Those drawn to monastic lifestyle say it balances work, prayer, study

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p_5_wire_photomonksBy Marnie McAllister
Catholic News Service

TRAPPIST, Ky. (CNS) — Monastic life isn’t for everyone. But there is a small group of men and women who are drawn to such a life — one that balances work, prayer and study.

The Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist and 16 other Trappist communities in the U.S. launched a vocation effort recently that aims to attract new monks and nuns to join them in contemplative life. Their efforts also aim to educate people about their way of life.

On one sunny spring morning the Abbey of Gethsemani’s idyllic, secluded grounds in rural Nelson County, reflected the quiet reverence of its inhabitants. The monks, gathered in the abbey church, kept silent when they weren’t chanting.

The monks who live at the abbey refrain from speaking during meals and generally live a quiet, contemplative life. They celebrate Mass each day, and they pray (typically chanting) the Liturgy of the Hours at seven intervals throughout the day — sometimes for just 10 or so minutes at a time. In between, they continue their work.

Each day at Gethsemani is punctuated by the rhythm of this disciplined prayer life. The discipline doesn’t appear rigorous, but it is ever-present.

“This is a great place to live,” said the community’s vocation director, Brother Luke Armour, speaking during one of the several intervals between prayer.

“Clearly it’s not for everyone. This balance of prayer, work and study propels you right through life and in the plan of God and the care of God — beautifully fulfilling and enriching,” he told The Record, newspaper of the Louisville Archdiocese.

Then, Brother Armour stopped his train of thought and said, “It’s time for praise. I’ll see you in 10 minutes. To me,” he said as he stood to go, “that’s irresistible.”

Brother Armour, a welcoming soul to all those who happen to encounter him on the abbey’s grounds, is also the community’s choir master — which means he plays organ during each interval of prayer and generally tends to the community’s musical needs.

Between prayer, the monks tend to the tasks of running a very large house. Some monks wash dishes, others serve in the infirmary and they all take turns doing housekeeping duties. They also work in the food-gift industry — making cheese, bourbon fudge and fruitcake. Monks also run the guesthouse, providing hospitality to  visitors and retreatants.

The needs of the community create plenty of activity. Yet their lifestyle focuses the monk’s efforts on completing his work intentionally, contemplatively and for the glory of God.

Such an outlook on life is lost to many, if not most Americans, said Trappist Father Alberic Farbolin, regional secretary for formation and vocation promotion for all 17 of the Trappist communities in the U.S. He is organizing the order’s national vocation effort from his home at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa.

“It is our firm belief that contemplation is a fundamental human capacity — like the capacity to fall in love, to work, to make music, to play sports,” he said in an interview conducted via email.

“It is astonishing to us that many people seem to go through life evidently unaware that — at any moment and in any place — you can simply quiet yourself, be still, and, in the depths of your heart, encounter the living God who is the source of life, love, forgiveness and the deepest meaning of life,” he said.

Brother Armour learned about religious life from nuns and priests — members of his extended family — who “greatly influenced me,” he said. “I was enthralled by their witness and their lives.”

“Someone called each of us; someone invited each of us,” he added. “Undoubtedly, that needs to keep going.”

Gethsemani’s vocation director for seven years, Brother Armour approaches this ministry with great care, he said. He’s also prepared to find new ways of doing his job and adapting to the needs of young people today.

At a March meeting in Conyers, Ga., Brother Armour and vocation directors from 15 other Trappist communities in the U.S. gathered to discuss their effort to promote vocations. One topic addressed the characteristics of today’s young Catholics.

They discovered, among other things, “we have to learn to adapt to their (young adults’) perspective for the survival of religious life. They do not, cannot and need not see church in the same way as older generations do. It’s their time to have their experience of church.”

Also, for young adults, “the practice of communal prayer is seen as attractive,” as well as community and mission, said Brother Armour. “These are hallmarks of the monastic life, and we believe these are attractive draws for the new generation. So we need to educate and inform them that this is how we live.”

In turn, he noted, each Trappist community also has to adjust its thinking to promote vocations “and ask ourselves the question, ‘How ready are we to move beyond status quo? To adjust to changes that new members will bring?’”

For the curious and the interested alike, families, groups and individuals have a standing invitation to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Editor’s Note: More information about the abbey is available at http://monks.org. Information for men and women interested in a Trappist vocation is also available at monks.org and at www.trappists.org.

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