New Yorker to Norbertine: An Interview with Michael W. Hannon

By | April 15, 2014

Ethika Politika’s Michael Bradley and Michael W. Hannon sat down at the University of Notre Dame to discuss the latter’s journey towards religious life. 

Bradley: You studied philosophy, religion, and medieval studies as an undergraduate at Columbia and then attended New York University for a year to study law. How did you find your way to law school? When you applied to NYU, where did you see yourself being five years down the road?

Hannon: When I was at Columbia, I spent a lot of my early time there assuming that I was heading towards religious life. Then I kind of backed away from that when it came closer to time for me to actually take the leap.

I had always assumed that my fallback life plan would be philosophy academia. But as I got into junior and senior year at Columbia and started looking into that more practically, talking with my professors and professors at Catholic schools and this kind of thing, I realized that there were a lot of impediments to what I wanted to do in that realm too.

I knew a guy who had just done a doctorate and who I thought was doing incredible work, and he ended up not being able to find any kind of tenure-track job at all because he was, for lack of a better word—and I don’t normally self-describe this way—a “conservative” philosopher. The market was such that he was unfortunately pretty much unemployable. So watching that, watching other friends with similar issues, and just seeing what the academic job market looked like, it didn’t seem like there was going to be space within philosophy academia for me to do the sort of work I wanted to there.

I ended up kind of falling into law school. I had finished Columbia early and worked at a law firm for about 8 months, and when I entered my 1L year, I entered very confident that I never wanted to work at a firm again. So I was never on the track to be a big-law corporate partner or anything like that. But I did think that legal academia was a place where I could see myself, and where I could be very happy. So I spent a lot of 1L trying to figure out in what capacity I should do that. I came in thinking maybe legal philosophy, since that’s really the only background I had. I’d never done law proper. So when I got deeper into my first year, I started to see what the different areas of this thing are.

What I ended up determining by the end of fall semester was that, of all our staple first-year classes, what I enjoyed most by far was civil procedure. That’s an area that everyone within the field seemed to agree is grossly undertheorized. There are a lot of people who are absolutely stellar on the hard legal side of it; but when you get to the more theoretical underpinnings of a lot of our civil procedure law in the U.S., there’s not much done with that. I thought there were interesting questions there.

So I said, okay, I’ll try to do legal philosophy still—that has its appeal to me—but I’ll market myself as someone who would want to do civil procedure work and some philosophizing about that. That’s more or less where I saw myself in terms of employment. No one seemed to agree about whether I would need to do a doctorate to couple with the JD to make that happen, but I’d figure all that out along the way.

I was thinking that marriage was very probable five years out, and likely kids at that point. But more than that, I wasn’t really sure. I probably still would have been in New York if there were any way I could have swung it. Besides the vocational thing, I’m not sure there’s anything else that could have gotten me to willingly leave New York City. I’ve been there right around 6 years now, and I absolutely love it. So I thought I would probably be somewhere in the city, trying to further that personal and professional vision.

So you dropped out of law school last May, and are entering the Norbertines this summer. Can you speak to that discernment process, especially as it’s played out over the last couple years?

I first was introduced to the Norbertines about four years ago. I had gone to a Jesuit high school, and I came up to New York for college thinking that religious life seemed attractive and viable. But I’m from Texas, and we don’t have many religious orders. So the only order I knew was the Society of Jesus. I knew that the Jesuits like to teach, and the ones I knew were very good men, so I assumed I should go that route.

My freshman year, I met a Jesuit priest in the city. He was a great philosopher, and a wonderful, wonderful man. He gave me spiritual direction for a while. But during that time, I was also exposed to a lot of other Jesuits, and not all of them were as stellar as he was. So one day my sophomore year, I came into one of our meetings, and I basically confronted him. “I’ve been seeing some sketchier things with a certain generation of Jesuits, especially up here in the northeast,” I said. “Do you think the order’s still worth joining?”

His response was, “Yes, I absolutely think the order is still worth joining. I love our order. I love the Society. I think the younger generation coming up is really, really wonderful, especially. But don’t be a Jesuit.”

