In my journeys, I have met many interesting people from all walks of life.
This is an interview with one of those persons - one who not only dreamt a dream- but made if come TRUE with nothing short of dedication and determination.
This is His Story……
Hi Michael. Can you tell us a bit about yourself in your own words?
*I am a 64-year-old (65 in May) man who lives in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin (Waterpark Capital of the World) with my husband, Tom, and our cats, Cassidy and Sundance. We live on property that has been in Tom’s family since 1844 when his mother’s ancestors moved here from Germany and obtained a large land grant. We are both retired.
I grew up in Texas and went off to college in Michigan. While there, I became Catholic and, upon graduating, I entered a monastery. I was a friar for over thirty years and a priest for twenty-five. I obtained two Master’s degrees and did doctoral work in theology. I served the community in a number of roles, primarily as a superior and as one of those charged with training new members.
I left the monastery on very good terms with my former community. Tom and I were introduced by mutual friends in the local parish in Chicago and we began to hang out, then to date and eventually became a couple. We have been together for eleven years, and last March we were able to marry.
I have always enjoyed reading and writing. I worked at a bookstore in high school and college, and I served as community librarian in several monasteries. After we moved to the Dells, I worked in the public library. Now I devote myself to my writing. I have published five books, two non-fictions and three fictions. I am currently working on another novel, which will be the third in a series set in an imaginary college for misfits. I like quirky things and the college stories are humorous. At least, that is my hope. I have also written a book-length memoir that I have turned into a novel, with names of people and places changed to protect the guilty as well as the innocent. Friends are reading that manuscript now to see if they think it can stand on its own. Whether it will ever be published is still a big question.
What a life you have led, Michael! What did your parents do for a living? When we think of Texas- we think of cowboys and ranches and cattle- or oil wells.
*My father grew up on a farm, but he spent most of his life as a teacher or selling lumber. He taught high school and junior college, went on to become Director of Vocational Education for the Texas State Department of Corrections and later was principal of a Job Corps Center. The last part of his working life he was a lumber broker – think lumber salesman who sells by the train-car load. My mother worked for the Department of Corrections as a bookkeeper until she retired. After that she worked as a volunteer in various service organizations. My father died three years ago. My mother lives alone and is pretty active for an 86-year-old.
Off to college in Michigan. What was your major? And what made you decide to go into the monastery for your lifework? How old were you when you went in the monastery?
*When I went to college, I was originally Spanish major. After my freshman year, I switched to religious studies. Although I had been raised in a fundamentalist Protestant church, I had become atheist/agnostic in high school because the teachings of that church conflicted with my own experience in the real world. When I was at Michigan State, I came into contact with Catholicism for the first time and eventually joined that church. I was very attracted to the idea of a life totally dedicated to the pursuit of union with God within community. I have always had grandiose ideas! I graduated from MSU in 1972 and entered the monastery later that year. I was 22 at the time.
Was there a life event that took place that led to your leaving the church community, or was it a slow dawning of realization? Was it a difficult decision? And how old were you when you left?
* I enjoyed my life in the monastery and found it to be a good fit. When I was in my early 50s, however, things in the American church began to go sour for me. The biggest issue was the terrible handling of the pedophilia scandal. I knew both victims and perpetrators, and I had seen how this tragedy destroyed the lives of individuals and families. Yet I also saw bishops who were concerned with covering up all they could, seeking ways to blame the victims and to avoid paying out any damages, and then willingly tossing members of their clergy under the media and political bus in order to keep themselves and the institution safe. This was unacceptable to me and I finally decided I could not be a part of a church that acted in such a way.
This was exacerbated by the sharp turn to the political right by the American bishops. They were so determined to put an end to abortion, they sold their spiritual authority to the Republican Party’s most reactionary wing to gain support for the anti-abortion issue. All other things, including justice and charity, so it seemed to me, went by the board. They claimed they were not acting politically, but many of them issued threatening letters at the time of elections, pressuring people to vote on one issue alone. The local bishop in our area has abandoned all pretenses of neutrality and also the traditional Catholic support for the working class. The American bishops, who had been one of the most important and powerful voices for social, economic and racial justice, had become a mouthpiece for a political agenda that is divisive, unjust and shameful. Sorry, but that is the way I see it. (I am wrong about many things.)
