Editor’s note • This is an excerpt from “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” by Michael Patrick O’Brien. Copyright 2021. Used by permission of Paraclete Press, www.paracletepress.com. O’Brien, a Salt Lake City attorney, often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters.
Once when I was a boy, my family and I found ourselves stuck in our car in a deep snowbank on the side of a mountain on a quiet and lonely Ogden Valley road. A major snowstorm was just ending, and the skies were as clear as an open window. It was beautiful outside, but it was treacherous. And it was nearing midnight.
We should never have been out on such a road on such a night, but it was Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, we always went to Midnight Mass at the [now-closed Holy Trinity Abbey] monastery. On the frosty night we got stuck, we felt compelled to try to attend Midnight Mass again, despite the big storm. So we started the long drive from our apartment and up the narrow, two-lane road, thinking, “How bad can it be?” As we drove through the blizzard, snow flew horizontally at us, battering the windshield with frozen pellets and reducing driver visibility to just a few feet. Our windshield wipers struggled heroically to repulse the unrelenting snow, but we could not even see the road.
At one point, a few hundred yards past Pineview Dam, the car suddenly veered to the right, smashed into a patch of accumulated snow and ice, and started to skid. We careened sideways into the mountain and thudded to an abrupt stop. A wave of snow washed over us and covered half the car, a sort of meteorological exclamation point punctuating our plight. We sat there stunned. The only sound came from the car radio, which pretended that nothing had happened and continued to blissfully chirp out happy holiday tunes that praised the winter wonderland weather that entrapped us.
Thomas Merton once said, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, and order, and rhythm and harmony.” Trappist liturgies have a simple beauty, especially at midnight on a snowy Christmas Eve. But we were far away from that order and harmony, stuck in a mountainside snowbank, overlooking a frigid and foreboding Pineview Reservoir. If our car had slid the other way, we might have landed on, or more dreadfully in, the cold waters of that half-frozen lake. Because I was the “man” of the house, Mom and Karen immediately looked to me to help, but I did not have much to offer. By now a bit of a self-absorbed teenager, I was annoyed just to have to leave the warmth of our golden Ford Maverick to try to kick snow away from the back of the car to see if we could get moving again. As I made my halfhearted efforts, I berated my sister, who had been behind the wheel during the slide off, with a not-so-helpful comment, “What kind of driving was that?”
Just as it was becoming clear that I was not going to be able to rescue us from our plight, headlights appeared from out of the surrounding darkness.
They belonged to an old pickup truck, which in turn belonged to a grizzled old Huntsville farmer. He pulled next to us and rolled down his window. We shared a moment of fear and uncertainty until a friendly and distinctly Western voice cut through the cold air and asked, “You gals need some help?” Self-conscious (and male) teenager that I was, I hoped he was not referring to my long hair and instead was talking to my sister and mother, not to me. Perhaps sensing my embarrassment, Mom immediately responded, “Oh, yes, please. Thank you!”
Our rescuer was tall, had a weathered face, and wore a denim jacket and worn leather gloves. Of course, he had on a cowboy hat. I do not remember his name or if he even shared that sort of information with us. He obviously was much better prepared for the storm than “us gals.” He quickly pulled two snow shovels from his truck and kindly said, “Your boy can help me.” Given his earlier greeting, I was relieved to hear my gender acknowledged. We shoveled away at the embankment of snow that had trapped our car. His snow flew farther and faster than mine, no doubt because I was in church shoes and he wore cowboy boots. He also put his back into the task. He got us out of the fix rather quickly, and soon our car was on the side of the road again, ready to continue its journey.
Mom thanked him, and tried to pay him, for his help. He politely declined, wished us well and left almost as quickly as he had appeared. I’d like to say he tipped his hat as he departed, but I don’t remember for sure. We drove on to the monastery, uneventfully, and even made it there in time for Midnight Mass. The monks delivered their usual simple but impressive Christmas service. They had decorated their church with a Nativity scene, and a half-dozen or so recently cut evergreen trees, one more than 15 feet tall. Brother Isidore or Brother Carl, the forester monk, had probably hiked up the side of one of the Trappist foothills to obtain the lovely branches. White lights adorned a few of the trees, with the occasional addition of some simple red ribbons. The scent of fresh pine filled the chapel.
As bells rang out at midnight, the monks sang “Angels we have heard on high.” The Christmas readings included the Prophet Isaiah’s poetic lines about the “Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and Luke’s lovely Gospel narrative of the Nativity. At the end of Mass, the 30 or so monks raised their tenor and baritone voices in two or three verses of the classic carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” This song, based on a poem written in 1849 by Massachusetts Unitarian pastor Edmund Sears, tells how in the darkest moment of Christmas Eve, the angels announced the birth of Jesus.
It was a most memorable night, but I probably only understood its significance years later, after I outgrew my teenage funk. The monks helped me to understand that, whether we celebrate it as a Christian holiday or not, the meaning of Christmas is that some 2,000 years ago, a force for peace, goodness and joy was reintroduced into the world. Our task is to recognize and incarnate that force and give it meaning in the lives of our family, our friends and, as Charles Dickens once put it in “A Christmas Carol,” our “fellow passengers to the grave.”
Several decades ago, on that snowy Christmas Eve near the small town of Huntsville, Utah, I think the Christ child came to my mother, my sister and me. Instead of wearing swaddling clothes and laying in a manger, he arrived in leather gloves, cowboy boots and an old pickup. And, yes, he came upon a midnight clear.