“What?” I asked, taken aback.

He said something to the effect of, “Yeah, you aren’t allowed to be a Jesuit. You would be really bad at it. And you would not be very happy.” He said it with a smile, serious but sensitive. Still, that came as kind of a shock. Continuing, he basically said that, having gotten to know me, he could see that the Jesuit spirituality was essentially the exact opposite of the way that I relate to God in the Church. Instead, he recommended I check out the Norbertines.

So my Jesuit mentor was the first one to clue me in to the abbey. I spent the rest of that afternoon—at least five hours—just perusing the Norbertines’ website. It’s actually a very, very good site: stmichaelsabbey.com. I decided that I needed to go out and visit these guys, but unfortunately I didn’t get to do that until almost a year later.

I studied abroad in Venice that summer, and when I finally made it back stateside, I got to go out and spend about a week at the abbey for the first time. I really loved the community. I knew from the first time I met them that, if I were to go the religious route, that is where I would do it. But I also saw that it would be a much bigger change of pace to my daily life than the Jesuits, or the diocesan priesthood—which never really had much appeal—or something like that would be. I knew, if I do this, I’m doing this here; but it also became a lot scarier, to think about entering the abbey and the change that would involve, the sacrifices it would require.

My first visit was something like a discovery mission, investigating a prospect that still seemed a long way off and very theoretical. Visiting again the following spring, my interactions with the community became much more real and pressing. It was as though the abbey were saying to me, “Give up your life, and come live here.” In retrospect I can see—I didn’t know this at the time, or at least was not admitting it to myself and wasn’t really cognizant of it—I began to shy away from the vocation at that time out of fear. In a positive way, I started looking instead at what I could do to work at building up the Kingdom out in the world. But I stopped actively considering religious life.

The twist in the story came this past April, during the Easter octave, I think. I have a friend from back home to thank, a friend whom I had actually dragged out to the abbey with me the first time that I went, more than three years ago now. So last April, I called him one night just to catch up, walking around the West Village on my way home from drinks with some friends. He answered the phone and said, “Well, I didn’t really expect to talk to anyone tonight. I was going to call my parents tomorrow, but I guess it’s appropriate that you called me.”

“Okay, that sounds morbid,” I said. “What’s going on?”

He responded, matter-of-factly, “Well, I am officially joining the abbey.”

It took me very much by surprise, but I was thrilled for him. That news sent me into a pretty extreme reevaluation, though. For years I had watched the journey that led my friend to this radical decision. Reflecting on his path inspired me to really face my own vocation for the first time in a long time. A biographer of St. Norbert once commented that it takes one saint to make another. Here’s hoping.

I didn’t end up sleeping much that night. I met with my current spiritual director, who’s a Dominican, the next morning. I chatted with him about it, and put myself on a self-imposed retreat for 9 days, enough time to pray a novena to St. Norbert. I went to class and the library, getting my law work done, but otherwise I cancelled everything I had planned. Instead of going out, I went to the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, just asking for guidance and strength. I’ve never been one for vocational postcards or “feeling called” or this sort of thing. But St. Norbert was literally struck by lightning, and that was basically the cause of his conversion, so I guess I shouldn’t discount the lightning bolts.

I “knew” the first morning when I woke up—or didn’t wake up because I hadn’t slept—that I really wanted to take the leap and enter the abbey. But it was also an emotional time. I tried to remind myself that I didn’t need to think too much about this life-changing decision at that exact moment, so I figured I would give it until the end of my novena at least. Taking my time was easier said than done, but that was the goal. I continued to think through it all. I talked to my parents, to good friends who have known me throughout this process, to my spiritual director, and then to Fr. Ambrose, the novice master at the abbey.

As my retreat went on, I became more confirmed in the decision, if predictably less emotionally charged from it all than on my first sleep-deprived night. I was even more confident that this was right. I was even more excited too, which was where new graces really entered into this, because it wasn’t as though I learned anything new during this time. I had all the data before. But for the first time, I was really, really overjoyed at the prospect of joining the abbey—excited about it as a live option, and not just a future fantasy.

