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December 18th, 2002 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

A THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND FAITH

What happened when Cameo Garrett fell for a monk?

     
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About once a month, Cameo Garrett locks the door of her Tualatin apartment, gets into her pale blue 1994 Toyota Corolla and drives 31 miles to Mount Angel to sit at the corner of College Street and Humpert Lane and read.

It's Cameo's way of making a statement.

She sets up a green plastic lawn chair--purchased expressly for this purpose--by the side of a road that winds past all-weather stations of the cross and ascends through a curtain of evergreens to Mount Angel Abbey. The picturesque Benedictine monastery and seminary was founded in 1882 by a couple of monks from Engelberg, Switzerland. Its tidy, terra cotta-colored buildings, rebuilt after an 1892 fire, look at once brand-new and as if they have always been there, plopped atop the hill by the hand of God Himself.

Although Cameo holds her solitary vigil just out of sight of the Abbey, she is not out of mind of its denizens. The town of 3,500 is situated several miles from the interstate; there is little traffic and plenty of talk. Those who observe the road's 25-mph speed limit can't fail to see the flame-haired 28-year-old--or her signs.

Cameo Garrett never protests without poster-board placards printed in permanent marker and rain-proofed with packing tape. Their slogans--"Stop the cover-up," "Heaven Help Mt. Angel," and finally, "I was abused by Brother Ansgar Santogrossi, Father Joachim McCann and the Abbey Administration"--raise more questions than they answer.

Despite the implication of her handmade signs, Cameo Garrett is probably the least of the Abbey's troubles. This year it was hit with a handful of lawsuits alleging that, in the 1950s and 1960s, priests abused students from the Abbey's former high school.

Cameo, on the other hand, admits she never had sexual relations with anyone at the Abbey. She was not sexually harassed. Rather, she entered into a correspondence that began with theological questions and blossomed into an unusual love affair --a chaste, God-fearing coupling fraught with confusion and fueled by a common intellectual and religious passion.

Next to allegations from former Catholic-school students, Cameo's story seems trifling. Yet it hints at a fact the church has thus far failed to address: Catholic priests and brothers have always had girlfriends (of sorts). While these clandestine affairs meet the emotional needs of clergy, they may come at the expense of the women.

Mount Angel is a one-stoplight town free of the sprawl that plagues most of the I-5 corridor. Its biggest tourist draw is Oktoberfest. Storefronts in the tiny downtown boast Chalet-style flourishes evoking the town's alpine namesake, Engelberg. Newcomers are few, family names are well-known, and the influential old guard is almost entirely Catholic. You don't have to look hard to find a yard with a plastic Madonna encased in chain link or chicken wire--and you can be sure the display is irony-free.

Over the course of a year, Cameo shared phone calls, letters, long walks and dinners with a 40-year-old Benedictine monk known as Brother Ansgar Santogrossi. Cameo insists she wanted to keep the relationship platonic, while Brother Ansgar had romantic intentions.

In the aftermath of their muddled breakup, Cameo confronted the abbey about the propriety of the relationship, but abbey leaders only denied and minimized her ordeal, she says, and portrayed her as a Lolita.

For that, Cameo wants an apology. And for the past eight months she has dogged the men who could give it to her.

Relentlessly.

The most notable feature of Mount Angel Abbey is its library, a stunning contemporary structure designed by the renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. From the outside, the low-slung brick building is unprepossessing. Starkly modern, it is far from the ornate aesthetic one might expect from ancient religious tradition. Inside, skylights illuminate the airy room. Cool white walls curve overhead in organic forms that evoke the voluptuous interior of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum.

It's a fitting emblem for Mount Angel. Other monasteries are known for producing things like fudge or cheese. The Abbey, known for its scholarship and seminary, turns out newly minted priests.

Though open to the public, the library has long been forbidding to locals, evidence of the "town and gown" split that divides the hilltop from neighbors below. "As a teenager, you sure weren't welcome up there," recalls one lifelong Mount Angel resident. "That's their world."

Oblivious to this, Cameo came to the library at the suggestion of the pastor of Athey Creek Christian Fellowship in West Linn, where she worked as a coordinator. It was here that she first became acquainted with Brother Ansgar. And it was here, in the periodicals room, where they later struggled to keep their heated philosophical debates from rising above a whisper.

Cameo wanted to research the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic teaching that had fascinated her since she had heard it explained at an ecumenical conference. A student of early church history, Cameo wanted to trace the doctrine's roots. On the suggestion of a library employee, she approached the black-robed monk, introducing herself as a Protestant. Though he looked taken aback, her question about Jesus' mother engaged him.

Sitting on a bench outside the library, the autumn leaves just starting to turn around them, they talked for two hours on the subject. Before she got up to leave, Brother Ansgar asked Cameo for her address; he wanted to send her some articles on religion.

