In a recent interview with the National Catholic Register in the Vatican, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s postulator, Carmelite Father Romano Gambalunga, reflected on why Elizabeth epitomizes holiness, though as a little girl some would have said otherwise.
Moreover, the Carmelite priest shares how her example can inspire young people, especially those considering religious vocations, give peace to those suffering and provide all of the faithful a model on living out holiness in a frenetic and superficial world.
Pope Francis made the 20th-century Carmelite nun a canonized saint, October 16, at the Vatican, and her feast day will be November 8. This March, the Pope paved the way for the mystic and spiritual writer’s canonization, as he acknowledged a miracle worked through Blessed Elizabeth’s intercession.
Born Elizabeth Catez in France in 1880, she grew up in Dijon. Though she felt the call to be a Carmelite very young, Elizabeth obeyed her mother’s wish for her to wait until she became 21 to enter the convent. In the meantime, she lived an active social life, capturing many hearts, was an accomplished musician and contributed to her parish, doing all for Christ and always trying to radiate his light.
In 1901, she entered the Carmel community in Dijon, writing several works while there, including her prayer “O My God, Trinity Whom I Adore.” Only five years later, she died there at age 26 from the adrenal disorder Addison’s disease.
What would you say constituted the sanctity of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity?
Simply because, like all the saints, she believed in the revelation that God is love, is the Father, that Jesus is his son and he gives us his spirit of mercy and love. And if we live by faith, then we experience this Spirit ourselves, this energy that baptism gives us. On the day of first Communion, she already decided that she would totally give herself over to him. Up until that day, she was a terrible child.
Yes! The priest who was preparing her to for her first holy Communion said: “This little one will become an angel or a devil.” She had an incredible character. [She] was a volcano! She was an artist, was very sensitive, played the piano … but could not really go to the convent, when she wished to, because her mother told her to wait. So she lived instead her love of Jesus as she went to parties, through friendships, in trips and in working in the parish. The Lord taught her to live deep communion with him, even in the midst of all this. St. Elizabeth is a beautiful example of a young lay saint because she lived only the last five years of her life in the convent. And there, she radiated Christ’s light, and many drawn to her observed: “We see her, but we feel like we see ‘someone else.’” In fact, this is interesting, given that she said, no matter what stage of her life, “Lord, I wish that when people meet me, they see you.”
Her vocation to the religious life was met with resistance by her mother. It is a situation that happens often today to many considering a vocation.
All young people go through a difficult phase, when they decide to become themselves and demand freedom to do so. So often, even today, conflicts arise with their parents. But when there is a religious vocation, then the conflict is a bit paticular, because the parent understands that the child is not his anymore, and if he does not accept that, it is a problem. Elizabeth, however, teaches us that our freedom comes from hearing the voice of God, not by rebelling or being “against” someone. Elizabeth also teaches young people today what it means to obey their parents, to accept that they may need time, but encourages them to try anyway, together with the Lord, to help them better understand what God wants for us.
How can her life, marked by illness, be an example to those who suffer with illness? How can she teach us to think of Jesus’ suffering on the cross?
There are incredible letters she wrote to people with great suffering. Some to a depressed lady come to mind, in which Elizabeth says that the meeting with the Lord, that is to say our journey of holiness, is a downward path, into an abyss of our misery, of our nothingness. But yet, she explained, at that point, there is the deep impact of another abyss, that of the mercy of God. With this, our misery is no longer an obstacle to our happiness. Physical illness or moral despondency become a blessing. Also, when her sister was pregnant for the first time and had worries, Elizabeth encouraged her to live out her pregnancy as Mary did, with total trust that God would take care of her and help her each step of the way.
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity died so young, but was already famous to the people of Dijon. What would you explain as the cause for this?
