General Questions About the Trappists

Can a Trappist be my Spiritual Director?


I am a non-Catholic who would like to become Catholic. Can I have a Trappist  monk as my spiritual director?

_

God be praised for your inspiration to join our great Catholic family of saints and sinners - welcome!  Traditionally, few Trappists would be available for visitors to the monastery to see as a spiritual director.  At present, in our United States monasteries, this is more common - possibly because of the influence of Thomas Merton and others like Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington who played a role like that of spiritual director for many people.

Your request would have to be pursued at a particular monastery in conversation with the abbot and a monk whom he might propose as a director.  If the abbot were willing and a monk was so disposed, a regular spiritual direction relationship might be possible.

How have contemplatives changed since Middle Ages?


How has your lives changed since the middle ages? I am doing a course and one of the questions is about contemplatives and how they have changed.

_

It would take a book to answer your question, but I can address a few points briefly.

In general, I think monks and nuns of the Medieval period probably had more of a corporate sense of identity; their understanding of themselves was largely determined by their membership in a group. Contemplatives today, at least in the U.S. and Europe, continue to cherish and foster community but are more aware of themselves as individual persons, and more concerned to give expression to an individual calling from God.

So, for example, where as monks in previous centuries slept in dormitories, with just partitions between the beds, most Trappists today have their own cell. This greater concern for individual expression is also reflected in the type of work monks and nuns today take up. Historically, farming was usually integral to the life of a contemplative and is not any longer. Again, the understanding and exercise of authority in the monastery has changed very much since Medieval times. “Blind obedience” is not much encouraged today.

Abbots and Abbesses are held more accountable and expected to listen to and enter into meaningful conversation with their subjects. I have the impression that greater care is taken today to maintain the physical and mental health of monks and nuns, as we have grown to appreciate more the integral relationship between spirit and body. As a young monk I was taught, “We do not have a body, we are a body”.

Vatican Council II introduced many changes into monastic life: the liturgy in the vernacular after centuries of celebrating it only in Latin, a different understanding of enclosure as monks and nuns were encouraged to do studies and to enter into meaningful conversation with the world outside.

Finally, relations between men and women monastics has changed dramatically. We relate more as equals and appreciate more the distinctive contribution made by women to governance of the order.

Can solitude present dangers to mental and physical health?


I am being called to a life of contemplation without joining a community. This phase of my journey requires solitude during a sabbatical to research and write my next monograph.  Are there any dangers to physical or mental health from such solitude? I do attend mass weekly and but I am minimizing my social activities.

_

Your first sentence all by itself raises some interesting questions. “I am being called to a life of contemplation without joining a community."

At a glance it might appear the speaker is a person belonging to no community. I think you probably belong to a community. If so, have you thought about how your call to contemplative life may have been discerned and received from those comprising that human community?

Such reflection, I believe, will reveal a vitally important connection between community and the call to contemplative life. This point is really crucial. A person must be clear about this before venturing into physical separation and solitude from other human beings. A “sabbatical”, as I understand it, is actually a pretty deliberately circumscribed zone of solitude provided by an intentional community of scholars or a university.

You also speak of attending mass which is actually the supremely efficacious way of inserting oneself into the church community and the communion of saints. You're on solid ground there. (“Minimizing social activities” is something that most people I know outside the monastery would probably benefit from.)

My point in these extended introductory remarks is to underscore the importance of situating solitude in the wider context of a community of faith. Does solitude present dangers to a person? Without due consideration to the points I've raised above, yes. In the ancient world, the desert was believed to be the abode of demons. We don't talk that way today, but our own experience confirms the desert can be a dangerous place. That is because, in the desert, we have a new and intense experience of ourselves. The demons are in us. They live there comfortably and influence our lives in amiable partnership with us, largely anonymous because of the way Americans typically distract themselves with thoughtless conversation, entertainment, and busy-ness. In the desert, these distractions recede. We are brought home to ourselves and discover that we have taken in “boarders.”

We meet and engage the demons who live in us. Is there danger? Yes, there is danger here, but only for the person fleeing from the truth about himself. Such a person is easily deceived and so more likely to be ensnared by sin or despair. Embracing solitude, even very pronounced solitude, in the embrace of a community of faith, with the intention of engaging the truth about yourself, can be a grace-filled experience of renewal and even transformation.

What is the secret to a strong, fervent and effective prayer life?


What is the secret to a strong,fervent and effective prayer life?

_

Others might answer your question differently. I will respond as a Trappist.

In our order we have a distinctive way of cultivating a strong, fervent, and effective prayer life. Our way of prayer is intimately informed by the life, teaching, and person of Jesus. Briefly, the program is ascetical, communal, and mystical. Because sin is real and undermines our freedom to love God and one another, we must enter into a conversion process before we can be intimate with God. Prayer, then, is fostered, first of all, by embracing a rigorous ascetical life.

This means one disciplines the body's appetites and learns to be happy with a sufficiency in the areas of food, clothing, shelter etc. This asceticism is hard and actually precipitates an interior crisis which we call: “learning the truth about oneself.”