It was Saturday, Oct. 14, 2000.

Driving away from the abbey that day, Cameo felt elated. Rarely did she find someone with whom she could discuss religion in such depth, and she was impressed by Ansgar's lucid explanation of Catholic doctrine.

Though she has some Catholic relatives, Cameo was raised by born-again Protestant parents and attended a series of Bible-based churches like Athey Creek, some on the fundamentalist end of the spectrum. She counts the stalwart faith of her Pentecostal grandmother as a major influence. As a child, Cameo cried when her parents, an office manager and a real-estate agent, didn't go to church. "I had my own thing with God," she says.

In 1993, after graduating from Sherwood High School in Wilsonville--where she was homecoming queen and sang the national anthem at football games--Cameo spent a year as a nanny in New Jersey. When she came home, she worked at the electronics store Incredible Universe and attended Portland Community College.

In 1995, while on a cross-country road trip, Cameo and her friends were in a car accident. The driver died; Cameo suffered a broken neck. She never made it to Nashville, where she had hoped to be a country singer, and instead returned to Oregon, where her brush with death prompted soul-searching. She turned to her faith.

Cameo tried every denomination she could find. Once, to the bemusement of her parents, she attended a Japanese Baptist Church down the street from her family's home in Tigard. She donned headphones to follow the service in English.

Brother Ansgar, who did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him for this article, was christened Michael Santogrossi and raised in Southern California by Italian-American Catholic parents. He attended a Catholic boarding school and the prestigious seminary at Mount Angel, where he now teaches philosophy and Latin. Known as a scholar and a bit of a loner, he often spends long hours at his carrel in the library, taking notes in French.

When Ansgar, who holds a Ph.D., took his solemn vow as a monk in the Order of Saint Benedict, he agreed to live, work and pray in a community of men who, like him, had devoted their lives to God. (Like those in other Catholic orders, Benedictine monks are expected to honor vows of chastity and poverty and to perform manual labor regularly. See "Monk Business," below.)

A week and a half after their initial conversation, Cameo received a short note from Ansgar with some simple religious tracts.

In December, they exchanged Christmas cards and he sent her a book, The Secret of the Rosary, that had belonged to his mother.

On Jan. 25, 2000, Ansgar sent her another article about Mary, adding, "I could not resist the idea of casting another line into the water in your direction..."

As Ansgar continued to explain the mysteries of the Immaculate Conception--that Jesus' mother was born without sin--he took Cameo's interest in the subject as indication she would one day convert to Catholicism.

After a time, each began to reveal personal details. Because the bulk of their communication was written, it was at once intimate and oddly formal.

Cameo would recount humorous anecdotes of her daily life. Ansgar replied with ironic and self-deprecating descriptions of monastic existence. In one letter, he complained of other "old geezer" monks who annoyed him with their constant fidgeting during prayers, then mocked his own impatience and lack of concentration. In another, he tells of his new duty playing the organ, wryly adding, "All for Jesus!"

In late spring, Cameo sent him a letter saying she had feelings for him and expressing doubt that her feelings were reciprocated. Ansgar's response is a pivotal point in their courtship:

Dear Cameo,

Or should I say, Rose blooming in my desert (not between two thornbushes...).

Don't you know, couldn't you tell, that I also love you, if by love you mean more than just philia.... But there are different kinds of eros. Aristotle said someone is 'in eros/love' when the sight of another person delights, and when the image of that person stays or comes to mind often when that person is absent. In that sense, I am certainly in love with you. But there is also philia--look at how much we are able to talk about--and eros, that is a chaste eros which loves 'from afar' and never touches, can lead to agape: how often I pray for you when I think of you, and then put my mind back into my work.

Can we keep love each other like that? I have no right to ask that from you--you are always free, and I have chosen to live in the desert for God. So if you are not able to have a relationship like that, if you need above all to get married and to have complete eros, and not just a part of it (the complete eros which is for the sake of begetting new life), then forget about me, for your own good, for the good of your immortal soul. And if you can be happy, at least for a part of your life with this kind of relationship, with being a chaste and pure single woman with a special friendship with a monk whose heart beats for her after God, then that is OK too....

Love, Br. Ansgar

Though Ansgar's conditions confused her, Cameo finally decided that she would rather accept them than be without him altogether. "To me the 'special friendship' was just going to be nonsexual." Since she intended to save sex for marriage, this seemed a moot point.

The two corresponded throughout the summer, and she would often see him on Saturdays, when she went to the library.

In a late August letter, however, Ansgar admonished her to keep her words and emotions in check:

Don't forget the angels, even when sent, never avert their gaze from contemplating God! You and I should look beyond one another to God... Be prudent, discrete, and tactful in what you write to me and what you feel. Don't go 'overboard,' this is serious.

