Brother Francis

(creator: Bernard Seif)

Bernard Seif
Brother Francis, SMC, EdD, is "a Catholic monk and clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral medicine". He has a "gentle strength" and, when we first meet him, is "a Thomas Merton looking man in his late forties wearing a light gray tunic and navy blue scapular."

He is the abbot of the small Silesian monastery that he had founded In Pennsylvania. He had previously been "a member of a large international pontifical religious order for about twenty-seven years but always felt called to a more contemplative form of that life." His "desire to become a monk in the Salesian tradition was fulfilled after Vatican Council II made changes in canon law which allowed him to pursue life as a solitary monk within the small community of members that eventually sprang up around him." He is "interested in a holistic approach to the spiritual life", and his community has both men and women in it, as well as some lay members.

He is a fully qualified doctor who "is especially fond of something called medical qigong, which includes slow physical movements, breathing exercises, as well as meditation." He is an expert at administering Therapetic Touch, (a form of holy massage) that gives him "intuitive understandings" of what is wrong with his patients. He explains, "I try to live by the Tao" which is "an undefinable concept and experience." He can be called Doctor, Brother or Abbot, but says, "I like Brother best."

He Is sometimes known as Brother Caedfal or "the mystery monk" because of his "penchant .... for dead bodies and intrigue".

Brother/Doctor Bernard Seif SMC, EdD, IABMCP, as he describes himself on the title page, has been a Christian monk (from the age of 17) with private monastic vows in the Roman Catholic and Salesian traditions. He is also a Clinical Psychologist, Board Certified in Behavioral Medicine and a Doctor of Natural Medicine specializing in Chinese Medicine. He has published numerous professional papers as well as the series of monastic mystery books described below. For some 50 years, he has immersed himself in the lives of the two 16th cenury founders of the Salesian tradition, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, and the books are, in a sense, a homage to them, although he appears to have closely modelled the character of Abbot Francis on himself. He lives in the small hermitage-style monastery that he founded in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Office of the Dead (2009)
Office of the Dead gets off to an intriguing start when the body of ex-nun Beth is discovered tied to a large stone in a swimming pool, with the Biblical text "But If anyone leads astray one of these little ones who believes in me, he would be better off thrown in the depths of the sea with a millstone around his neck" left on her computer. Jewish Detective David Gold does not recognise the text, but it is identified by agnostic forensic psychologist Dr Chantal Fleur who had been Beth's friend.

When Gold feels he needs some help with the Christian background to all of this, Chantal introduces him to her old acqaintance, the monk and clinical psychologist, Abbot Francis. It is these three who work together to solve not only this murder, but that of Father Theophane of a more traditional order who is found killed in a similar way and with the same text left on a computer - but with one significant difference: the word "one" replacing "he". Francis deduces from this that the messages were possibly left by two different people, one coming from a traditional and the other from a liberal background!

Meanwhile, while David Gold and Chantal are growing increasingly fond of each other, Francis is kept busy offering therapy to Beth's disturbed husband, John: "I'm going to massage your feet a little more just to loosen them up and I'd like you to think about negative energy that is going to flow out of your feet. I'll do a little massage of your spine and neck and I'd like you to just think of the word 'flow' .... I'll now more slowly move my hands gently through your energy field with the intention of letting God's energy pass through me and into you." As a result of all this, John tells him, "I feel frightened and confused, Francis, but I also feel encouraged and liberated."

The crimes are eventually solved by something that Chantal accidentally hears on a radio chat show, rather by any inspired detective work, but it is Francis who suspects that John may have seen more than he realises. It's a pity that this leads the trio to suspect the wrong man,

The kindle edition is marred by the frequent appearance of @ instead of ", and not helped by the insertion of unwanted As, as in "AAre there" and "Aoh yes."

The author seems happiest when describing medical conditions (such as borderline personality disorder) or his own religious views. Much of the dialogue, on the other hand, sounds distinctly stilted as when his bishop tells him, "You and I have always had a good rapport. I welcomed you to this diocese in 1987 when you were considering leaving your original order, and then encouraged your major superiors to give you a three-year-leave - what do you people in monastic life call it again?"
"Exclaustration, Bishop."
"That's it - permission to live out of your original cloister for another purpose. After those three years, the Holy See granted you an Induit of Departure from your original monasatery so that you could remain in your newly founded monastery as a Silesian monk and it's been a warm and happy relationship for both of us, Is that not so?"

The strength of the story lies not in the less-than-likely plot but in the characters of the three major participants and particularly that of Abbot Francis - who sounds, of course, very much like the author himself.

