“I had just settled in Helsinki when Agneta called to tell me she was pregnant. At first panic set in but after an hour or so I felt a strange calm, a deep sense of peace,” says Axel Carlberg. Receiving the news that you are going to become a parent is a memorable event for anyone, but for Axel Carlberg it was more than so, it was a turning point, because he was a Dominican brother, a friar in a pristine, white habit.

His office, small though it is, is located on a picturesque cobble-stoned street in the academic town of Lund, facing the Kulturen museum. It is light with high ceilings, and Axel Carlberg makes coffee on a small coffee maker in the corner. He is a tall man with a kind, patient face and he wears a plaid blue shirt, a tan corduroy blazer and jeans – the universal getup for a man in Lund his age: Hip and wise in one sweep. Hip because that’s what you are if you live in eternally young Lund, and wise, well, that’s what you are if you hold a Ph.D. in Ethics and have a background as a friar and Catholic priest.
“My father was Swedish, but he moved to Mexico where he met my mother,” says Axel. “I was born in Mexico City, but when I grew up we spent our summers in Sweden, we had a house in the archipelago of Stockholm. So I always thought of Sweden as a place with beautiful summers, you can imagine what it was like when I came to live here!”
Eventually the family relocated to Canada, where Axel spent his teenage years. Throughout his childhood he felt attracted to his Mexican mother’s warm, sincere Catholicism.
“My father was very Swedish, you known, questioning authority and so on. When the rest of the family went to church, he stayed at home and washed the car. But from him I learnt that you have to stand for what you believe in.”


An early longing
Early on Axel felt a strong longing for God, a longing, he says, “for inner and outer quests”. He wanted to belong to a worldwide organization that worked to change the world for the better. At age 23 he entered the Dominican Order in Lund. It was important for him that he’d be based in Sweden. At 28 he was ordained priest. He was the first priest to be ordained in Lund since the Reformation.
“I had looked forward to the ordination very much, it is a very important event, you lie there prostrate and the bishop and attending priests lay their hands on you. It’s beautiful.”
But soon after this celebratory event, Axel fell into a depression without really understanding why. And even though he loved his life as a Dominican brother, a friar, he did question if he had made the right choice.
“I was in the order for 23 years, and those years, and I tell you this in earnest, were very good years, better than I could’ve ever hoped for, but I did question myself and I had nobody to talk to.”
Axel experienced great beauty as a priest. He mentions a trip to a shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was sent to study the AIDS situation.
“They had built a chapel, a little shed of sheet-metal, and I was the first priest to celebrate Holy Mass there. Just to be there and pray was amazing. There was a rumor that somebody was going to kidnap me, I didn’t know about it, but these girls formed a ring around me, a protective circle. They saved my life.”
Yet, in spite of all the beauty and love and marvelous experiences, Axel felt alone. He had always loved children, and Saturdays at the priory, he says, were difficult for him.
“That’s when I saw all these families around me all the time. Sundays were much easier.”
He had nobody to talk to about his feelings. Looking back he says he would have liked to have someone from outside the church to talk to, someone to ask him: “How are you really doing?” “What do you really want?” But there was no one.
“You carry questions and doubts like these quietly as a monk,” he says. “Because there’s a shame in not being able to live up to the holy vows.”
Axel considered himself married to Jesus; he was supposed to be happy.
“The more I questioned my life, the more I worked,” he explains. “That was the paradox.”
He busied himself with the chores of the convent: He was in charge of the library, which he digitalized, and at times he was also in charge of the finances, add to that the work of a priest: Mass, sermons, confessions, and counseling. On top of it he taught ethics at Lund University and in France.
And it was at Lund University in 1992, while teaching, that he met Agneta. She was his student.
“She was very interested, very curious,” Axel remembers. “And when I went to Washington, DC, she wrote me letters. We became friends, a friendship that developed into love.”

A relationship both "sweet and sour"
He describes the relationship as “sweet and sour”. The sweet sentiments of love were tinged with feelings of guilt. They saw each other off and on.
“This went on for ten years,” Axel says. “Ten very difficult years, because I wanted very much to continue… I was married to God. At the same time it was wonderful for me to be accepted as a man. It was beautiful and difficult.”
Axel looks away.
“And Agneta told me she’d wait for me. There was a lot of pain, happiness, hopelessness and a sense of responsibility. I felt responsibility for Agneta. When we met there was a lot of happiness, and when we couldn’t meet there was pain.”
Axel felt it was important to do things properly. He let his confessional father know about his feelings for Agneta early on.
“I proposed solutions,” he continues. “I proposed to leave Lund, and eventually the Dominican priory in Helsinki stood empty, so I suggested I move in there.”
He moved to Helsinki in 2004. He liked life in the Finnish capital, and was well received there. Then he had to return to Lund in 2005 for a lecture, and he met Agneta again.
“Six weeks later she called me to tell me she was pregnant.”
Once he had digested the news, and the deep peace set in, he realized this was the end of all the suffering of the past ten years.
“The last thing I did as a Dominican brother was to explain everything in an e-mail, which I sent to everybody I knew. I packed my bags, I hit ‘send’, and I left.”
He was free. He was also a 46-year old man with no regular work experience and a father-to-be. He jokes: “Not too many employers ask for a monk with experience in celibacy!”
He traded the Dominican priory for Agneta’s one bedroom apartment in Lund and sat down to try to figure out how he would support himself and his family.
“I saw an ad in the paper about coaching, which means helping people develop. And I felt that I could do that, that it would be perfect for me. I had the right competence from all my years as a brother to do just that.”

Appropriately specializing in life transitions
And so Axel founded Upspring, a coaching and consulting business located on Stora Algatan in Lund.
“My coaching specialty has become life transitions. Perhaps it’s a change in jobs; perhaps changes in personal lifestyle or family situation. I want to help my clients live sustainable lives.”
His office is located not far from where the Dominican convent is, and not far from St. Thomas Catholic Church. Axel’s former brothers often walk past his window, in their white cloaks.
“What do you feel then?”
“Although I miss them I feel good. Of course when there’s a divorce like that there’s always sadness, and pain and even anger. But I still talk to them and some of them are my friends. I’m still a Catholic, I still pray, and I still love to go to church. In fact, I would love to go on a daily basis, but with two small children that’s just not doable.”
His and Agneta’s two children, Nils (five and a half years old) and Astrid (three and a half years old), occupy a lot of his time.
“There’s a lot of picking up and dropping off. I have to check my watch right now, because I soon have to take Nils to gymnastics. I discover many new things in life through my children; there’s Skogsmulle and children’s movies, and I have to cook. I would love to pick up sailing. It’s a richer life.
I ask if his faith has changed.
“My faith is calmer now. When you change your life the way I have done, it’s important to keep what’s paramount in life, what really means something. You have to go to a new situation in life without losing yourself.”
By eva Stenskär
Axel’s website: http://www.upspring.se

Our earlier story on Alex: The monk who got married