What does a young Methodist majoring in astrophysics at the Georgia Institute of Technology do for a profession? He could become a Catholic priest, move to a Cistercian abbey and sell inkjet cartridges at a discount. Too far-fetched even to consider? Don’t tell that to Father Bernard McCoy.
In 1984, when Father McCoy was known as Joseph McCoy, he was not content with the anonymous, mechanical workings of a large, public university. He decided to transfer to the much smaller Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. It was there that he became Catholic and discerned a call to the priesthood. He then moved to the Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in Sparta, Wis., where he received the religious name Bernard.
While attempting to prepare a report on work opportunities for the monks, Father Bernard saw an opportunity to sell cheaper inkjet cartridges for laser printers. Sales were slow the first year, but picked up rapidly. The story of monks who still chant traditional prayers in Latin yet also make use of modern technology was too interesting for some in the media to pass up.
Father McCoy recently spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about his life journey, his monastery and his successful business.
How did a Methodist majoring in astrophysics at Georgia Tech end up a Catholic priest?
After quitting high school at 16 and beginning studies at Georgia Tech, I quickly became disillusioned with the “big college” atmosphere and with what seemed, to me, a primarily technical education aimed at developing some skill that I could make money from.
After some soul-searching and with a certain amount of trepidation, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to apply myself to truly important things and to dedicate my life to doing good for others; I made a commitment to use whatever gifts I had been given to help others.
In my subsequent efforts to find an educational institution that would be compatible with my search for truth, the Holy Spirit led me along a fast-track route to Thomas Aquinas College in California, a Great Books school whose stated aim is to educate the whole person and give him the tools for a lifetime of learning. I went there as a non-Catholic, but soon discovered the beauty of the Catholic faith.
Arriving on campus as a budding scientist, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the faith was totally compatible with science; God was the Creator; his creation follows certain rules, some of which we have discovered; none of it can be truly contradictory. It’s all a wonderful thing to be admired and pondered.
I converted during my freshman year and, within a month, found myself praying quietly in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. It suddenly dawned on me that whatever was happening at that altar was what reality was all about, and I was supposed to be a part of it.
With the aid of a good spiritual director, I began investigating various religious orders, and finally felt called to our monastery in Wisconsin. I think I was attracted to the combination of the beauty of the Gregorian chant, a life dedicated to following the monastic tradition of the pursuit of growing perfect in love, knowledge and all things human. This, along with a bit of a pioneer character of a small community seeking to be modern monks who are rooted in that ancient tradition [is what attracted me]. I have now been a monk here for almost 21 years and serve as superior as well as president/CEO of our primary support corporation, LaserMonks.com.
Did you choose the name Bernard after the great Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux?
I was named after St. Bernard of Clairvaux by my superiors when I became a novice. Not having grown up Catholic, I was relatively ignorant of the saints. I told my superiors to call me whatever they wanted. Be careful when you do something like that. We often discover that we “grow into” our given names. Much to my surprise, I’m finding that St. Bernard is an appropriate patron. My work, nationally and internationally in monastic, ecclesiastical and entrepreneurial areas, has echoes of this great doctor of the Church. I count on his prayers and intercession as I continue to try and live up to that early commitment to use whatever gifts I have for the good of others.
What are some of the things you appreciate most about St. Bernard and other Cistercian saints?
Cistercians are marked by a remarkable balance that blends a down-to-earth incarnational perspective on the human condition with a passionate mystical élan that radiates a deep longing for God, for the God who is searching for us, who loves us here and now. It’s a magnetic mysticism while working on the tractor or updating the website.
How did you start selling ink cartridges and ink toner?
I was printing some reports for the monks for a meeting on possible work and income projects for the monastery. Then my printer ran out of toner. Poking around to find a replacement, I remarked, “This is just way too expensive for a bunch of black dust or a few squirts of ink. There must be a better way.” I searched for those better ways and found them — found many ways to save money on these cartridges.
And then I thought, If I can save this much for my little monastery, what if I could do the same for other church organizations or nonprofits? And LaserMonks.com was born.
We began by focusing on serving the nonprofit world, but quickly expanded to include businesses and individuals. Today we are a leading national discount supplier of toner and inkjet cartridges for hospitals, universities and schools, churches, government agencies, businesses of all sizes and individuals. Our profits are used to support the monastery and charitable works throughout the world.
So what started out as a way to save my monastery a few dollars turned into a way to save everyone a lot of money and support good works in the process. This is win-win at its best.