St. Michael's Abbey, in Silverado, California. (Courtesy of stmichaelsabbey.com)

St. Michael’s Abbey, in Silverado, California. (Courtesy of stmichaelsabbey.com)

At the end of my 9 days, I talked to Fr. Ambrose and asked for permission to apply. The abbey ended up deciding that they wanted me to wait a year, which made good sense—though of course, in my supercharged, end-of-a-retreat phase, that came as kind of a downer. But I’m incredibly grateful for that in retrospect. They asked me to defer until this coming summer, to continue to discern, but more importantly, to really work on the life transition. I stayed in New York throughout the fall and winter, but despite the craziness of the city, even just not being in law school gave my daily life a super different pace. I was able to chart my day according to a more religious schedule, readying myself for the abbey in that way.

I moved out of my apartment at the beginning of February. These last months before I enter will be spent with family and friends, just celebrating our time together. I also get to travel some, including to France and Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago this Easter—a nice little last hurrah before that vow of stability kicks in.

To what extent will you be able to continue writing, editing, working with the Thomistic Institute in NYC, etc., while you’re with the Norbertines? If you can’t continue some of the work that you’ve been doing, how will you cope with that?

The short answer is: I don’t know, especially in the short term. Well, I don’t really know period—the vow of obedience and all that jazz. It would be pretty extraordinary for me to be writing for outside publications now though, during these first several years. But if they ever ask me to, or want that to be part of what I’m doing there, obviously I would love it.

In the more long-term sense, we shall see. Because they’re canons regular, the Norbertine formation builds from very monastic foundation early on, and advances toward a more clerical ideal. The intellectual work becomes a major focus at the end of that, as priests, whether that’s for preaching from the pulpit at Mass, teaching at our boys high school, or doing other activities that glorify God through human reason. Sometimes that involves writing. Our prior regularly publishes in Chronicles magazine. The philosophy teacher there writes for The Thomist with the Dominicans. Different people are doing different things like that.

I will say that the Norbertines’ educational and intellectual vocations tend to be—just because all of their vocations tend to be—a little more centered on their own community, as compared to the more extrinsic focus of some other orders. From what I can tell, their outside intellectual work ends up being more like an extra feature added onto their preexisting apostolic life, as opposed to being the centerpiece of it. But in many ways, contributing to these public-square conversations has been an add-on to my own educational life as well. I have never been a fulltime writer or editor.

So I would think that, while at first I probably I won’t be publishing, eventually it’s likely enough that I’ll get to, at least occasionally. But I can’t say any of those things with more certainty than that. In terms of how that will be for me, I expect that will actually be one of the biggest challenges—not just not being able to write, but in all likelihood not being able to read most of these publications. We get some journals that they subscribe to sent to the priest recreation room, but I wouldn’t think that the men in formation read those much either.

For example, when I was out at the abbey this past fall for a retreat, I left at the end to discover that the federal government had been shut down for over a week. I had no idea. So early on, the men are definitely closed off from the world, and I think appropriately so. But I do think that’ll be a challenge for me.

I don’t want to know how many hours I’ve spent over the past few years browsing around on Ethika Politika and First Things and Fare Forward and Public Discourse and Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative and so on and so on and so on. And I love them. That’s been a hugely important part of my own formation and education. So it will definitely be tough not to have that. But at the same time, the Norbertines have a lot of beautiful ways that they get to channel their gifts. They’re at the abbey for the betterment of that community. Of course, ex ante, it’s not always totally clear what that will mean. Maybe it will mean emptying the coffee grounds every day for 10 years, which given my love for coffee, I’d be just fine with. And probably it will mean sweeping, vacuuming, laundry, mowing the lawn, digging trenches, addressing envelopes—all of the above. It will certainly mean praying and reading and studying.

And at some point, it may also mean some outside intellectual work, if the community deems that valuable.

What are you most excited for in joining the Norbertines? What are you most anxious about?