I was called by more than one person who felt persecuted within the church they had grown up in and had served for decades because they did not agree with the bishop and/or pastor on this. I remember one woman in her eighties who was in tears because her pastor had told her she was a bad Catholic because she had voted for Obama.
Eventually, the cardinal in Chicago issued a letter outlining five things that were to be treated as must-believe-exactly-as-I-say: abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, birth control (in this day and age!) and gay rights, especially gay marriage. He did not want to permit anyone to serve in any church capacity – not even as a member of a choir or reader at Mass or anything – if they did not toe the line on these issues. He did not ask if they believed in Jesus Christ, accepted the Sermon on the Mount as a guide for life or anything of that nature. Catholicism, that rich, vibrant cultural and spiritual tradition, had been reduced to five political issues.
My problem was not with my monastic community, which would cheerfully have ignored all this – as did most parishes and Catholics. But I thought that I could not as a priest stand up and be silent, pretending everything was fine, because that would imply I agreed with the bishops. So after months of prayer and consultation with many advisers and members of the community, I left the monastery and started a new phase of my life. I was 54 at the time.
It took a little longer for me to realize I had left the church, too. Today my spiritual practice tends more towards Buddhist meditation, but I would not call myself a Buddhist. John of the Cross says that nothing we can say or think about God IS God. God transcends all human thought and imagining. That is the God in whom I trust.
Most parents, mamas especially, are very “invested” in their children’s careers- especially in the religious vein. (Think about John Travolta’s mama in Saturday Night Fever, for instance). How did your parents take the news that you were leaving the church and changing careers?
* My parents were not Catholic and so their reaction to me leaving the monastery – although they liked the community very much – was neutral. They had always taken the position that they had raised me and my brother and it was up to us to live our lives as adults. They were a bit concerned about my financial security – the monastery provided no pension, despite 30 years of service, and since I had a vow of poverty, I had no savings – but when they saw that I was okay on that score, they relaxed. Thirty years with a vow of poverty made it easy for me to manage with a very small salary.
Do you have any regrets about leaving the religious vocation? Is there anything you miss about your life in the clergy?
* I was surprised at how little I regretted leaving the monastery. I missed people, of course, and am still in touch with close friends from those days. I miss the opportunity to be involved with people in counseling, spiritual direction and that sort of thing. I miss the rituals, the cycle of feasts, the stories, the fun bits and the security. But today I have my own rituals, my own feasts and stories and fun bits … and Tom and the cats!
Moving on to your life in the here and now… How did you and Tom manage to meet in Chicago and end up living in Wisconsin Dells? Was it because Tom already owned land there or was it truly where you both wanted to live?
* Tom was very active in the parish in which I lived in the monastery and also after I moved into my own apartment. He ran the program for adults who were taking instructions for entering the church. We were introduced by mutual friends, and we ran around with the same group of people for many months before we began to date. Tom retired not long after we became a couple, and although he did not like living in Chicago, he planned to stay there because that was where I worked at a job I enjoyed. And I liked Chicago. We had discussed moving to New Mexico – his sons were both in college in Santa Fe at the time – the job market was not good and living there was expensive. I would have been happy to stay in Hyde Park/Chicago, but I realized that what Tom had always wanted was to build a house on the property outside the Dells that had belonged to his family and retire there. So I suggested he consider that again and within a year, we had moved up here. It was truly where he wanted to live and it has been a good move for him. I have found it more difficult, finding work was very hard and I miss lots of the things Chicago had to offer. But we live in a beautiful spot and life is good.
I’ve heard “The Dells” is/are beautiful year round. Water-Park Capital of the World!! Have you and Tom ever actually gone and indulged in some of the fun? I find most people I have interviewed never seem to enjoy what is in their own back-yards, preferring to travel far and wide to seek rest and respite.
* We were just talking last night about how people think it must be fun to live in the Dells because there are so many things to do. Those things, though, are for tourists. We are in our 60s. We had both been to the Dells and done the waterparks and so on before we moved here. Once here, we got involved with the little railroad, of course, which is one of the local attractions. And we always take guests out on the river to enjoy the dells themselves, the wonderful rock formations that gave the area its name. On the other hand, the Dells are so full of tourists during the season that locals avoid it if they can. So we go elsewhere to enjoy time away.