The truth is, we are actually quite unable to live according to God's commandments without the gift of His grace. This discovery introduces a new and humble awareness of oneself, and surrender to “living in the mercy” of God which changes the way a person sees himself and everyone around him. Having been humbled and realizing how intimately he is united with other human beings, acts of love and service issue more spontaneously from him and his life becomes more and more a life for others.

It is, finally, in the context of this transformed life that real intimacy with God becomes possible. During this entire process of conversion, a person must be faithful to regular times of prayer. My recommendation for someone living outside a monastery would be the Church's “Liturgy of the Hours” available at any Catholic bookstore. You will have noticed that the “secret” to a good prayer life I have shared with you is not a technique. In our Benedictine Cistercian monastic tradition, true prayer is the fruit of a changed life. We are inclined to caution people concerning “techniques” or “methods” of prayer that promise a quick entry into the Divine Mystery Jesus called His “Father.” We have to be changed, purified, and liberated from self preoccupation before we can pray deeply which is nothing more than intimacy with God.

After a contemplative experience, what kind of food and beverage is suggested?


When monks have contemplative experiences as being one with the inexpressible, after the experience ends, what kind of food and beverages is suggested?

_

In Luke 24:40-43, the disciples have the most startling experience imaginable of being face to face and completely one with the inexpressible: Jesus, risen from the dead, greets them standing in the middle of a lonely beach. “Touch me,” he insists. (The mystery revealed in this expression is, the longer you think about it, truly inexpressible.)

Then Jesus says: “Is there anything around here to eat?” Scripture says “The disciples gave him a piece of broiled fish.” This is just a thought but, maybe after a contemplative experience of the inexpressible, a piece of broiled fish might be served; and maybe with a little white wine to go with it, since that's usually nice with fish.

As regards my own experience, it depends what time of day it happens, but, if, by God's grace, I am granted the grace of an experience of intimacy with the Divine and this occurs at night or during the second half of the day - the meal awaiting me afterwards is going to be pretty simple. I generally have granola, a piece of toast, and a glass of water for both my breakfast and supper. (Broiled fish is only occasionally on the menu at my monastery at the main meal at mid-day.) I have found a bowl of cereal and a chilled glass of water is a good way to “round off” an experience of contemplative union with God – just enough to meet the body's needs and awaken in the heart a prayer of thanksgiving.

How do I set times each day for praying the Divine Office?


How is it best to decide the set times each day for praying the Divine Office? I am starting to integrate Lectio Divina into my daily life, but not sure when to schedule for myself. From what I've read so far, there are no absolute times, but it would help in spacing out & structuring my day to have more info on this.

_

 I am happy for our union in prayer with you as all my brother and sister Cistercians pray with you the prayers of the Divine Office. In scheduling when you will say the various offices of Lauds, Vespers, Compline etc. it is important to recognize that these prayers probably derive from patterns of prayer that date back to the the temple in Jerusalem and were intended to consecrated to God the different hours of the day in their concrete reality.

Consequently, you will find in the book “Christian Prayer” that the psalms, antiphons, and concluding prayers are all selected in order to praise God at a certain hour of the day and with reference to certain beautiful manifestations of God's goodness characteristic of that hour of the day.

So, as the sun is rising, the church at Lauds sings: “He raises up the lowly from the dust!” inviting those at prayer to see the glory of the resurrection reflected in the splendor of a new day being born. With this basic principle in mind, I would suggest, at least with reference to Lauds, (Morning Prayer), Vespers, (Evening Prayer), and Compline, (Night Prayer), that you take care to schedule them so that they are prayed in the context of the actual experience of morning, evening, and night time.

At most monasteries I know, these services would take place, at about 6:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. respectively. Sext, or Mid-day Prayer, should be prayed at about noon. Matins, if you are really serious about the Divine Office really should be prayed in the dark before the sun rises. Also, as you will note with the extended readings incorporated into Matins, this is a perfect time to do Lectio Divina.

How might an Episcopalian minister be more closely associated with a Trappist community?


I am not a Roman Catholic.  I am an ordained person in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition.  I have taken some of my retreats at two Trappist monasteries close to where I live.  These monastic places are very close to my heart. Even though I am involved in an active ministry in the world, I have always had a call to contemplative prayer.  How can a person in my situation associate on a deeper level with a Trappist Abbey community?

_

Thank you for addressing this question to us as your brothers and sisters in faith and as friends called like you to foster contemplative prayer.

For close to thirty years now our monasteries have recognized in the hearts of people like yourself “cousins” in the Spirit and have tried to encourage and strengthen that bond. Most Trappist monasteries today have “Associates” who are lay persons deeply attracted to Cistercian spirituality and practices. Many of these will tell you their lives and ministries in the world have been immeasurably enriched by practices like Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours and time each day devoted to contemplative prayer.