Elizabeth was very well-known because she was a natural leader: great temperament, social skills, vivacity, great ability to love and cultivate friendships. She was beautiful, and one could joke a little flirtatious, if you will, as she loved dressing elegantly and took care of herself. She was fascinating to young people, but friendly, not at all cold or distant. Also, as an artist, she was already famous, having won various awards, and, in the parish, she worked with the choir. She was also very involved in a normal young person’s social life, in festive evenings. … So when she entered the convent, the reaction of many was thinking: “But this is a wasted life! You had all these gifts and go to lock yourself up in a convent? And to do what?” Then came that, as one calls it, “fame of sanctity.” After her life, those in her Carmelite community wrote of this great writer and mystic, and word of her holiness spread more and more.
What does St. Elizabeth teach us today? How can she inspire us?
One of her typical expressions was: “My vocation, now as I go to Heaven, will be to help souls to cling with a simple movement to the soul to God who lives in them.” We live in very superficial world where everyone is always running and pleading for more time. … Elizabeth teaches us that if we understand that God is in us, then we live “from the inside,” with an awareness that gives light to all that we do. Every moment, then, becomes a moment in which we enter a bit more into the mystery of Christ.
The vocation to be a contemplative nun is perhaps best understood in the light of the mystery of the Body of Christ which we, the Church, are. The mystery of the Body of Christ was first introduced by St. Paul and we read of it in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that just as a body of flesh has many parts so it is with Christ’s Body the Church. In just the same way as each body part has a different and necessary role for the body to function (see 1Cor 12:14ff) so also in the Church, there are many different people with many different functions all of which are essential to the vitality of the Church.
Many liken contemplative nuns to the heart of the Church, which gives the power of love and fidelity to the other members through continual prayer and sacrifice. The contemplative nun is an essential part of the life and holiness of the Church. It is to the heart that our Lord speaks and the response of love from the soul begins in the heart. The task of the contemplative nun is to be the heart of the Church in continual dialogue with the Trinity — a continual heart to heart, listening and responding to the Eternal Word of the Father. Our Lord told us, “Abide in me… without me you can do nothing.” The contemplatives abide in Him in a special way as they live hidden in Christ, and through prayer bear fruit in the Church’s apostolic members.
The contemplative life acknowledges in a radical way the ultimate truth that no good we do is ours, but it is all the work of God. It is a life of pure faith which testifies that the “victor is the one who believes” (1 Jn 5:5). We, the Church, are only successful, fruitful, through our faith. Thus it is that a life of pure faith is truly the most fruitful, the most victorious. It is through their hidden lives of faith that the contemplatives serve the Church and help it to grow. (Perfectae Caritatis, 7) Contemplatives give themselves to God alone — He who is most worthy of our entire lives — and are the “glory of the Church and an overflowing fountain of heavenly graces.” (Perfectae Caritatis, no. 7)
A contemplative nun’s life of prayer is a life dedicated to the praise of God. Indeed the life of praise of God is the highest vocation to which all are called. The summit and source of all the activity of the Church is the liturgy, the prayer, praise, and contemplation of the Blessed Trinity. In fact, the goal of the apostolic life is to lead all to the praise and worship of God. Thus the contemplative vocation exercises this essential duty of Church that of continuously giving praise to the Father.
For more information visit the Benedictine Nuns of Walburga.
“Mom was talking to me and thought it would be a good idea if I told you, in one letter for all three of you, some of the details pertaining to our trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, when we took Kathleen down there to enter the Carmelite Monastery,” he penned. He wrote of departing around noon on the day of Sept. 21, after allowing his two youngest daughters, Anne and Maggie, to stay home from school in order to spend as much time as possible with their sister Kathleen before the trip.
After stopping and visiting with various family acquaintances along the way, the Mullins arrived at Lafayette’s Carmelite Monastery—which was then located on College Avenue—at approximately 3:00 p.m. on Sept. 23. “I stopped the car in front of a beautiful home and yard directly behind and next to the big vine-covered wall behind the monastery,” Mr. Mullins wrote. “The place was so beautiful I asked the lady of the house, Mrs. Gauthier, if I could take some pictures of Kathleen in her gardens with the monastery walls and trees in the background. She was glad to comply and told us what a wonderful person the mother prioress was and she made us feel good telling Kathleen how lucky she was and how happy she’d be. Kath, of course, didn’t need that encouragement because her mind had been so completely set the whole world couldn’t change it.”