So you’re an author of five books? You must give us the titles so we can all read your work. I admit I have read two of the books myself. What, may I ask, inspired the Whoville series? It seems a bit of an odd, (or quirky, if you will), subject for a theologian to write about. That being said-I loved the one I have read in that series and plan on buying the others whenever I can find a spare few minutes to sit down and order.
* As you say, I have published five books. (I have published many articles that have appeared in the States and overseas, as well) The books are all available through Amazon.com in print or in Kindle format. Titles:
The Dark Night Murders: A Fray John of the Cross Mystery (based on an event in the life of the saint, whose life and writings I studied, taught and wrote about for years)
Elijah and the Ravens of Carith (a book of spiritual reflections based loosely on some Carmelite traditions and my own thoughts)
Jerome Gratian: Treatise on Melancholy (translation of a sixteenth century work of spirituality by a companion of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, with a brief biography and commentary. Actually a very funny book about community life, despite the title.)
Wicca in WhoVille and Wickedness in WhoVille (quirky stories set in a college for misfits in the Chicago area)
The first three books were inspired by my life in the monastery. WhoVille is inspired by my life in Hyde Park and my own weird self. I thought the idea of a college specifically designed for misfits would be fun and making the main character a gay man who studied oddities made it easy to draw on my own life experience. Theologians study all sorts of odd things …
By the way, I am not the only Michael Dodd who writes books. If you search on Amazon under my name, not everything that pops up is by me. But I imagine they are fine reading.
What else do you do in your “spare” time? I see you have two cats so I can imagine you spend a lot of time waiting paw and attitude on them. I’m a cat person, too so I totally understand the concept of Cat Ownership. The Cat is the owner or Supreme Ruler and He/They just generously ALLOW us to serve and live with them. They do make up for it when they are in a loving playful mood though. All is forgiven. But I digress…What do you do for a bit of rest and relaxation?
* I am not sure it is rest and relaxation, but I tutor English as a second language and volunteer time each week at the library where I used to work. I maintain my blogs, which I enjoy very much and consider the main outlet for my writing compulsion.
Tom and I like to visit museums, art shows and studios, used book sales and things of that sort. I miss the rich options Chicago provided, even within walking distance of our apartment. But Wisconsin is filled with places of historical interest, and our Christmas gift to ourselves was a membership in the State Historical Society, which includes free admission to a dozen or so sites that we plan to visit this year.
I must admit- I have a bit of hero worship going on with you. You have inspired me to write my memoirs- something I have thought seriously about doing off and on for about twenty years, but then thought I haven’t quite lived enough of my life to do. Any news on when your memoirs might be ready for print?
* At the moment, the memoirs project is on hold. Because they are very frank, I do not think they can be published as they are without violating the privacy of other people that I care about, and I will not do that to them. I tried turning them into a novel, but that doesn’t seem to have worked out very well. At the same time, the readers encouraged me to publish them in some form, so I have not given up on it completely. I may do like Mark Twain – leave the manuscript with instructions that it can be published 100 years after my death when everyone who might be embarrassed or hurt by what I say will be beyond the reach of my foolishness.
What is the one question I didn’t ask that you thought I would? And what is the answer to it?
*Question 1: “Why hasn’t some national publication hired you to write a regular column already?”
Answer: I know, right?
Question 2: “Are you as good-looking, funny, brilliant and humble as you seem in your blog?”
Answer: No. I am much better looking, funnier, more brilliant and incredibly proud of my humility in real life. ‘-)
Indeed- I seem to have completely mind blank on the most important questions of the entire interview! Luckily- you caught my mistake in time to make the perfect ending, as I knew you would.
Michael, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to interview you for my blog. I’ve read your blog for years and have enjoyed every single post you have put up. I’ve gotten to know you as a kind, sweet, gentle man who truly must be an inspiration to everyone who knows him. Someday, I’d like to meet you, (and Tom and Cassidy and Sundance), in person. But if it never happens, know you have had a great impact on my life in the very best of ways. You’ve inspired me to always do my best- and to not just talk about things I want to do- but to go out, set things in motion, and JUST DO them!
I offer my best wishes for the future and for happiness always for you and yours.