By Jeff Johnson
For The Visitor
Three years ago, my neighbor and friend of 20 years, Dan Mead, drove his six-wheeler across the farm to invite me to join the Saturday morning men’s prayer group he initiated in our parish cluster, Two Rivers Catholic Community of Bowlus, Holdingford and St. Anna.
I was trying to fix my wood splitter at the time, but I am not one bit handy, so I put down the tools I’m no good with, and finally accepted this invitation he had been gently repeating for some months. I love the church, but historically I’ve never been big on retreats or conferences, and besides, I like to be home in my Collegeville peat bog on Saturday mornings with coffee and poetry and Vivaldi.
The following day, I reported at 8 a.m. to the basement of St. Mary’s, unaware those guys would accept me into the brotherhood of Catholic men they had been steadily dreaming into being, and more or less embarrassed that I hadn’t realized how important a prayer group could be in the spiritual war each and every one of us inhabits. Now, I seldom miss these meetings, and when I do there is a poverty in my week.
Our method is dead simple. We have three informal leaders, Dan, Bob and Jim; they arrive at least an hour early, make borderline, sketchy coffee and pray with zeal near the altar upstairs. The rest of us shuffle in to move tables, assemble our prayer card gear and talk about the weather and our families and the people we love.
At 8 sharp, Dan opens our time together with a prayer, and we take turns reciting the Old Testament reading for the day; we listen to it twice, with an interval of silence in between. What unfolds then is a conversation — sometimes mundane, other times confusing, and very often profound — during which we try to make sense of the text of the Bible and the story of our lives as Catholic men.
To return in thought to these meetings is to encounter the Holy Spirit at work like I have never imagined in my 58 years outside of Mass: I see us laughing, weeping, reaching for our favorite books, looking up stuff on our phones when we are confused and even praying over one another if there’s a rough patch in our families or marriages or solitude. Our discussions are big on our friendships and communities, not so big on politics, and what plays in Saturday Morning Men’s Prayer Group stays in Saturday Morning Men’s Prayer Group.
On a recent Saturday, we ended as usual, offering individual intentions and the prayer to St. Joseph, and I observed we are up to 18 guys.
Some of our greatest moments have been outside that basement. Last March, when Lloyd had a heart attack while helping Ramona bring in groceries from their pickup, we gathered in that Holdingford farmhouse kitchen to pray the rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy. We lost our current elder statesman, Don, just last week, and when he started in on chemo this winter we went to pray outside his home since his doctor said no visitors due to flu danger. Naturally, his wife and family lovingly disobeyed this directive and were waiting with coffee and cookies when we arrived. More prayer, more fellowship, and more astonishment that I not long ago didn’t understand how a prayer group could make me a better husband, a better father and a slightly better man.
When I stand at Mass in one of our churches, or attend a fish fry, a Gift Night, a tractor blessing or any other event, I see the men of this group as connected, humble points of light. It is clearer to me why we have encountered the person of Jesus Christ for centuries in relationship with one another in the most important community of all — the parish — and I believe ours are stronger because of the single hour we devote to witnessing and understanding one another. We are not saints, but some of these guys are within striking range.
Dear men of the St. Cloud Diocese: consider starting up a group like ours in your parishes; ask your priest to pray for you; make and drink lousy coffee; gather in your moldy church basements round the heavy 4-by-8-foot tables; stand shoulder to shoulder with one another as you witness each other’s lives and joys and struggles. Yes, it might not be everyone’s deal, and at the same time, I know there are many men like me who should give this an honest try.
I have already admitted I only planned to go once, and now I can’t wait for next Saturday morning because those guys are the best friends I have ever had. If more groups like this could burst into bloom across our diocese — men’s, women’s, youth — something great can happen. I just know it.
Jeff Johnson is a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in St. Anna.