A Best-Selling Holy Man

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It is not unusual to hear authors reading their latest works at the Brookline Booksmiths near Boston. Nor is it unusual to have them sign their books.

What is unusual, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood, is that Remy Rougeau is not just any first-time novelist. He has a totally different day job.

Remy Rougeau is a monk - a cloistered monk - of the Order of St. Benedict.

"I think it's part of my spiritual process, to write," he explains. "What I enjoy are people who seem to be marginal, on the margins of society. People who have difficulties with fitting into a larger society as well."

Brother Remy says he lives on the margins of society himself. His monastery sits in the most northern reaches of the Midwest, miles from the nearest city, and his book is called "All We Know of Heaven". It is a fictional account of his early days as a monk, more than 25 years ago, in a monastery outside Winnipeg, Canada. Unlike his current monastery, total silence was the rule and sign language was used.

Brother Remy started writing about his experiences in graduate school in Boston, when he was in the process of moving from one monastery to another. He says his professors and fellow students weren't hostile towards him; just curious.

"If I was introduced to somebody as a monk, they would ask me, "Well, do you beg for a living?' That's one misconception," says the author.

The monks at Brother Remy's abbey certainly don't beg. They support themselves with their work.

"Another thing that sort of bothered me when I was in school…people would invariably ask me, 'When are you leaving (the monastery)? When are you leaving?' Almost as though, you know, you introduce your wife and (they) say, 'Well, when are you going to get a divorce?'"
Read an excerpt from "All We Know Of Heaven."
It is an image born of stereotypes: When we think of monks, we probably envision men from the Middle Ages praying behind monastery walls. The reality is totally different. Brother Remy's abbey owns 2,000 acres of land. On a recent day, Brother Jacob was tilling the soil. Brothers Louis and Pierre were planting potatoes. They also raise about 150 cows.

Brother Llewellyn makes pottery, which is sold at a gift store. Brother Remy is the bee keeper. In his book, a brother compares monks to inmates in prison: Total strangers thrown together.

Explains Brother Remy, "You know those machines you put stones in with sand and they grind down these jagged stones to smooth stones? I think that's the idea behind it. Putting up with people and not only putting up with other people, but being tolerant and loving."

Which can, sometimes, be difficult. Brother Remy describes one brother who was bit of a pyromaniac and almost burned down the monastery. And then there was Brother Eli who was never serene. He would hit his fellow monks if they came too close.

But most monks, says Brother Remy, are regular people, regular in every way, subject to the same pains and passions as the rest of us. In one chapter, he writes about a young monk who becomes infatuated with another. Horrified, the young brother attempts (but botches) his own castration. Brother Remy said he had to fight to keep that chapter in the book.

"Does the public really believe that monks are sexless human beings that just never, ever think about this stuff?" he says. "I don't know why it's so uncomfortable. But we are celibate, yes of course, and we're expected always, and everywhere, to be celibate. That's not the issue. We have to know what it is that attracts us so that we can be aware of it and control ourselves. If we don't, and if there is repression, it's going to be like a dragon that comes back at some point."

Brother Remy lives with 50 other men, ranging in age from early 20s to 90. Since everything is shared there (including book profits), he let some of his fellow monks serve as unofficial editors.

Brother Aaron thinks the book helps to destroy many misconceptions: "Well, one of them is that monks live in a…state of total and permanent peace, and really don't have much to do except wander around all day in some sort of contemplative daze. And the book makes it clear that…the life is very busy and very busy about ordinary things. And the prayer, the God angle, is all suffused through all of that."

While it can hardly be compared to the begging by which monks survived in the Middle Ages, this 21st century monk has had to hit the road to peddle his book.

"Authors these days, it's almost like being a Hollywood celebrity," says Brother Remy. "It's not about me. It's not about me. If the book is successful, then it's about the book. And not about the author. That's the way I look at it. The book is where the magic is, if there is any magic.

Brother Remy is writing another book but won't say much about it. He also asked that we not name his abbey or its exact location, and we agreed. He says he just wants the life of a simple monk. For him, that's where the magic is.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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