Now, nearly 60 years later, young Kathleen is known as Mother Regina of Christ the King. Physically she may no longer be the 17-year-old girl that her father photographed in front of Mrs. Gauthier’s home on College Avenue, but spiritually, her conviction to the Carmelite life has kept her jovial, steadfast and strong.
“On September 24th, I will be 60 years in Carmel,” she recently wrote to remind her five siblings in very much the same way her father did all those years ago. “When I entered, one of the first things that caught my eye was a sign that said: ‘I have brought you into the land of Carmel, to eat its fruits and the best things thereof.’
“There can be no doubt but that it was Our Lady herself who brought me into her
land of Carmel and, of course, the most blessed ‘fruit’ she has given me is the fruit of her womb, Jesus! All other ‘fruits’ of the land of Carmel flow from him.
“After many years, I can truthfully say: life gets better and better,” Mother Regina says. “From Kansas to Carmel and then to Heaven is the road Jesus mapped out for me.”
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On September 8, 2016, Pope Francis received in audience some 250 participants in the congress of Benedictine abbots and abbesses gathered in Rome to reflect on the monastic charism received from St. Benedict and their faithfulness to it in a changing world.
This theme acquires special meaning in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy since, as Francis affirmed, “if it is only in the contemplation of Jesus Christ that we perceive the merciful face of the Father, monastic life constitutes a privileged route to achieve this contemplative experience and to translate it into personal and community witness.”
Today’s world clearly demonstrates the need for a mercy that is the heart of Christian life and “which definitively manifests the authenticity and credibility of the message of which the Church is the depository, and which she proclaims. And in this time and in this Church, called to focus increasingly on the essential, monks and nuns safeguard by vocation a peculiar gift and a special responsibility: that of keeping alive the oases of the spirit, where pastors and faithful can draw from the wellsprings of Divine Mercy.”
With the grace of God and seeking to live mercifully in their communities, monks and nuns “announce evangelical fraternity from all their monasteries spread out in every corner of the globe, and they do so with that purposeful and eloquent silence that lets God speak out in the deafening and distracted life of the world.”
Therefore, although they live separated from the world, their cloistered life “is not barren: on the contrary, an enrichment and not an obstacle to communion.”
Their work, in harmony with prayer, enables them to participate in God’s creative work and shows their “solidarity with the poor who cannot live without work.”
Their hospitality allows them to encounter the hearts of the “most lost and distant, of those who are in a condition of grave human and spiritual poverty,” and their commitment to the formation of the young is highly appreciated. “Students in your schools, through study and your witness of life, can too become experts in that humanity that emanates from the Benedictine Rule. Your contemplative life is also a privileged channel for nurturing communion with the brothers of the Oriental Churches.”
“Your service to the Church is very valuable,” the Holy Father concluded, expressing his hope that the Congress may strengthen the Federation so that it is increasingly at the service of communion and cooperation between monasteries and urging the Benedictines not to be discouraged if their members age or diminish in number. “On the contrary,” he emphasised, “conserve the zeal of your witness, even in those countries that are most difficult today, with faithfulness to your charism and the courage to found new communities.”
It was Thomas Cromwell, through two parliamentary resolutions, who transferred the ownership of abbeys, churches, monasteries and other possessions of the Catholic Church in England to the hands of the English crown. Among these, countless manuscripts, libraries and works of art, but especially farms and other productive buildings were taken over by the government. In particular, of course, monasteries and abbeys. Those that were not destroyed, expropriated or simply shut down were handed over to the political allies of Henry VIII.
But why was Henry VIII so eager to get his hands on northern English monasteries? According to historian Stephanie Mann, basically for two classic, too-well-known simple reasons: money and power. These expropriations would provide Henry VIII with an extraordinary, unexpected income without resorting to deeply unpopular measures (such as higher taxes), while also eliminating the influence of the Roman papacy over the English crown.
