Living As A Monk With ALS

(Editor’s Note: In the fall of 2022 Father Nathan Munsch, O.S.B., gave a talk to a group of men inquiring about the monastic life. It was part of Saint Vincent Archabbey’s “Come and See” Vocations Retreat. His struggle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) has gone through phases, from wondering “Why me?” to gratitude for the way in which the disease has allowed him to draw closer to God, and even to appreciate life, to say that he is “extremely grateful that God gifted me with this phenomenal body.” The article below summarizes some of his thoughts, and links the philosophy of the Benedictine tradition to how he has come to grow into his challenges. To watch his full story, with introduction by Brother Francisco Whittaker, filmed by Brother Bosco Hough, and produced by Seth Harbaugh, view the video above.)

By Kim Metzgar

In May of 2019 Father Nathan Munsch, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey and professor at Saint Vincent College, taught the hardest class he had ever taught in his life. It was the class following his diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named for the New York Yankees’ baseball great who died of it at age 37.

“I didn’t really know what ALS was, so [after class] I bought a book online on the facts of the disease,” he said. The book was Motor Neuron Disease (The Facts) by Kevin Talbot, the head of the ALS clinic at Oxford University.

“I read the first 70 pages and by about 9:30 that night I knew I had ALS,” Father Nathan said. “I had all the symptoms. I actually had it about two years prior to diagnosis. At the time I was 67, just about to turn 68. Everybody in my family had been rather long-lived. My parents lived into their 90s. I liked being a monk. I liked being a priest. I liked being a teacher. I had this future imagined for me of at least being active for another ten years. That whole future dissolved into nothing.”

For a brief moment, he thought it might be better to not be alive. He got up the next morning and went to morning prayer where Psalm 88, “the only one in the psalter in which there is no expression of hope,” was prayed. “I thought maybe God is telling me something,” Father Nathan said. “It’s a complaint expressed to God, saying, ‘God, why are you doing this?’”

He took his thoughts to prayer, he said, and “pretty quickly got the thing turned around. One of the things that stuck in my mind was a college friend of mine who called me when she heard through the grapevine that I had ALS. She said, ‘Nathan Munsch, you need to remember one thing. This illness of yours will be a blessing for many people.’ And I thought, ‘You’re out of your mind. It’s going to be a royal pain.’ But she was right.”

Father Nathan has lived a life of prayer and hope, even as the disease slowly takes away his abilities. In nice weather, he is still able to drive around campus on his motorized wheelchair. He breathes with a device that pushes air into his lungs. His motor neurons are continuing their disintegration and he recognizes that soon, he will begin to lose the ability to use his cell phone, his primary means of communicating with family members and friends outside of the monastery.

From being a pilgrim who went to Europe with a backpack and spent eight months visiting monasteries and holy places, even spending a night locked in the Holy Sepluchre in the Holy Land, praying about 20 feet from the rock where Jesus was crucified, to pursuing good as a monk, priest and professor, Father Nathan has become closer to God.

“I always tended to imagine myself as one of the strong, really together guys taking care of all the weak brothers around me,” he said. “In some ways that was very well-intentioned. … But the final step is coming to terms with the fact that we are all weak. We all need to take care of each other. All of us are in some ways weak and in some ways strong.”

Having ALS has helped Father Nathan realize that “God is with us in our suffering. That’s been the key one for me. More and more when I pray these days, I simply like to look at a crucifix and think that life is a gift that is absolutely astounding.”

He said everything in life is a choice. During his pursuit of a vocation, he said “there was a personal struggle to deal with my own shortcomings and weaknesses, with my drive to become closer to God, which was almost a compulsion.”

A central issue in dealing with that drive is “dealing with the question of weakness, illness, suffering, anger and bitterness. Almost anything in life, we have a choice between reacting with bitterness, disappointment and anger, or with gratitude, acceptance and love. This is not simply something you can control by pressing a button. On one level anger is simply an emotional reaction that occurs to us. We don’t control it. Anger can take possession of us in a way that is kind of poisoning our lives, but to ratchet that back and say ‘I will not let that happen’ is a struggle. We all have the experience of love, beauty and wonder in our lives, and we can all push it aside and say ‘I’m too busy. It’s wonderful but I’ve got other things to do.’”

The central part of that struggle, he said, is transforming some of the negative reactions into ones of love and gratitude, which are what Christ manifested in his life.

Father Nathan contrasts the challenging life humans face on earth with the possibility of living in a perfect world, in a world, he says, where “everything is perfect. There are never any recessions. There is no decay. Maybe the leaves are always in fall color.”

We live, he said, “in a dramatic world, an exciting world. … But most of us like living in this world.”