Catholic Monk Meets Drone on a Sunday Afternoon

Brother Joseph on his wind turbine at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island
Brother Joseph on his wind turbine at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island (photo: Photo by Jez Coulson)

A late-August encounter between a camera-armed drone and a man sunbathing on a towering wind turbine drew millions of viewers to the YouTube video and stirred debate about the privacy issues raised by the cool but intrusive flying gadgets. 

In the video, the drone’s camera pans a portion of Rhode Island’s glorious coastline before it moves in to examine the turbine tower, and then draws near to the peaceful figure gazing at the verdant landscape bordered by the  sea. 

Strikingly, the sunbather seems unbothered by the intrusion and happy to share the experience of a peaceful Sunday afternoon  

What’s the secret to his generous spirit and equanimity? Maybe the fact that he’s a Benedictine by the name of Brother Joseph Byron, who has been formed to balance work and prayer, and schooled to appreciate God’s gift of creation.

A Benedictine brother, he resides with 12 other members of the order at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island – the same high school attended by my two brothers.

Last week, I caught up with Brother Joseph during a telephone interview.

Joseph Byron’s first glimpse of Portsmouth Abbey School was in 1981, when the school hired him to teach drama. 

“I was not a Catholic at that point. I became intrigued and enamored of the life here.”

In short order, he  converted to Catholicism in 1984, and promptly took the first step to join the community in Portsmouth.

Today his duties include servicing the turbine, which was installed a decade ago—the first in Rhode Island -- and provides electricity for the Abbey and school.

The day of his encounter with the drone was a typical Sunday for the Benedictine community. It began at 6:25 a.m. with the first prayer of the Divine Office -- the official prayer of the Church offered at various times of the day in order to sanctify it. Brother Joseph served at the 8 a.m. mass.  

Sundays also offer time for reading and other forms of recreation, and Brother Joseph decided to climb the tower because he loves the panoramic view from the very top..

“It makes your spirit soar.”

Lately, the beauty of the landscape has stirred thoughts about “Pope Francis’ s encyclical, Laudato si' , which calls on us to care and pray for creation. I look out and ask, ‘How can we let ourselves mess this up?”

On the day of  his encounter with with drone,  it was the first time he had seen the gadget and he admits to being “intrigued.”

“The drone moved in and hovered over me. I waved at it, and it tipped back and forth and waved back at me.”

He resumed his reverie until the drone circled back.

“I thought, ‘you can’t even come up here and get some peace.”

He looked down and saw a man stepping out of the trees with a controller. He was waving from a part of the property leased out to a golf course.

Did the encounter disturb the peace of a typical Sunday at the Abbey?

Not really. But Brother Joseph probably wouldn’t want it to become a regular occurrence. After all, everyone needs a break from technology.

Does he think some guidelines are needed to contain the pesky gadgets?

“I tried to put myself in the shoes of the fellow running the drone.  He was out with his wife on vacation and had this drone. It never occurred to him the turbine wasn’t on the same property, so he wasn’t intentionally violating anyone’s privacy.

“He was just having fun and seeing the place from a bird’s eye view -- which was exactly what I was doing.”

Still his encounter also prompted further reflection about our human need to be nourished by direct experiences that are not mediated by technology. 

“It is like going on vacation and looking at everything from the back of  a camera, and not actually seeing it yourself.

“Looking at the beautiful view from the tower and from the camera on the drone is not the same, because in the latter case you don’t have the experience of being up there, surrounded by 360° with that view.”

Brother Joseph’s story led some Catholics to recall the Syrian Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, an early Christian ascetic who reportedly lived for 37 years on the small platform of towering pillar close to Aleppo. Simeon’s deep faith led him to embrace a radical asceticism that drew the faithful seeking his guidance and intercession.

Brother Joseph knew of the saint. “The difference is that I come down from the pillar.”

But the regular climb up the 165-foot ladder to the machine room, where he monitors the proper functioning of the turbine, also features a penitential dimension.  

Does Brother Joseph offer up the discomfort when he makes the climb?

“Absolutely. But it is also a beautiful place to pray. You look out and think about God’s eyes. How many souls am I taking into view? The vastness of it brings joy and gladness and a thankfulness that you live in this place.”