Benedictine Brother Jacob Berns was always a well-behaved child, according to his parents Ron and Trish Berns of St. Henry Parish in Perham.
“So much so that we always waited for the other shoe to drop,” Trish said. “He even asked to take naps. He loved learning and was a voracious reader. He would read anything and even snuck encyclopedias to bed.”
From a very early age, Brother Jacob recalls being drawn to Mass and having thoughts of becoming a priest. When he was about 12 or 13, his parents agreed that he should explore that call. So he attended a diocesan vocations camp that was held at St. John’s University in Collegeville.
“It was then that I was first introduced to the St. John’s campus and the monastic style of prayer,” Brother Jacob said. “It was very slow and deliberate. There was silence between the psalms and it felt like we were never going to finish the Our Father, but I found it wonderful and compelling.”
Although he enjoyed the experience, he didn’t leave there thinking of becoming a monk.
“I left campus thinking, ‘I need to pray more.’ Looking back on that, it’s really one of those foundational moments where maybe there had been a seed sprouting, and St. John’s watered it a little bit for me,” he said.
The call to the priesthood persisted through his middle school and high school years and, when it came time for college, Brother Jacob wanted to pursue seminary.
“Mom and Dad said, ‘You know, we would really support that, but how about you try something else first?’ So, I decided to study music in college. I looked around at some places that I knew were reputable music schools. Believe it or not, St. John’s came to the top,” he said.
He attended St. John’s on a viola scholarship. He also has been playing piano at liturgies since about ninth grade.
“I came here to study music, to play in the orchestra. And I decided while I’m here, I might as well look into some theology a little bit as well.”
During his first year in college, he found some challenges with public speaking that caused him to question his call to the priesthood.
“It really got me thinking, if I can’t give a presentation in front of a group, how can I expect myself to be a priest and to celebrate Mass in front of a parish three times every weekend?”
At that point, he said he “started riding the waves” to see where he was being led. A couple of years later, another big wave hit when someone from the campus newspaper asked him what he wanted to do after graduation.
“How can I put this together? I’d love to keep pursuing music and I know that prayer is still important to me, even if I’m not sure I want to be a priest. How can I keep religion and music together? Well, maybe I’ll just say I’ll be a monk at St. John’s. That sounds like something I could say,” he recalled telling the reporter.
“Next thing I know I’m getting a message from the abbey’s vocations director saying, ‘Would you like to do an overnight visit?’”
What is a monk?
Possibly the moment when a young man stands before the Abbot and the monastic community and is asked, “What do you seek?” will give us a starting point. The novice replies, “The mercy of God and fellowship in this community.” He is then clothed in the habit of the community, and if he perseveres, begins a lifelong journey of doing just that. Eventually making vows of stability, obedience, and conversion to the monastic way of life, he lives with the same group of men, praying, learning and working with them in pursuit of Christ, in service to the Church. Of course, the life of the monk may take him away from the day-to-day life of the community to travel, obtain an advanced degree, or become a pastor of a parish, but he always returns to his home, the monastery. — Excerpted from St. John’s Abbey website
After that, Brother Jacob began attending monastic prayer more frequently and getting to know a couple of the monks. After his junior year of college, he went home for part of the summer and asked his parents what they thought about him becoming a monk.
“I remember Mom saying, ‘You know what, that makes sense. It’s not too far from home. St. John’s is a wonderful place. We would support you in that.’ So, after my senior year, I left college knowing that monastic life would be an option.”
But he said he didn’t really have it “fully worked out yet.” He spent a year volunteering with Minnesota Math Corps and spent some time in factory work. After that, he applied for the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, volunteering at Sant’Anselmo Abbey in Rome, Italy, working primarily in hospitality and housekeeping.
“It was a wonderful, fantastic experience. Just being in the city, it’s a very, very Catholic place where the religion is so much a part of the culture,” he said. “And also staying in the monastery there. It was more a house of studies for Benedictines than a proper monastery, but they still have characteristics of the monastic life. They pray Liturgy of the Hours every day and the Mass every morning. They eat together as a community.
“And so, in the midst of my volunteer work, I found myself really having plunged unintentionally into this monastic life. And after about eight months of that, I thought there’s something here that I can really see doing the rest of my life.”
Upon that realization, he sent an email to the vocations director at St. John’s Abbey, inquiring about the application process. Two months later, he was on a plane back to Minnesota.
“At the airport, I said, ‘Mom and Dad, thanks for picking me up. Can we go to St. John’s for prayer?’ And we went to pray even before going to supper. I really felt at home being with the monks, looking at the stained glass window that I remembered so well from my undergraduate studies. I knew there’s no place like St. John’s, and I was happy I had found myself back there.”
Four-and-a-half years later, Brother Jacob is still happy to be there, making his solemn profession July 11, exactly three years after his first profession in 2018.
“I certainly think I’ve grown in my vocation and my understanding of my vocation. One of the things that I think really helped me to clarify my monastic vocation was the year of novitiate, the first year into monastic life, where things are much more rigid and strict. It’s a very intense year. There are classes on monastic history and St. John’s history and going through the Rule of Benedict.
“I really found a lot of consolation in the everyday tasks, things that I had to do over and over again, that after a while started to get tiresome,” he said. “And then I realized that’s really a big part of what sustains the vocation here, not doing the same thing over and over to bore myself, but really staying at something until you find God there. And I think that’s a big part of the work that monks do.”
As a junior monk, Brother Jacob began graduate studies at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary and received a master’s degree in liturgical music in the spring of 2021. In addition, he also works in the abbey business office and serves as one of the organists for abbey liturgies.
“Brother Jacob is one of the most even-tempered individuals I have ever met,” said Benedictine Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, communications director for the abbey. “He is constantly thinking about the needs of others whether at the dinner table or on a work assignment. He has an excellent sense of humor — nothing will serve him better for community life than that. The monastic community is thrilled to have Brother Jacob make final vows. To celebrate such a wonderful event after the past year-and-a-half is truly a gift from God.”
Brother Jacob said the formation process has taught him that monastic life is not just about his own calling.
“I’m beginning to understand that formation is really a two-way street,” Brother Jacob said. “It’s not just me being formed; the community is being formed as new people come in. The community gets to know me and I get to know them. Then they get the chance to really give their stamp of approval, to offer that affirmation. And how wonderful that is to know that the community wants me here. They see me as part of their future.”