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The long-distance digital monk; After a successful career in finance, Orchard Park man answers his calling in cyberspace

Some people, as they ease into retirement, read crime novels. Some take art classes. Some travel or learn to cook.

Then there's Tom Lunt.

When Lunt began to think about retiring from his job as a financial consultant with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney a few years ago, he thought about those options. But his heart had other plans.

Lunt, a lifelong Episcopalian, had always been interested in faith. As he edged into his senior years, he knew he wanted something deeper.

Then one day, poking around on the Internet, he stumbled upon it: A religious vocation.

Today, Lunt, 74, is a fully vowed Benedictine monk. He goes by a second name: Brother Timothy-Titus.

But there's a twist.

Lunt is a member of an Episcopalian community based in Houston. He lives here, with his wife, in his suburban home. He keeps in touch with his abbey by e-mail, does his devotions on his cell phone when need be -- and flies to Texas a few times a year.

You could say Lunt is a uniquely 21st century religious -- likely the area's first digital monk.

But you could also, say some experts, see him as something else. Lunt might be a sign, they say, of a new future where religious vocations in modern-day America are concerned.

>Knowing 'the system'

Lunt grew up in Kenmore and Amherst. His family moved to Williamsville, where he attended classes in a village schoolhouse and then Williamsville High School. Early in life, he found he was fascinated with economics and business -- the practical realities of the everyday world.

"I felt I needed to know how the system worked," said Lunt, sitting in the kitchen of his Orchard Park home. "It doesn't always work that way -- but I wanted to at least know."

Lunt graduated from Hobart College in 1960 with a degree in economics, then did a four-year stint in the Air Force. Afterward, he worked at his father's brokerage firm, S.D. Lunt in Buffalo. It was the start of a upwardly mobile career that would last until January 2008, when Lunt retired as a financial consultant from the local office of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

Though his career was a worldly one, Lunt was also a family man. He had met a young woman who was one year behind him in high school; they married in 1959. Lunt and his wife, Audrey, had four children -- and endured their share of parenthood's challenging moments.

One in particular changed the way Lunt saw the world.

In 1960, when his first child, Rhonda, was born, she was found to have a complete blockage of blood to the heart and lungs. The baby was rushed to Children's Hospital, where surgeons worked on her, but nothing seemed to go right. Over three days, Rhonda grew weaker; finally, Lunt got a phone call at work telling him to rush to the hospital because his child was dying.

When he arrived, Rhonda's cardiologist told Lunt that his daughter had died, and remained that way for more than four minutes. The doctor had said a prayer: "God, this one's yours." And, as he told Lunt, the monitors had suddenly started up again.

"They told us they didn't know how much brain damage there was going to be," said Lunt, whose voice cracks at the memory, even after decades. "Well, now Rhonda's a micro- and viral biologist -- and she's 50 years old."

"Some miracles are very obvious," Lunt said. "Some are very quiet. But believe me, miracles happen every day."

>A familiar presence

Lunt is a familiar presence in Orchard Park, where he lives, as well as in the halls of local hospitals and the Buffalo Family Justice Center, where he ministers to victims of domestic violence.

As he walks around hospitals and crisis centers, Lunt is instantly recognizable. If you don't catch the twinkle in his eye or warmth in his smile, his garb will give him away: a floor-length black habit, complete with black hood, cinched by a red leather belt.

"That reminds me," said Lunt, gesturing at the belt, "that I'm bound -- bound by my vows."

Audrey Lunt, who owns and runs A. Lunt, an Orchard Park company that manufactures infant products, said she wasn't surprised when her husband told her he felt a religious calling.

"Ever since we first met, he's been involved with church life," she said. "As a family, we always attended. He is very devout. He takes it very seriously."

As part of Lunt's acceptance, his wife had to write a letter of support to the abbot in Texas, indicating that she approved of his vocation. Audrey Lunt said she didn't hesitate.

"I feel respect for him," she said. "We have to believe there is a big picture here -- a big plan, and we are all part of it somehow."

The House of Initia Nova was founded by Abbot Michael-John Austin, who had previously founded a community called the Companions of St. Luke. Both groups are Episcopalian, both Benedictine. The House of Initia Nova permits men and women to enter; it does not require members to live in its Texas abbey. Vows taken by members include obedience, conversion of life and stability.

The community currently numbers six vowed members and four "contemporaries," affiliated members who are not fully vowed.

"I believe that the Holy Spirit is more dynamic than we can ever imagine," said Austin, the abbot. "And that this new approach to vowed Benedictine religious life is going to make more accessible a new spiritual path."

Lunt rises at the same time each day, says Matins at 7:30 a.m., and then follows a daily schedule that is studded with breaks for prayer -- at least four times each day, sometimes more -- and religious study. (His cell phone has a Breviary app, so he can pray on the go.)

Some days of the week, Lunt heads downtown to the Family Justice Center, where he comforts and prays with victims of violence. Other days he pays sick calls, or does volunteer work at his church, St. Mark's in Orchard Park. A few times a year, he flies to Houston to meet with fellow community members, for prayer and socialization.

While he's out in public, Lunt has gotten used to people coming up to him to tug on his robe. Some seek him out in the supermarket or on planes. He takes the time to talk.

"People want to know who you are, and tell you about their lives," Lunt said. "God did not send them to me so I could refuse to do something about them.

"My job is to take time out -- and listen."

>Many orders in decline

There are thousands of vowed religious men and women living in the United States.

In the Catholic Church alone, there are currently 57,544 women who are religious sisters and 4,690 men who are religious brothers, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.

In the Episcopal Church, there are probably 350 to 400 professed men and women living in religious orders that are recognized by the church structure in America, officials with the Episcopal Church in the United States estimated.

Yet many orders in the country were founded decades ago. Some of these older religious orders have been in decline over the past few decades, their numbers dwindling.

"The orders that have kind of lost their focus of mission have kind of begun to deteriorate," said Bishop Russell E. Jacobus of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, Wis., who chairs a committee on religious communities for the Episcopal Church in the United States.

At the same time, some new and reorganized communities are springing up to accept new members who want to follow vocations.

Communities like the one Lunt belongs to can be especially attractive to those seeking a contemporary religious life.

In Buffalo, people living as vowed religious in their own homes are "not common, but there are within our denomination people who are out there in Western New York doing this," said Laurie Wozniak, communication officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.

Bishop Jacobus said such vowed life might be a new trend in religious commitment.

"A new person who has been called is probably going to look at a new community with a mission, or perhaps one of these new communities where they can live in the world and still follow a rule," said Jacobus.

cvogel@buffnews.com

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