By James Haynes
The Cullman Times
For Brother David Bryant, monk at St. Bernard Abbey, the key aspect of his calling to Benedictine Monasticism can be summed up in one word: Stability.
A monk at St. Bernard since 2002, Brother David has devoted much to the St. Bernard Monastery through his work as a candlemaker at the Ave Maria Grotto, and as a Boy Scout Leader for Troop 321 in Cullman. The stable environment at St. Bernard, Bryant said, was something he especially appreciated, and it was that stability that enabled him to accomplish much and serve in a number of ways while at the monastery.
As Brother David prepares to move on to a different monastery this fall, he recounted stories and lessons learned from his work as a chandler and a Scout leader.
Brother David’s call to monasticism originated when he was eight years old.
“I didn’t [yet] know what monasticism was, or what being a monk was. It was just an idea,” Brother David said. “It was an idea of doing something for somebody, but living in a community, and holding that value as one.”
Originally, Brother David grew up in a Baptist church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He later joined the Methodist church, but on the invitation of a friend whom he met at a Boy Scout camp, Brother David began visiting a Catholic church, and was impressed with their liturgy and worship style. He converted to Catholicism in 2000, and soon after looked to join monastic life.
Brother David first familiarized himself with the Franciscan Order of the Catholic church. The Franciscan friars, Brother David said, were more active, and moved frequently, which appealed to Brother David at the time.
“Being a young person, that seemed very attractive, going around and seeing new places, and all that,” Brother David said. “That didn’t last long for me though.
“I did learn a lot, though, Scripture-wise, religious-wise, religiously I was growing more and more, but I found that for me stability was more important.”
This need for stability, Brother David said, was two-fold.
“Stability is more than just where you live, it’s also what you do, and how you schedule your life.”
Brother David was also drawn to a different type of monasticism because of a desire to sing in worship. Benedictine monks, such as those at St. Bernard, “usually chant their prayers daily,” Brother David said. “Whether it be on a single note or in a musical tone called Gregorian chant. That really moved me a lot; it spoke to me, because Saint Augustine said that when you sing, you pray twice. The music itself enhances the prayer,” he said.
During his search for a monastery that would fulfill those needs, Brother David heard about St. Bernard. “I think what happened was that they put in a real quick blurb in the bulletin [at the Catholic church in Knoxville] one Sunday morning, saying ‘vocation retreat.’”
Bryant researched the monastery on the Internet and found some information about it on the monastery’s website, noting that the site needed some website improvement.
After visiting the monastery, Brother David found that St. Bernard “fulfilled everything I wanted within the monastic community.” The monastery held promise as a stable place for him to live and work.
After taking first vows, Brother David’s first job was to work at the Ave Maria Grotto and help install and manage an online inventory system for the gift shop. While working at the Grotto, Brother David found that he had some amounts of dead time, similar to another monk at the Grotto.
“It’s kind of like Brother Joseph, in a sense,” Brother David said. “His job was to put coal into the [furnaces]. My job was to keep inventory systems running.” In his free time, Brother Joseph Zoettl built miniatures of famous buildings from around the world, filling a former quarry with what would become the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey.
“And so I noticed there were a lot of candles lying around, especially liturgical candles, and I had to do something with them. So I started melting them down and making very, very simple candles.”
Brother David used shot glasses for his first candles. Borrowing pots and pans from the basement of the kitchen, Bryant used them to melt the candles down. In the first two weeks, the Grotto sold about 20 of the re-melted candles.
“And then, from there, it just grew,” Bryant said.
Bryant soon acquired several molds and new fragrances from a local craft store, and started experimenting with different waxes and wicks. Over time, Brother David has made candles as large as two feet tall, and he continues to make custom fragrances and colors.
“Last year was the best I’ve ever had, especially when it comes to the Bloomin’ Festival, where I sold the candles,” Bryant said. He added, “the website [has done] really well this year.” Last spring, the shop sold some $20,000 worth of candles, with Bryant working as the webmaster on the same site where he first found out about the Grotto. To be able to keep the site up to professional-quality standards, Bryant taught himself coding languages in his spare time.
In addition to Brother David’s work in the candle shop, helping youth also became a big part of Bryant’s work at the monastery. He had already been setting up sound and lighting for various school events at St. Bernard Preparatory School, “a lovely school,” Bryant says, but helping the Boy Scouts was the area where Brother David took on a leadership role.
In 2005, a lady came in to the Grotto to ask Brother David, a former Eagle Scout, to help her son achieve the rank with his Troop 321 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Brother David, though hesitant at first to re-join Scouts, eventually joined in and began attending meetings with the troop.
After about a year of familiarizing himself with how things worked, Bryant decided to help the troop learn some basic engineering and design skills. At one of the troop meetings, he challenged the boys to build bridges out of Popsicle sticks and see how much weight the bridges could hold.
“And that was kind of where it all started,” Bryant said.
From there, Bryant got more and more involved. Brother David helped the local district plan camporees for multiple Scout troops in the area, and worked at summer camp last year.
“Being able to work with the Scouts was a wonderful thing,” Bryant said. “It changed me, too, to be able to teach other people skills that I’ve learned, and pass those on, to be able to give of myself to others was probably the biggest accomplishment since I’ve been here.”
Of all the aspects of working with Boy Scouts, Bryant said that “the most important experience in Scouting, for me, is seeing a kid smile when he learns a particular skill, and I’m teaching him.
“When I was at summer camp, I had one kid come up to me and say, ‘You’re not like the other teachers, you actually want us to learn this.’ Those are things that are really touching, because…it shows them that I care,” Bryant said.
As Bryant passed on skills to Scouts and watched them gain the satisfaction of learning them, he himself gained satisfaction in seeing them learn. And after working in Scouting as an adult for nearly a decade, Bryant has clearly reaped the rewards of honoring his key value of stability.
“I do what I do here at the monastery, what I did in Scouting, anything I’ve done, because I care about the other, I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for other people. But since I’ve been here, looking back, I’ve learned so many things that I never even thought I would be able to do, outside the monastery. I never would have been able to do this stuff.” Bryant said.
Looking forward to his next life stage, Bryant said, “It’s up to God what happens next. I feel like I’m being called to a stricter, more secluded type of life. But that doesn’t mean the work is going to be lessened.”
Next fall, Bryant plans to leave the monastery at St. Bernard. He plans to join the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, about 25 miles east of Atlanta. The Trappist monastery runs both a garden center with Bonsai plants and a bakery that specializes in fruitcakes and fudge. With no school, the schedule at the monastery is more structured and doesn’t change often, Bryant said.
For the time being, “I’m planning to stay here and continue working for this monastery,” Bryant said. Brother David spoke highly of his time at St. Bernard.