisor, but today remains one of my closest and dearest friends, Father Harold P. Paulsen. I could write a book about this man who has truly been a saint in my life. To make a long story short, the most important thing Father Paulsen gave me while I was fighting for my innocence for six years straight (an innocence I continue to maintain) is that he gave me HOPE.
Because of the hope and spiritual direction I received while incarcerated, I was afforded the opportunity to take catechist courses with several institutions of higher learning, including Catholic Distance University. These enabled me to become a trained catechist and the first and only prisoner in the state of Texas to be given ecclesiastical approval by the Bishop of Tyler, “to teach religion in the Texas prison system”.** That beautiful diploma is in a nice picture frame and very well taken care of!
It was up to me to locate such programs and courses myself, and my search led me to write my first letter to Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania in December of 2006. At that time, I received a letter from a Mrs. Diane Rombouts informing me “no, there isn’t currently a prison ministry program here, but we are thinking about starting one. I will let you know if something develops.” Little did I know the positive influence this one person would have in my life.
I went on about the business of looking for other religious courses and forgot all about SFU. Then about a year later, I came across their address again and decided to write another letter. Much to my surprise, Mrs. Rombouts informed me that a Secular Franciscan fraternity in New York had recently contacted her to ask about sponsoring a prisoner for one of the ICFL (Institute for Contemporary Franciscan Life) courses. “Are you interested?” Mrs. Rombouts asked. Of course I was! How could I have imagined what would happen next? Only God could have set up the events that followed—events that nobody around me in prison could comprehend because it was something new to all of us.
There was instilled within me a drive—a Spirit—a hunger to seek out the things of God, a thirst for spiritual knowledge that seemed to be unquenchable. The ICFL courses were the exact remedy I needed for that spiritual thirst, which continues to this day. I became not only the first ever prisoner to complete such a course at SFU, but I stayed with it and am now just one course away from completing the entire ICFL program and earning the Certificate in Contemporary Franciscan Life. I am currently enrolled in that course, with NO intention of quitting now!
Early in my spiritual search during incarceration, I came across an address for a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma, and I decided to write and request some information about them. I quickly received a reply which included a DVD that, unfortunately, was confiscated as soon as it arrived at the prison mailroom (I never got to see it). However, I continued to write to a monk there who became a true friend and brother to me, a man I later learned had become the first Abbot of this monastery, Abbot Philip Anderson, O.S.B.
I could also write a book about this remarkable 58-year old man from Kansas City, Kansas (my own hometown), who was very instrumental in giving an ex-prisoner a real second chance in life. Among his many talents, he has the ability to calmly smooth over difficult situations. He has an intellect like few I’ve ever known and a silent strength so powerful, yet not in the least overbearing. This true man of God, and a brother I’m very happy to call a friend, also gave me hope for the future.
Having the enormous responsibility of running this magnificent monastery, Abbot Anderson was unable to write back to me as often as we both would have liked (with that much time on my hands, I wrote a lot!). Therefore, I began getting answers to my inquiries from another monk at the monastery, the man who would be the final instrument used by God to bring me to a new life, Father Christopher Andrews, O.S.B.
Father Andrews, a 43-year old New Zealander, is the monk I’ve grown closest to here at the monastery. The thing that sticks in my mind about him the most is “he is for real—he tells it like it is.” When I need correction or instruction, he’s there to give it to me straight, not a watered-down version. He worked hard to get me here and continues to do his best to see that my transition from prison to the outside world is as successful as possible.
On the day I was released, I left the state of Texas with my debt to society paid-in-full, bound for this beautiful monastery, leaving the old life behind forever and embracing the hope of a new future. The next morning, I was picked up at the bus station by Brother Jerome, O.S.B., currently the only Oblate here at Clear Creek. We prayed the Rosary together on the trip that would change my life forever, and I thank him for the nice pictures he has taken for this article.
With the support of my new friends here, I was able to secure employment with a local masonry contractor involved in the monastery’s expansion project. I have had the privilege of working with so many great guys on this job. I’ve learned so much about the trade but, even more important, I have benefited from their wisdom and their willingness to give me a chance at a new life.
With such positive people all around me, how can I go wrong? From my days back in prison to the present time, it has been like some sort of long dream, sometimes unbelievably horrible, and other times incredibly blissful. My “honeymoon of a life” will be over when this construction phase ends and I have to look at options for yet another change in my life—leaving the only home I’ve never wanted to leave. I love each and every member of this monastic community like my own brothers. It will be very difficult to go, but I know I will never be very far away from here in Spirit.
Before I close, let me give due mention to one of the most influential persons in my life over the last five years, Mrs. Diane Rombouts, herself. This woman of God, whom I’m pleased to call my “sister in the Lord,” went well out of her way to get course materials, books, supplies, and correspondence to me while I was incarcerated. I will NEVER be able to thank her enough nor express my gratitude for the confidence she has placed in me. She too has been a real Saint in my life, and I thank her most of all for nurturing me back to spiritual health, a healing that is ongoing.
Let me express in a parable what Mrs. Diane Rombouts and the ICFL Program have meant to me:
A man saw a boy on a seashore which was covered with seashells—the seashells were everywhere! The boy was throwing the seashells back into the sea, one at a time. The puzzled man walked up to the boy and asked, “Son, why are you throwing those seashells back into the sea?” The boy replied, “Sir, they’ve washed up on the shore and need someone to help them get home.” The man exclaimed, “But son, there are millions of them—what difference could it possibly make!?” The boy swung his arm back and threw another seashell way out into the sea and said, “Mister, it made a difference to THAT one!”
There are too many people to thank in this particular paper; people who helped me get to this point in my life. My heartfelt thanks go to all who played a role in my second chance in life. I wish to conclude by giving all the glory to God, Himself. That’s really what all this is about. It’s all for the glory of God. I don’t know what He has in store for me in the future, but that’s alright. All He asks of us is to “suit up” and be ready to play. That’s my TRUE purpose in life—to be ready for His calling, guidance and instruction, come what may. That is what I want. That is what I continue to do. Most of all, thank you Lord Jesus, for not giving up on me.
Sincerely in His service,
Your brother in Christ,
| James Colbert at Clear Creek Monastery
|| James Colbert at the monastery construction site
| James Colbert (center front) with construction co-workers
* For detailed information about this beautiful monastery and the authentic Benedictine family (including many photos of the Monastery and its ongoing construction), please visit: www.clearcreekmonks.org.
** The actual wording of this catechetical diploma awarded to me in April of 2008—while still a prisoner in the state of Texas—issued by Bishop Álvaro Corrada, SJ, Diocese of Tyler states: “Catechist Endorsement is awarded to James S. Colbert Jr. Upon completion of the Basic Catechist Course by Reverend John Hardon, S.J., approval is granted for the individual named to serve as a catechist of religion within the prison system”. I went on to complete all of Father Hardon’s courses, including the Advanced Catechist Course.