I have the same answer to both, actually: community. I’m scared to leave behind the incredible friends I have in the world, and I am thrilled to make new ones at the abbey. I’m a huge extrovert (sanguine-choleric), and I really do have the best friends any guy could ever ask for.

When I left New York, about 30 members of our little Catholic community made me a video as a going-away present, complete with individual clips of each of them saying farewell, plus about a billion photos of all of us over the years. It was the nicest thing, and it took them weeks to put it all together. They’re what I’m going to miss, and what I’m most scared to lose. I look forward to writing them and having them come to the abbey and seeing them during home visits, of course, and ultimately—God willing—I look forward to spending eternity with them in the communion of saints. But walking the rest of this earthly pilgrimage without them in my life day-to-day will be incredibly hard.

But all that said, it’s not as though I’m shipping off for a lifetime of loneliness either. As a kid, I always wanted a brother, and now I’m about to inherit 80 of them in a single day. It’s actually unfathomable to me, but I am so pumped to dive in and experience it.

It’s no secret that our world is not so hospitable to friendship these days—something that I’ve written on a good deal. And while I really did get the best of friendship in the world, I expect the monastery will be far more conducive to building up those relationships than the secular world ever could be. Our entire Norbertine life is structured around the common good of our community, and what’s even more important, it’s all explicitly ordered to glorifying God and sanctifying us.

Ultimately, that is why I’m going to the abbey: to try to become a saint among saints.

Featured image is of the library at the Norbertine Teplá Monastery, in Prague.

Hannon enters postulancy at St. Michael’s Abbey on August 27. Please pray for him, for perseverance in the vocation. He’ll be praying for the whole Ethika Politika community—writers and editors and readers.

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  • STLKen

    What a wonderful story. To be clear, that is not the library at St. Michael’s. It is the library at the Norbertine abbey in Prague. Perhaps someday with the new abbey built for St. Michael’s, theirs will be as beautiful.

  • Michael Bradley

    Duly noted and edited—thank you for the correction!

  • Brian Kelly

    I spent two years at St. Michael’s in 1973-4 and one year in Rome at the Norbertine Generalate House. We studied at the Angelicum. I have fond memories of St. Michael’s. The Hungarian fathers worked us hard. I loved Father Parker and Father Szanto. They were very good to me, as Frater Michael. I hated to leave them in 1974, but I had to. I had visited Father Feeney’s community in Massachusetts and I was convinced and still am that the dogma of No Salvation Outside the Church was the crucial issue that I had to identify with and defend. I did so by many writings. When I visited the abbey in the early 80s I was warmly received and had a very powerful discussion with Father Parker (later abbot) about the salvation dogma. He assured me that it was the traditional teaching of the Church, but he warned me, that with the post Vatican II era, the dogma will not be tolerated. He Definitely did not discourage me, nor did he consider Saint Benedict Center a dangerous group to be shunned. Basically, what he told me was to be prepared because identifying with the dogma would make my life a cross. And it did. When I discussed the dogma with Father Horvath, O. Praem., at St. Stephen’s in Los Angeles he was astonished (having never heard of Father Feeney) that a priest could be excommunicated for defending the defined dogma in its literal sense. More than that, when I brought Father Feeney and the doctrine up with the Belgian Norbertine Vicar General in Rome in 1973 (I have forgotten his name) he also expressed astonishment. “Outside the Church, No Salvation,” he said in French “assolutement.” My fellow seminarians at the time, Father James Smith is still with the Abbey, who were with me and pressured me to take the issue to the Vicar General, were visibly upset that I was vindicated. They had insisted at the time that the dogma as I showed it to them was not ex cathedra and that it was contrary to Vatican II. Father Fabian (God rest his soul) even refused to answer a letter I sent him explaining why I had to leave. He was such a good young man. I still have fond memories of Father Benzoni and Father Horne. I write for SBC at catholicism.org as Brian Kelly. In good standing with our local ordinary here in NH, saying the Vetus Ordo Missae.

  • Lourdes

    Thank you for answering God’s call. If I could ask you to please pray for my daughter.