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Trappists follow ancient tradition, find God 'not in noise, but silence'
By Carol Zimmermann
6/20/2006
Catholic News Service

BERRYVILLE, Va. - Holy Cross Abbey, at the foot of Virginia's Blue Ridge
Mountains, is only an hour's drive from Washington. But, it could be worlds
away the differences between the two places are so vast.

Adjacent to the Shenandoah River and surrounded by rolling hills and meadows
dotted with ancient oak trees, its setting alone is otherworldly: serene,
pastoral and exceptionally quiet.

But there is more to this place than just its rural surroundings as
witnessed at the back door in the 18th-century hunting lodge used by the
monks when they meet visitors.

Behind the "No Admittance" sign nailed to the door, 24 cloistered Trappist
brothers and priests live out their days following simple routines of prayer
and work removed from the hectic pace of modern life.

These men have committed their lives to God and one another for the long
haul, vowing to stay at the monastery for the rest of their lives, leaving
only for medical appointments, occasional errands or family emergencies.

The men range in age from 32 to 87 and follow specific rules governing
everyday life written by St. Benedict in the sixth century for the Order of
Cistercians of the Strict Observance. In the 17th century, the order went
through a renewal period, originating at the monastery of Notre Dame de la
Grande Trappe in France, thus giving the monks the name Trappists.

Some of these monks from the French monastery came to the United States in
the early 1800s. And since that time, 12 Trappist monasteries have been
founded in South Carolina, New York, Utah, Kentucky, Georgia, Massachusetts,
Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, California and Virginia. Each monastery
is self-supporting, earning money from the sale of the monks' homemade
products ranging from beer, preserves, fruitcakes and candy to caskets.

At Holy Cross Abbey, the monks make and sell fruitcakes and flavored honeys.
They spend their days in relative quiet, getting up hours before dawn to
pray together and filling the rest of their day with a combination of
prayer, reflection and manual labor that not only includes baking, but
making meals, washing dishes, doing laundry and mowing the grass. Each day,
the monks eat a vegetarian lunch and dinner together in silence while one of
the group reads spiritual texts aloud.

For these men, each day is pretty much the same as the previous one and
essentially flows without interruptions. Other than conversation, chanted
prayers, the whir of machinery involved in fruitcake production and the
intermittent bells calling them to prayer, the grounds are almost silent.
Occasionally, a phone rings in the main office, but sounds of cell phones,
stereos, televisions, radios and pagers are nonexistent.

Right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the monks borrowed a
television to watch the news, but they returned it soon afterward.
Occasionally, they listen to music, with headphones, in their rooms. The
monks hardly possess a frenetic sense of urgency to attend multiple events
and would certainly never think to organize them by a Palm Pilot electronic
organizer. They read extensively and keep up with daily news through
magazines and The Washington Post.

Trappist Father Robert Barnes, the monastery's abbot, left his Baltimore
home to join the monks in 1961 when he was 19 years old. He told Catholic
News Service in an interview in early May that the monks are "trying to live
the full Gospel life" and the environment without distractions helps them
keep their spiritual focus.

The 58-year-old, who has a salt-and-pepper beard and a quick laugh, is also
keenly aware that this type of contemplative lifestyle is not for everyone,
noting, "No one in their right mind would think of doing it."

But at the same time, he also explained the monastery's almost inexplicable
draw, saying it "fulfills us in a way that nothing else could."

The cadence of everyday prayer, work and more prayer is very deliberate,
according to Capuchin Franciscan Brother Efrain Sosa, a 54-year-old who is
currently in the process of becoming a Trappist after 21 years as a
Franciscan. The Benedictine order had been his first choice years ago, but
its stricter rules at the time prohibiting family visits kept him away.

The brother, a New York native who still has his city accent, had been at
the abbey for several months, and was getting into its routine and finding a
home among other men of a variety of backgrounds hailing from the
Philippines, South Africa, Liberia, Canada, Vietnam and other parts of the
United States. He said the daily rhythm takes some getting used to, "as does
anything," but it also becomes something you "get to appreciate."

"In silence is where you find God, not in noise," he said.

The pervasive silence at the monastery tends to be the first thing visitors
notice.

The monks take that in stride, many of them remembering that prior to the
Second Vatican Council the monastery was even more quiet, since monks were
not to talk to one another and could only use gestures that became their own
type of sign language. They also spoke and chanted their prayers in Latin.

Today, the monks engage in more conversation with one another and also with
outsiders. Since half their members are older than 75, they have recently
hired eight lay people to help with some of their food production.

The fact that religious are aging, not just at this monastery but in
general, cannot help but cross the mind of Father Barnes, but he is not
about to start any kind of marketing campaign to recruit vocations.

His notion is that "God calls people to monastic life; it's not just a nice
thing to do."

"It doesn't pay to advertise," he said. "People have to be drawn here."

 
 
 
 
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