Now, about 500 years later, in a series of photographs published in the Daily Mail, we can see Cistercian monks, Father Joseph and Brother Bernard, visiting the ruins of one of these great abbeys: the Abbey of Rievaulx.
Rievaulx had been founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France (the foundation of Saint Bernard), and soon was considered one of the greatest British abbeys. At its peak, 650 people actively lived and worked at Rievaulx, including monks, direct and indirect employees and other officials associated with the maintenance of monastic activities. On December 3, 1538, Henry VIII ordered them all to leave the building, expropriating every valuable object in it (particularly the lead used in stained glasses).
Today, a museum is housed in the abbey, led by English Heritage, a company/charity that is responsible for the preservation of more than 400 historic sites across England. The museum exhibits some of the artifacts monks once used at the abbey, and chronicles of the history of the Cistercian Order in England.
Restoration of Norcia’s Benedictine monastery and basilica will cost millions of dollars, following the recent devastating earthquake, according to the community’s monks.
“Both the church and the monastery are too dangerous to live in,” Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom, prior of the Monastery of St. Benedict and a Massachusetts native, said. “So we’ve put up two tents; one is a dormitory, and the other is a chapel.”
The tents are located about a mile away, outside the city walls, next to a medieval monastery the monks have been restoring but which was also badly damaged by the natural disaster; it will need to be rebuilt.
The 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the region Aug. 24, and its continued aftershocks, forced the monks to transfer to Rome for three days, leaving two of their brethren to camp out in tents so they could mind the basilica and monitor developments. Almost all of them have since returned and will be living in the makeshift accommodations until buildings are made safe.
The birthplace of St. Benedict, the patron of Europe, Norcia was just eight miles from the quake’s epicenter. But it remarkably escaped with relatively little damage and no loss of life, compared to the nearby towns of Amatrice and Accumoli. Although just 25 miles by car from Norcia, they and a number of surrounding medieval mountaintop villages were closer to the fault line and had many buildings that were not earthquake-proof, and so were practically wiped out by the natural disaster that took 291 lives, many of them children.
The true extent of the damage won’t be known until a full analysis can be carried out once the aftershocks have ended, but Father Cassian predicts it will be a “huge rebuilding project.”
The Monastery of St. Benedict, which has only been in Norcia since 2000 (Napoleonic laws forced the previous community to flee in 1810), has become well established and much loved by the local people. One of the few religious communities in the world to celebrate both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite, the monastery draws thousands of visitors every year. It recently became famous for its brewery, opened in 2012, which produces its popular “Birra Nursia.”
Norcia is part of the beautiful region of Umbria, the so-called “Land of the Saints” because of the many holy men and women born there, and the “Green Heart of Italy,” on account of its verdant, alpine scenery. August is the height of the tourist season there, but the town was practically deserted the weekend after the quake, except for emergency vehicles and some television vans. Many of the citizens who remained in the town camped outside in fields or slept in cars.
The town and some of its surrounding villages have been rebuilt several times over the centuries, most recently after the town was struck by an earthquake in 1979 and reconstructed using earthquake-resistant techniques.
Subprior Father Benedict Nivakoff said the earthquake “sadly served as a healthy reminder” for modern society, where “people can get so used to things being exactly how they expect them to be” that they cannot “control everything.” He said it will take some time for the town to get back to normal, and as it is very hard to obtain earthquake insurance, those hardest hit, including the monastery, will apply for government grants to help rebuild.
But for the monks, too, who take a vow of stability to live the rest of their lives where they took their vows, the event will serve a useful purpose, helping them to “root” themselves even more in the locality. “When you lose something that you’ve come to love, and we’ve been restoring this place for the last 15 years, one has to really dig in more; and so that’s what we’re doing, renewing and expanding our commitment,” said Father Nivakoff.
He said people can help by praying for them, the people in Norcia and the people hard hit in Amatrice and Accumoli. “That’s the most important thing: supporting us with prayers, sacrifices, acts of charity,” he said. He also said people can also help the rebuilding efforts by buying a best-selling CD of Gregorian chant that the monks produced last year, buying their beer and also making donations.