We now also have our Benevolent Bakery department, which markets specialty cakes for Christmas and Easter (made by the monks) and Benevolent Biscuits — doggy treats for your favorite pets. Since our humble beginnings in 2002 we have been named by Fortune magazine as one of their “Most Admired Companies” in America and by another business magazine as one of the top 50 companies in the United States in ingenuity, passion and dedication. We like to say that we encourage “Commerce With Compassion” and “Purchasing With a Purpose.”
How do you balance prayer and work — the two pillars of Cistercian Rule — when there are more demands on the time of modern workers these days?
Ora et labora (prayer and work) aren’t separated in the life of a monk. Much like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we are called on to tend our garden and produce fruits that put food on our table and on the tables of many others. This work is an integral part of our day and contributes to the need for meaningful human endeavor, the exercise of creativity, and as a way to connect us to the whole mystical body of Christ.
What is perhaps distinctive in the life of a monastery is that we have a structure that carefully balances work, prayer, recreation, study and rest. We know when not to work; we are trained in knowing when to turn off the computer; we have time set aside daily for prayer and those activities that are nourishing for the mind and soul — because it’s good for us.
We also don’t feel the need to have the newest, best, finest of whatever it is. It’s tough in today’s world to use time well. Time is the precious commodity of today. As monks with vows, time is not “ours” to spend; it’s God’s and the monastery’s. We are called on to be good stewards of this, which means we have to use time wisely to do those things that will benefit us and others. Whose image is on that denarius? Give him his due. But more importantly, Who leapt down from eternity into time to be with us? Time has been marked and sanctified by Jesus Christ; he is with us along this pilgrimage toward eternity; use now wisely.
Do you think that businessmen would do well to be more “monastic” in the sense of praying more, going on yearly retreats, etc.?
Absolutely. The time and effort given to nourishing the soul, to opening minds and hearts to wisdom and love will come back to your businesses a thousandfold. The better person you are, the better your business will be. The time given to prayer or any spiritual endeavor is never wasted. It’s the best investment you could ever make. The return on investment with prayer is incalculable.
What do you appreciate most about monastic life?
The job definition of a monk is simple, as stated in the Rule of St. Benedict: Seek God. This is what I do; what all monks do. That we have the freedom to pursue seeking God is an incredible thing. That we have lives that are centered and structured around encouraging this seeking of God is a blessing and privilege.
The tools at our disposal are a treasure: a community of like-minded men dedicated to helping one another in this quest, beautiful liturgy and time for private prayer, meaningful work that helps us and so many others, a beautiful and peaceful place to live out this pursuit, the opportunity for continued study and the pursuit of wisdom. Tying all this together is the monastic tradition of being formed over long years of perseverance into men whose aim is not only to seek God, but to allow ourselves to be sought by him — learning how to love and be loved in this schola caritatis, as our Cistercian fathers called the monastery.
At your monastery the Mass is offered ad orientem and in Latin, which many Catholics might think of as “pre-Vatican II.”
Our aim is to celebrate our liturgies with a sober contemplative beauty that invites the whole person to participate in the celebration. We follow our 900-year-old Cistercian tradition by using Gregorian chant and the universal Church language of Latin in our liturgies. This makes our celebrations special and separate from our day-to-day language and conversation; this makes it “sacred.” It also preserves our ancient liturgy from the vagaries of our changing times and culture, allowing us to unambiguously express the praise, petition and action of the Church.
Our very motions in the ad orientem liturgy make sense to mind and heart. This term, ad orientem, which in Latin means literally “toward the East,” refers to the direction that the priest faces when he addresses God and offers the sacrifice at the altar for the people. At the moments when the priest represents God to the people, he turns toward the people. When he represents the people before God, he turns as their spokesman toward God. From ancient times, the sun rising in the east was a symbol for Christ and his return and was the direction of focus when addressing God. Whenever possible, churches are built facing east, as is our monastery and chapel.
At the abbey, we celebrate our Eucharistic liturgy ad orientem according to the Cistercian rite of the Novus Ordo, which is the ordinary form of the Roman-rite Mass with Cistercian rubrics. The Second Vatican Council encouraged full participation of the people of God in the sacred liturgies and desired an educated and well-catechized people to participate fully — body, mind and spirit — in the sacred actions and words that expressed the human desire toward our divine Creator, and in our Savior’s divine call to us to seek him.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.