6/5/2014 4:31:00 PM Monasticism has been the life for Father Paschal
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Fr. Paschal Cheline sits beneath his favorite tree, a beech outside the doors to the church at Mount Angel Abbey. Now with a terminal blood disorder, he says being a monk has been a great way to experience human life.
Mount Angel Abbey photo
Young Jerry Cheline, far right, sits in typing class at Mount Angel in 1953.
MOUNT ANGEL — Here is Father Paschal Cheline’s lighthearted summation of monastic life: “I stick around and do what they tell me.”
The amiable 78-year-old Benedictine, who came to Mount Angel Abbey at age 14, explains that monasticism is full of joy and growth. He insists he would do it over again.
“It has been the perfect way to live my human experience,” he says.
He has taught literature, liturgy and art history, working at high school and seminary levels. He served as choirmaster, but has also been groundskeeper, mentor to new monks and a seminary administrator.
“I wasn’t sure I could do any of this,” says the Idaho native. “But my attitude is, if the abbot says go do it, you do it.”
Father Paschal is an introvert asked to do extrovert’s work. He was petrified when he began teaching at Kennedy High in Mount Angel in 1966, but came to adore it.
“That was good for me,” he says. “Teaching was the best way for an introvert to get introduced to adult life.”
That’s a typical statement from Father Paschal, who has a capacity to see that life is pure gift and that even in hard times, there is growth and grace.
People often ask, for example, if it’s been difficult to love a chaste life for six decades.
“I really believe in celibacy,” he responds. “I don’t just see it as the law of the church. I am a celibate to love. To see celibacy outside the realm of love is a great mistake.”
Father Paschal is proudly of Swedish stock. In the 1880s, his grandfather came to the U.S. from Sweden and found his way to an Idaho ranch. While herding sheep, the elder Cheline was bit by a tick, fell ill and became Catholic on his deathbed. His Irish Catholic wife carried the faith to future generations of Chelines.
As early as age 5 in the 1940s, young Jerry Cheline knew he wanted to be a priest. He’d borrow his grandmother’s scarf as a vestment, grab some bread and scoot the piano bench under the table to pretend to say Mass. When, as an eighth grader, he voiced his desire to go to seminary, his parents balked because of his youth, the distance and the expense. But the precocious lad wrote directly to the bishop, who prevailed upon the Chelines and offered financial aid.
He arrived in Mount Angel at 14 as a seminarian for the Diocese of Boise. But soon, he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life on the hilltop as a Benedictine. The bishop of Boise objected, but soon died, and his successor let the lad follow his heart.
He professed vows as a monk 56 years ago, including a solemn promise to live out his days at the abbey. He has visited many monasteries in Europe and the U.S., but would not prefer any of them.
He rises at quarter past four and prays through his morning routine, engaging favored saints as he shaves and makes his bed. He prays for others and spends time with scripture passages before heading to prayer with his confreres in the abbey’s grand church. Father Paschal says prayer is not a set of actions, but a relationship with God. Sometimes words are involved, sometimes it means mere openness to the holy.
As for most Benedictines, he places a primacy on God’s word. He prays over Bible passages and takes delight in singing psalms with the other monks.
After a day of labor and prayer, the monastery goes quiet at 7:30 p.m., a blessing for him. He is refreshed by time alone in his cell, which is cluttered with books, statues and photos.
He has academic passions — liturgy, literature and art history. They are linked, he said, by the recognition that beauty points to God.
He encourages young monks to read fiction to get a sense of the beauty of workaday people. “Novels are a good part of life for a monk,” he says. “They help you get to know people who are suffering, or who don’t know God or who don’t like God. Sometimes priests are shielded from those people. Reading novels helps you see the whole landscape of humanity. All of these people are our brothers and sisters.”
He persuades seminarians that they need not use the name of Jesus in almost every sentence, a sign to him that they are unhinged from everyday life. Often, Father Paschal has a sense that Jesus is saying to us: “Live the humanity that I created!” U.S. Catholics, he warns, sometimes forget beauty in their dogged pursuit of truth and morality.
As a natural outcome of his own spirituality, Father Paschal appreciates the views from Mount Angel, where one can see expanses of farmland and volcanic peaks. On the hilltop itself, he is aware of the shape, color and poetic movement of trees, including his favorite bronze beech, close to the church. Creation, including human life, comes from the mind of God and it can captivate people to deepen their relationship with the Creator, Father Paschal says.
The priest is now dealing with the ultimate human experience. He suffers from a disorder called mielodisplasia, in which bone marrow can’t produce enough blood cells to carry oxygen to the body. He can sit and talk with zeal, but tires quickly and requires weekly blood transfusions. Sooner or later the disease will kill him.
“I tell the Lord there is still a bunch of stuff I can do,” he says. “But if it is time for me to go home, I am glad to go home.”
His hope is that, on the day he dies, he will have prayed and shared a meal with his fellow monks.
“In a way, they have been my life,” he says.
Many people respect Father Paschal. Students from his first year of teaching at Kennedy High almost 50 years ago still come see him. Seminarians flock to his office. Fellow faculty admire him.
Creighton Lindsay, a seminary dean and professor of literature for two decades, has regularly settled in for long chats with the beloved monk. The two share a love of literature.
On one of his first days on the hill, Lindsay bumped into Father Paschal on the quad. “He made me feel like I’d been there a long time,” Lindsay says. “He made it seem like a home to me. No one walks away from an encounter with Paschal and doesn’t feel lifted by the experience.”
Lindsay says Father Paschal’s appeal is partly because he genuinely experiences the world.
“I have loved life,” Father Paschal says. “It has not been a vale of tears for me. I have simply loved being a human being.”
Posted: Friday, June 6, 2014
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Saints are ordinary individuals who remind us of our extraordinary community.