Father Nivakoff said the monks will also be giving around 15%-20% of whatever they raise to the people who most need it.
“The vow of stability means you love the place,” said Father Cassian. “We love the place, and so it needs to be rebuilt.”
Pope Francis has given an update to legislation on contemplative life, since the last apostolic constitution for that “illustrious portion of Christ’s flock” is from 1950, and legislation for cloisters hadn’t been revised since then.
A new apostolic constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, was presented today in the Vatican press office by Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, secretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life.
This “illustrious portion of Christ’s flock,” as St. Cyprian described it, constitutes the beating heart of faith and of the love of the Church for the Lord and for humanity, the archbishop said.
The Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi , which dates from 1950, during the papacy of Pius XII, was the regulation in force for cloisters until now. Vultum Dei Quaerere is therefore valuable inasmuch as it fills the gap of the post-conciliar years, the consequences of which were starting to become evident, the Archbishop indicated.
“This gave rise to the concern of Pope Francis, a pastor attentive to the life of his flock, and his decision to give a new document to all those who in the Church, ‘men and women called by God and in love with Him, [who] have devoted their lives exclusively to seeking His face, longing to find and contemplate God in the heart of the world,’” continued the prelate.
The Holy Father, to underline his esteem for this particular form of consecration mysteriously called to give light to all humanity from silence and from the cloister, gives precise indications regarding the fundamental elements of a life of contemplation that, while not the exclusive prerogative of women, is mostly female.
“Therefore, in outlining the essential elements there is no lack of explicit references to contemplative women, to whom there is presented the icon of Mary as summa contemplatrix, Mary, Virgin, Bride and Mother, who welcomes and treasures the Word in order to give it back to the world … to help to bring Christ to birth and increase in the hearts of men and women.”
The Archbishop focused on the key points of the new Apostolic Constitution, emphasising that not by chance the first of these is formation, a theme which has for many years been of special interest for the Magisterium. “In this regard, the Holy Father on the one hand recalls that the usual place for formation for a contemplative community is the monastery, yet on the other expresses his hope for collaboration between more than one monastery, in various ways: the exchange of materials, the prudent use of digital media, common houses of initial formation, and the willingness of some sisters prepared to help monasteries with fewer resources.”
With reference to the ample space that the document dedicates to prayer, he indicated the Pope’s important clarification that prayer and contemplative life cannot be lived as a form of self-absorption, but must instead enlarge the heart to embrace all humanity, especially those who suffer.
“If it is a profound desire in the heart of Pope Francis to have an outbound Church,” he affirmed, “this is also applicable to those who are called to live out their lives within the walls of the cloister: the attention of the heart, in its maternal care, must continually extend the boundaries of prayer, so that it not only looks upward, to contemplate the holy face of God, but also descends to the depths, to encounter the suffering of man at his loneliest and most marginalized.”
Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo also referred to another two elements that are currently a subject of discernment and reflection for monasteries of contemplative life: autonomy, linked to the role of federations, and cloisters.
All monasteries, except in special cases, judged by the Holy See, are to be grouped in federations, and there is the interesting possibility for membership of federations to be based not only on geographical criteria but also on the basis of affinities of spirit and traditions. Likewise it is hoped that this will lead to the association, also juridical, of corresponding monasteries of men’s Orders, comparable to the formation of the international Confederations and Commissions of the different Orders.
With regard to cloisters, the three types of cloistered life already considered in Vita Consacrata are redefined: that is, the papal, constitutional and monastic cloisters, enabling individual monasteries to carry out careful discernment, respecting their own right to eventually ask the Holy See for permission to embrace a form of cloistered life different from their current one.
Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo concluded by reiterating that in Vultum Dei Quaerere, the Pope has considered all areas of contemplative life.
“With this Apostolic Constitution, his thought is translated into clear guidelines, that will be presented to the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, who will have the task of drafting a new document to substitute the existing one, Verbi sponsa, which contains the legislation regulating the formation, autonomy and cloistered life of monasteries of contemplative or wholly contemplative life.”