Vigils: from the Office of the Dead (2002)
Vigils: from the Office of the Dead describes how the "Mystery Team" of Abbot Francis, fellow psychologist Dr Chantal Fleur and Jewish detective David Gold, get involved in solving the kidnapping of Brother Matthew by two unlikely characters known as Mutt and Jeff, and the subsequent discovery of a girl's body by Sister Scholastica at Abbot Francis's own monastery. This was "the third dead body that someone related to the community had been associated with." Sister Scholastica "really believed that God had given her a vocation to the Salesian Monastic Community, but she did not realise that the 'death and rising' modelled by Christ that is an on-going part of the monastic consecration, would involve so many human bodies." Such occasional flashes of humour are welcome indeed.

The author claims that "Monasticism and medicine find entirely new ways to synthesize and present themselves through the ecumenical and ethnic medium" of this book, and that the book is "based on a seminal ideas drawn from the life of the author." It is indeed true that the author is at his best when describing his own religious and medical views, but what the book lacks is any real plot. The kidnapping arouses interest at the start but this peters out and the denoument is disappointing. The way that the story jumps from one set of (sometimes quite unexplained) characters to another, without even a little bit of spacing to Indicate the sudden change of scene, is unnecessarily confusing.

The glimpses we get of Abbot Francis visiting a Buddhist monastery on Lantau Island ("technically part of Hong Kong") provide the most interesting parts of the story. It is there that he tells us that, "My spirit begins to melt into God. I know and sense the presence of the hermits who saturate the forest surrounding the monastery with their powerful energy. It is if their qi, or life force, and mine have become one. This makes great sense since the Source of all qi, as I view things, is One – God, mediated in Christ." As an old Buddhist grandmaster tells him, "Living in the present moment and doing the duties of our state in life is enlightenment." And Abbott Francis comments, "When one is in the presence of truth, no matter what language or cultural context it is packaged in, it is so very obvious. What joy." Thus he happily combines Buddhist insights with Christian belief. But he knows what he is talking about, as when he explains, "Introverts think to talk and extroverts talk to think."

Qi is "the life force which keeps us in existence and sustains all things. It is primarily a qi that is worked with in Chinese medicine, the context or blueprint in which I practice as a medical qigong doctor. Qi radiates from us and can be perceived and understood and interpreted by another, especially after he or she has had training in meditation, Asian medicine, or prayer." Whenever Abbot Francis is present, he narrates in the first person as here, although the third person is used for the occasions in which is not present. This inconsistency is only one of the various oddities of the text. "God truly is a God of surprises," as the Abbot tells us.

As with so many self published books, this one would have benefited from the help of an outside editor who might have discouraged such irrelevancies as the pages of information about Chinese herbs, or the long description of a family therapist offering detailed advice to a young couple who have little to do with the plot. And the again totally unnecessary, reproduction of a complete treatise on The Impact of Medical Qigong upon Clinical Treatment, written by "Brother//Doctor Francis de Sales O'Neill, SMC, EdD, IABMCP", who even goes as far as to refer to a dissertation published by the author himself! Although all this gets a bit self indulgent, the book still has its interest.

Morning Prayer: from the Office of the Dead (2004)
Morning Prayer: from the Office of the Dead sees six good friends (Brother Francis who had just celebrated the 40 year anniversary of his entrance into monastic life, Krishna, his Buddhist doctor friend, David Gold the Jewish detective, Chantal the "hopeful agnostic" forensic psychologist, Flo a nurse, and Mani who has her own healing energy business) travelling all the way via Nepal and Bangkok to Tibet for no thoroughly convincing reason.

They get drawn into a search for an ancient dorje - a scepter-like object used during Tibetan Buddhist prayer services, but this only plays a minor part in the story, the author being much more interested in telling us, for example, that each of them had to choose "an energy or quality to hold and pray with as we move from this point forward through the journey that we all just agreed to embark upon." So one chooses "the idea of impeccability or purity". Another asks, "May I carried the energy or forgiveness for us and with us?" Yet another is "drawn to simplicity." Brother Francis offers to "carry the energy of enlightenment for us". So that gets everyone off to a good start.

The book is crammed full of information about Asian medicine, monastic life and spirituality, such as how to help a sick person by visualising "the blackness that runs through their body .... Invite that blackness to move out of the body through the nostrils slowly, like smoke or ink .... Allow the olive shaped form of evil and suffering to begin to liquefy, change again, so that like smoke or ink it can move forward and into your nostrils." And Francis, we're told, "saw in this experience much about the heart of Christ and his passion."