God love and bless you, who keeps you in existence. I love you in Him.

Br. Ansgar

It was at this point, Cameo says, that she decided that their "special friendship" was doomed, that the "chaste eros" was an oxymoron. She says she broke off their relationship in a letter.

But during the fall, depressed and lonely, she started writing him again, which led to an Oct. 1 invitation to visit, "like good friends do."

They met six days later, walked outside on the grounds of the abbey, then went to a room in a guest house, where they talked some more. Together, she says, they admired an ornate candelabra, but Ansgar was so close to her she could feel his breath. Time seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly. Cameo felt as if they were standing on a precipice. An ever-so-slight tilt of her head might have led to a kiss, and what then? Would they have soared, or fallen into an abyss?

Cameo says she backed away and suggested they leave the room. If Ansgar picked up on her apprehensiveness, he never mentioned it. The next day, he wrote her another letter:

Monday, Oct. 8, 2001

Dear Cameo,

How happy I was to see you yesterday ...The other day, the guestmaster asked me, 'who was that angel you were with...?' So he likes you already; sometime when you are here again you might meet him again.

So I am glad there is an 'angel' in my life! May God bless her and guide her life. Love, Br. Ansgar

A week later, Cameo returned to Mount Angel, where Ansgar was waiting for her. She says they went for a long walk in the woods, as Ansgar told her he wanted to show her "an exquisite chapel." Twice a car passed on the gravel road, and Ansgar hesitated. Cameo says he seemed nervous, finally deciding that it was getting too late and he had to return for vespers. They turned back toward the abbey.

When they got there, the plans Ansgar said he had made for them to have a private dinner had somehow changed. He seemed agitated, Cameo says, and she accompanied him to the seminary cafeteria instead. She recalls that students, doubtless curious to see their teacher with a pretty young woman, approached him. Blushing, he introduced Cameo as a friend, and they took their dinners to a far-off table. After dinner, they had coffee at the guest house and talked some more. Throughout the day, an unspoken significance lay between them. It was Oct. 14, 2001, a year to the day since they first met.

Cameo was again confused about Ansgar's feelings. "About a week before Thanksgiving, he called me; we talked for about a half an hour," Cameo recalls. "It was like we were dating. We're writing personal letters, and we're taking walks, and now he's calling me?"

Five minutes after they hung up, she called him back and asked what was really going on. She says she again suggested they take a break from each other. She says he pleaded against it and said, "Maybe I'm the husband been you've praying for, in a different package than you expected."

Then, Cameo says, he said, "I love you." The next thing she heard was a dial tone.

The next night, he sent an email explaining how he had confided to a visiting friend--a female flight attendant and part-time evangelist--that there "was 'someone special' in my life--you of course."

In the email, he referred to the Gospel of Luke, saying God clearly calls people to abandon all, including marriage, for Him. He said his friendship with Cameo had already hindered his effort at this. "Last night...my spirit was less fervent at prayer than usual because I was distracted by the happy memory of having just spoken to you," he wrote.

Ansgar explained that his friend had warned him his friendship with Cameo would be painful, because, as he put it, "you can't love without real pain....

"At any rate she told me that I should express to you that no matter what happens I am committed to you for life, for good."

He closed by reassuring her that she would find a husband, "especially since I am going to look up the saints known for helping women find husbands! There will be a number of intercessors before the throne of God on your behalf!"

This email puzzled Cameo. He'd cast her as spiritual distraction, professed eternal love, then offered to play matchmaker. She further withdrew. In the first few months of 2002, the handwritten letters petered out, giving way to sporadic emails.

Cameo began to question the integrity of the "special friendship" and says Ansgar began to intimate that she was trying to lure him from his vocation.

Throughout her relationship with Ansgar, Cameo had confided in Father Joachim McCann, a priest at the abbey. She says he initially told her the relationship might be good for Ansgar. After listening to her travails, Father Joachim now seemed to make the relationship sound one-sided, and finally, broke off contact with her.

Cameo felt her trust had been betrayed--her deep feelings for a monk, tacitly permitted, even encouraged by the Mount Angel clergy, were now being dismissed as a childish crush.

Frustrated, she began doing things that, in retrospect, she now concedes seem over-the-top. Having exhausted her attempts to get answers from abbey personnel, she began attending vespers, the daily services of song and prayer, as a reminder she had not given up.

One night after vespers, while the monks were at dinner, she says she walked down the road they had taken in October, in search of the chapel in the woods. She kept going until the abbey was but a speck in the distance. She saw a clapboard building in a stand of trees. When she looked into the window, she gasped. It was not a chapel, she says, but a small, spartan cabin--a hermitage where a monk could spend time in voluntary isolation, equipped with a desk and a bed. (An abbey official confirmed her description of the building to WW.)