For full text of document click here.
A group of 61 cloistered nuns from six monasteries in Santiago, Chile, recently made an historic visit to a local Women’s Prison Center to spend time with the inmates and to attend Mass with them.
“I don’t know if in the 400 years of the history of Santiago, there has been another occasion when contemplative sisters from several monasteries joined together to celebrate the Eucharist with a group of women who are incarcerated, but who are sisters in the faith,” said Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, who celebrated the Mass.
The nuns made the trip to the facility on May 23 to celebrate as the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Ezzati said that the nuns made the request to visit with the inmates “so the sisters who contemplate the face of God every day in prayer could contemplate him in the face of people who are suffering, going through a hard time in their lives.”
“The dear cloistered nuns are the city’s uplifted arms to intercede before God for all of us, especially those who are suffering the most,” he said.
After the Mass, the religious sang a traditional Chilean song to honor the Virgin Mary, and to everyone’s surprise, four of them got up to dance. They then went to the prison courtyard where they continued visiting with the inmates.
For Sister Maria Rosa of the Discalced Carmelites from the San José monastery, the day was “a grace to share with them, to really feel like a sister with them, to feel their sorrow, their joy and to become one with them.”
“It strikes me that this encounter would be on the feast of the Holy Trinity. That means that God dwells in every soul,” she told the archdiocesan communications office.
Railín, one of the inmates, said that “it was good that they came and prayed for us. The sisters and bishops coming helped support us, we need a lot of people to come and see us.”
Ana Chacón, another inmate, said that the religious “give us the spirit of the Lord, it’s a blessing to have them here. Seeing the dear cloistered nuns doing the traditional dance and swinging the kerchiefs was something new.”
This Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis runs from December 2015 to November of 2016, with the aim of encouraging Catholics to experience God’s mercy – both in the Sacrament of Confession and being concrete signs of this mercy in charitable work.
On the Solemnity of St. Joseph, with a visit from their bishop, Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted, the Poor Clares of Our Lady of Solitude Monastery in Arizona, celebrated the installation of their first abbess – Mother Marie Andre, PCPA!
Mother Marie Andre, along with Sr. Mary Fidelis, and Sr. Marie St. Paul, each entered Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Birmingham AL, in the mid ’90s. During 2004, the Year of the Eucharist, after much deliberation, it was decided that a new foundation of PCPAs would begin in the Diocese of Phoenix, AZ, at the kind invitation of Bishop Olmsted. This was to be the first contemplative nuns to begin a foundation in the diocese.
On March 2, 2005, the “Desert Nuns” as they have been affectionately called, received the official permission from the Holy See to begin this new Foundation . On May 1, 2005, the Poor Clares left the Alabama Monastery and headed West to begin Our Lady of Solitude Monastery. For the first five years of the Foundation, the community dwelt in Black Canyon City, AZ (North of Phoenix), in a house provided by the Diocese.
Then after a generous gift of land and after a generous gift of funding for the Chapel, they were able to move to our permanent home in Tonopah, AZ (West of Phoenix) in Oct. 2010. Their stunning Eucharistic chapel was dedicated on May 7, 2011.
On December 29, 2015, by decree of the Holy See, Our Lady of Solitude Monastery officially became an autonomous Monastery of Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. Sr. Marie Andre was appointed Abbess and was officially installed as such by Bishop Olmsted on March 19, 2016.
Last June, Mother Marie Andrea reflected upon the calling to the cloistered, contemplative life:
“Some might look upon Jesus’ call as a hiccup in a young woman’s plans for the future for having a family and a career, and this decision is often incomprehensible and viewed as a contradiction because she is denying herself the chance to have children and a career.
But it’s not puzzling or bewildering to the one being called and hearing the Voice of the Lord!
This freedom is the total dedication to God in our daily life, and so we pray always every day of our lives for the grace to understand better how Jesus calls us. “
For more information and photos, click here.
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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