The story is described, quite inaccurately, as a "complete monastic murder mystery" (if there was an actual murder, I missed it entirely!) but it reads more like a sort of spiritual travelogue which blithely ignores the actual practical difficulties of getting into Tibet, having surprisingly little to say about the Chinese occupation.

Brother Francis and his friends do a great deal of meditating and praying, and we get long and detailed descriptions of all this, but the author never seems to know when to stop, so, when we visit a Buddhist learning centre for some dharma instruction, we get page after page of detailed explanation, and, later on, he even provides a complete list of all the subjects in which Brother Francis needs to earn extra credits from the Central College of Natural Medicine, including "Anatomy & Physiology Org. Sys. I & II, Human Anatomy Lab I & II, Anatomy Musculoskeletal, Organic Chemistry" …. and so it goes on and on. He even adds a copy of the health tips they took with them on their travels, complete with the note that "additional helpful information about climate acclimatisation and AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) can be found at ...." and he gives a link to an actual website!

We are told all about Brother Francis's methods of meditation, including spending a good ten minutes "Shaking the Tree" when "the physical body becomes loose and receptive to the simple, choreographed movements that make up any of the thousands of forms of qigong that are done in a more systemised fashion." So he became a "Cosmic Being" and "experienced infinity reaching into his spirit beyond horizons, beyond all that is. The monk experienced the emptiness of creation flowing through him, all around him, entering one hand and exiting the other, entering up through one leg and exiting out the next, coming down through the top of his head, and moving out to his tailbone." It is not everyone who will take this quite as seriously as the author does.

The lack of any strong plot, the stilted conversations (such as "We wanted to understand just a little bit about your facility before we leave this country – or this Kingdom actually") and the repetition of information about Buddhist and Chinese Medicine practices that were described in the previous books, as well as a total lack of any real detective work (even though Francis took a Cadfael book with him) make this a disappointing story for anyone who has read the previous ones.

Night Prayer: from the Office of the Dead (2006)
Night Prayer: from the Office of the Dead reminds us how how Brother Francis had spent much of his life studying the work of the early 17th century Salesian monastic founders, Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales. It is during one of his many academic and charitable trips to China, far from his home and life in Pennsylvania, that four-hundred-year-old ancient parchments mysteriously come into his hands. An avid researcher and historian, Francis knows these parchments are special, but on closer inspection, he realizes they are much more than special: they may be the authentic letters, written to each other so long ago
by de Chantal and de Sales. But what was the ancient mystery in which they were involved? And why were there two attempts on his own life?

This is a great improvement on the previous book. At least there are some real mysteries and a much more coherent plot. One of the mysteries (the attempts on Francis's own life) may not be very convincingly motivated (it was just because "I hate all Catholics") and the frequent cutting away to the (sometimes overlong) letters of the past sometimes gets slightly annoying, but the basic story of Bishop Francis de Sales and widow Jane de Chantel (who had both been real people) is an interesting one and obviously of great personal significance to the author.

One can only assume that such incidents as when Jane de Chantel "took a knife, heated the tip of it in the fire, and branded the name 'Jesus' on my chest", much to the bishop's (her spiritual director's) later disapproval, must have been based on fact, even though most of her real letters have been lost. Father Francis comments, "What a difference from the plaster saints we were raised with. This woman and man had hearts of flesh and blood. They became holy through life events, not by withdrawing from the challenges of life. This, too, is my call is a contemporary Salesian monk."

The text is illustrated by the occasional but welcome use of some bold colour photographs even if sometimes they only seem to have a tenuous connection with the plot, as when an attractive photo of a stream in China with turtles sunbathing on a rock is included because it happened to be the place where "a gunshot crackled through the air. Brother Francis crumpled and fell, bleeding profusely, to the mossy ground."

The author still writes in rather ponderous a style but his sincerity shines through. Indeed he seems to identify so closely with Brother Francis that, as before, he relapses into the first person in scenes in which he is present, although occasionally this does lead to some confusion, as when on a single page we are told that "When we were leaving the plane, I shook the gentleman's hand and thanked him for his patience," and then "It made Brother Francis wonder about him." But he is Brother Francis. And obviously so is the author.

The author has his own website and there is a JBA Network one about his work. There is also an interesting 2007 audio interview with him on Shrink Rap Radio, but this predates the books so is just concerned with his religious views.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Office of the Dead cover
The whole series is self-published and available on Kindle. This is the cover of the paperback edition.
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