The first thing a visitor to Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon, notices is the deliberate pace of liturgy. Compared to the way these 30 or so monks savor their psalms and hymns, the average parish Mass runs at squirrel velocity.
This is also a place of work and close community that radiates holiness, but holiness built on utter honesty. “Any time you strive to lead a serious spiritual life, you will be stripped of all pretensions and your ego,” says Father Dominique, the 67-year-old prior.
Living a version of the 4th century Rule of St. Benedict, the Trappists rise before dawn, put on their yeomanly habits and begin with prayer. The day is full of worship in the church, punctuated by labor on the grounds, in the book bindery and in the fruitcake kitchen. Monks offer spiritual direction. They are vegetarians who grow much of their own food and must work side-by-side. No one owns anything.
After Mass, as the sun rises, the mustachioed Brother Dick hefts the crucifix from in front of the altar to the tabernacle, a journey he makes every morning. All the monks here carry crosses of one kind or another, but they seem glad.
Brother Brian, a 56-year-old native of Ireland, transferred in 2013 from a waning Irish Trappist monastery. He found the Oregon abbey’s website and “something popped.” Our Lady of Guadalupe, he says, is characterized by “an excitement about the interior life.”
As they grow in authenticity, monks feel wobbly in face of God’s faithfulness. When he first became a Trappist, Brother Brian wanted to be a saint. After almost three decades, he rises each day and says to God, “I can’t believe you love me.”
The monk’s task, he says, is to connect with Jesus’ self-emptying love. That begins with refusing to put your brothers to shame. If another monk leaves some dirty dishes, for example, don’t excoriate him; Brother Brian just does the dishes and offers a kind correction later.
“Every time you say, ‘I am glad I am not like that brother,’ God comes along and shows you you are ten times worse. It’s a spiritual kick in the rear end,” Brother Brian concludes with a guffaw.
“Jesus says you’ve got to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself,” says Brother Martin, 90. “The only reason I’m here is because this is the best place for me to do that.” A World War II veteran, Brother Martin was part of the group that came from New Mexico in the mid-1950s to found Oregon’s Trappist abbey.
Over the years, he has become the abbey’s ambassador, able to chat about deep matters with anyone.
“The monastic restrictions free you,” Brother Martin says. “Material intensity kills the spirit. You need time and space. You need stillness.” And, he declares, forget the illusion of perfection. The monastery is a place where the only way to grow is to admit your imperfections.
“Don’t send us any angels or saints,” Brother Martin says. “They aren’t going to make it.”
Brother Chris, a 43-year-old California native, arrived in 1998, a trained forester who had recently re-appropriated his faith. In addition to prayer, he has helped restore a rare oak savannah.
Brother Chris invites men — single or married — to consider a 30-day retreat in which the guest lives as a monk in the cloister. “It’s a transformative experience and a time of growing in self knowledge,” he says. “A vocation as a monk lets all your gifts flower.”
He values the intergenerational community, where he considers men in their 90s as brothers. Many monks here recall Trappist life before the Second Vatican Council, when silence was strict. Silence is still the rule much of the time, but there are periods for conversation, which has enhanced fellowship.
“It’s not just me and God, it’s me and the community, too,” Brother Chris says.
Father Todd, ordained last March, has been a Trappist since 2004. At 39, he considers himself a monk first, then a priest to serve his brothers.
Monastic life, he says, tends to shine God’s light into a person, increasing self knowledge, including awareness of wounds. The exposure leads to healing. As for him, he is more joyous.
The life is full and active, not just sitting and meditating. Father Todd, who grew up north of Spokane, works in the bindery and the kitchen and like everyone here needs to put out the garbage.
“If your whole life is blissed out poetry, it wouldn’t have any meaning or foundation,” he says.
Critics accuse monks of escaping from the world. Father Todd knows better, saying that the life is indeed a separation, but one that allows the monk to be united with everyone. “People who come on retreat are trying to get into that,” he explains. “The monastery is a different kind of immersion into human experience. There is a human need for silence and acknowledgement of the divine and we hold space open for that here.”
Father Dominique, the lighthearted prior, walks into the guest house and embraces several volunteers. A piano prodigy and scholar before entering the abbey, Father Dominique as a child knew he wanted to be the kind of priest who kept God company all day.
At 14, he read “The Seven Storey Mountain” by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and immediately called the Oregon abbey. Advised to continue his education, he attended UCLA and developed his music, along with Latin, French, history and English literature. His vocation persisted and he came to Oregon.
“I know I am not running away from anything,” says Father Dominique. “I am running toward Jesus.” The monks’ prayer, he says, does not stay at the abbey, but “redounds around the world.” Contemplative life, he insists, is the heart that pumps life through the whole church.
Steve Bernards, who grew up in nearby Carleton, comes to 6:30 a.m. Mass with the Trappists every day. He recalls making the trip as a boy with his father in the 1960s, listening to the beautiful chant. After Mass, he often chats with the gregarious Brother Martin, who works in the guest house. He always walks away with some wisdom, often resolved to slow down and notice God’s presence in his life.
“People are so tied up and they go, go, go,” says Bernards. “They don’t take time. I have been very blessed to be with the monks.”
When Pope Francis was named and showed himself to be so extroverted, the Trappist abbot wondered what the Holy Father might say about monasticism. But the pope quickly made it known that he considers contemplatives “wombs of mercy” to the local church.
“The reality of who you really are, that reality is the one God is totally in love with,” says Abbot Peter, 68. “When we touch our real selves, immediately we touch mercy. God wants you, not who you want to be. This is at the heart of contemplative life.”
The need for spiritual sanctuary will never go away, says Abbot Peter, who wears a fishing vest over his habit. He was elected by his brothers as their leader 22 years ago. Back then, it seemed like the worst day of his life. He was not a scholar and did not think of himself as a very good monk. But he knew he loved his brothers and has found that is enough.
“This community lifts me,” he says. “They are my way. Monasteries and marriage both take work, but make you a better person.”
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