The discovery made her suspicious. Though there is no proof of what--if anything--Ansgar meant to do at the cabin, or if that in fact was his intended destination, Cameo clings to this point nonetheless.

Cameo refused to join what she sees as a secret sorority. Throughout the ages, untold numbers of women have had consensual intimate relationships--platonic and otherwise--with Catholic clergy. Many remained mum about their affairs for numerous reasons: fear of retaliation, shame, or perhaps simply a sense of decorum.

She viewed the cabin as further evidence that Ansgar's intentions were impure. On her next vespers visit, she whistled, rather than sang along with a hymn. She was greeted with stares, she says, and, rather than being omitted as usual when the priest sprinkled holy water, Cameo says she was doused.

She responded by turning to the monks lined at the altar. "You're hypocrites!" she declared before storming out of the church.

Cameo got into her car and started down the hill. As she left, she says she saw a Mount Angel police car driving up the road. She pulled over and was shocked to learn the abbey had called the police and given them her name.

Richard Whittemore, the abbey's attorney, says Cameo was trying to disrupt the services. "She'd sit in the front row in seductive clothes and cough and talk loudly and make her presence known."

She also barraged the abbey with emails. "We have a stack 8 inches thick, lots of it hostile," he says. "I don't want to call it obscene, but very graphic, sexually."

Whittemore says it was Cameo who was looking for more than friendship and was hurt by Ansgar's rejection. "He made it clear to her that he didn't intend to leave the order," Whittemore says. "And I'm sure that upset her."

Cameo continued to protest and post signs on telephone poles. The police cited her for harassment on Aug. 13. A month later, Whittemore sent her a letter telling her not to return to the abbey--the first time, he says, anyone has ever been banned from the property: "It was an absolute last resort."

No longer allowed on the premises, Cameo continued protesting down the hill from the abbey. One day, a group of teenagers ran up to her, grabbed her signs and took off. Other passersby roll their eyes, or smirk, or frown with scorn. But a few have offered cryptic words of encouragement.

In October, she says, she received another citation; both were later dismissed.

Whittemore intimates that Cameo took advantage of the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church to gain sympathy for her cause.

He says he doesn't really know what Cameo wanted from all of this. "As I sit here," he says, speaking by phone from a California hotel, "I'm not really sure."

Now an English major at Portland State University, Cameo is sometimes overcome with self-recrimination for things she has said, done and, especially, written: "Sometimes I make myself sound like a freaking fanatic." But she hasn't stopped protesting--legally--on public property outside the abbey.

"I don't plan to quit," she says.

Those close to her wish she would. " I think her hanging on to it is causing her more trouble than it's worth," says her friend Lisa Sequeira. "What I remember and what I'd like to see her get back is a vivaciousness for life."

Cameo knows she can't go on forever, and there is a deadline that appeals to her for its symmetry: She will cease when she has protested "one day for every day they strung me along."

Considering the length of her ordeal, it could be a while. Cameo has considered this--she has even come up with a way to multitask. "Maybe next summer," she says with a bitter laugh, "I'll tan."

MONK BUSINESS
Mount Angel is home to about 50 Benedictine monks, ranging in age from 22 to 85. The men joined the spiritual community to serve God through a simple life of prayer and work ("Ora et Labora").

Among the religious families, some, such as Benedictines and Cistercians, spend more time in community while others, such as Trappists, live an isolated existence in order to promote divine contemplation. Dubbed the "silent monks," Trappists vow not to speak for long periods of time.

Monasteries are traditionally self-supporting and have long produced goods--like fruitcake--to sell to outsiders. Often these products become their emblem. The Carthusian monks of Chartreuse, France, for example, are known for the potent green liqueur they produce.

A dozen or so monks affiliated with the Mount Angel monastery are involved in advanced studies, parish and hospital chaplaincy work. An additional 16 monks live in a dependent priory in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Some of Mount Angel's monks came as young men. Others joined after a different career, including those already ordained priests.

The Benedictine Order is named for its founder, St. Benedict, who is considered the father of Western monasticism. A document he wrote in the sixth century, The Rule of St. Benedict, governs monastic life to this day. --AR


After a man takes the solemn vow to become a monk, he takes a different first name. Brother Ansgar's birth name was Michael.




Mount Angel is also home to a popular microbrewery and a sister convent, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Angel.




The abbey library's architect, Alvar Aalto, took the commission despite his ill health because he had a special fondness for libraries. He died before the project was completed.




Mount Angel Abbey has a museum that boasts a wide array of taxidermy, including numerous bison, elk and polar bears.





At Incredible Universe, Cameo worked alongside country singer Sara Evans.




Monks own almost no personal property themselves; food and clothing are provided for them, and incidentals are purchased with a small allowance from the abbott.




Mount Angel Abbey hosts an annual Bach festival each summer, which is often sold out well in advance.
 
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