Associates generally meet to support and encourage one another at a particular monastery who sponsors them. You might check out the Our Monasteries page this website to confirm where the nearest monastery is, write to the Vocation Director and inquire about that community's Associate Program. At my monastery, a woman, and Episcopalian minister, has been one of the leading figures in our Associate group for many years. You might find in these groups people with whom you share a deep spiritual bond, as well as meeting monks that you can cultivate friendships with for the rest of your life.

Can Trappists Maintain Contact With Their Families?


To what extent are Trappist monks allowed to maintain contact with their families?

_

The life of silence and solitude we embrace as Trappist monks and nuns has as its purpose to reveal to us the truth about ourselves. One of the most important things I learn as a Trappist is that I am the son of my father and I am the very particular son of my mother. I am brother to my brother and, over the course of my life, have been, in a very particular way, a brother to my sisters.

In short, the person I am before God, is only known as the member of a family. Ironically, this truth might be more evident to a solitary than to people who spend time with their family every day. Because a Trappist realizes he or she continues to be profoundly united with their family, we take care to nurture family relationships and actually do so in ways which I have found especially intimate and beautiful.

Most monasteries have a “family guest house” provided only for family members of monks or nuns of that monastery. A Trappist's family might visit and stay in the family guest house two or three times a year for a few days. During these visits, it is not only the family members who rekindle their love, but new and very deep relationships can form between the monk's family of origin and members of his monastic family. Between visits, a Trappist would be free to write to members of his family as he desires. Phone calls are also permitted though we are generally more accountable for these, partly because of the expense that can be involved.

Contact with family members on the internet and by means of social networks like Facebook is very new for us and something we regard with ambivalence. There is not only a lot of objectionable content on the internet, but invitations to view this content popping up on the screen at the most unexpected moments, and this is not something we find helps foster relationships with our family.

Finally, one of the most extraordinary and meaningful “contacts” a Trappist has with his or her family is in prayer; especially prayers offered in response to requests coming from a family member in a crisis.

What is an Oblate?


What is an Oblate?

_

The following is taken from the Constitutions of our Order concerning Oblates: The “Oblature” as a gift of oneself to God and to a monastery. This state of life is lived out in the midst of a particular community where the Oblate shares in the life and prayer of the monks. The Oblate is a member of the community to which he belongs without being canonically a member of the Order. The Oblature has the character of a promise of mutual fidelity on the part of both the Oblate and the community but does not itself imply any vow. The Oblate embraces the monastic life according to the spirit of the vows of obedience, conversion of manners, and stability. This mutual agreement is revocable on either side, but only for serious reasons.

The Oblate retains ownership of his goods but is invited to free himself as soon as possible from their administration. Where this is not possible, he administers these goods in agreement with the Abbot who watches over the interests of the Oblate and acts in such a way as to avoid anything that could be prejudicial to the community. After an initial time of probation, the Oblate is admitted to a two year period of probation, followed by a three year period of probation, after which, at the discretion of the abbot and community, the Oblate may be allowed to make a definitive and permanent engagement. During this time, the Oblate would receive formation in Cistercian spirituality, liturgy and monastic tradition.

I should mention that St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron was an Oblate of our monastery of St. Isidoro in Spain.  I hope this is helpful!

Do Trappists vote in a presidential election?


I was wondering if Trappist monks vote in presidential and other elections?

_

Trappists take very seriously our right and our responsibility to vote.  Consequently, most monks and nuns arrange to get to the voting booth on election day and Trappist abbots and abbesses generally encourage them to do so.

I think most people might be surprised at how intensely aware and concerned Trappists are, (men and women who have "left the world"), about the present historic political climate in the U.S.  Our separation from the world is not at all intended to foster ignorance or indifference to the plight of the poor, the unborn, immigrants, and those who are most vulnerable and precious to God.  Actually, our solitude and immersion in God's word causes us to be especially wounded by evidence of human cruelty and injustice, and so we have a unique motive to get out and vote.

One very pronounced difference in Trappist's response to an approaching presidential election is that we are generally extremely cautious and deliberate in how we express our views to each other.  Americans tend to "spew" opinions at one another on T.V. in the blogosphere, at the bus-stop . . . One doesn't have that luxury in a cloister.  In silence and solitude, an insulting word can be remembered and carried in the heart of a brother for years.  Consequently, though our opinions are as strong as anyone's, our voices are much softer and we tend to be more considerate of each other's feelings than many people are today.

Do you allow people of other faiths or no faith to make retreats at your monasteries?


I have developed a strong interest in subjects pertaining to theology, religion, and Christian mysticism.  I am not a Roman Catholic, but I am fascinated by the contemplative life.  Do you allow people of other or non-defined faiths to make retreats at
monasteries for short periods of time?

_

Yes, men and women of all faiths or no faith find welcome at our monasteries. As has been the case for centuries, monasteries extend hospitality to “travelers.” In the Medieval period, this meant offering food and rest to visitors made weary by miles and miles of walking.

Today, monasteries are sanctuaries for people suffering the greater weariness of contentious public discourse, scandal, uncertainty, and the boredom resulting from over stimulation by media. A retreat in one of our guest houses would generally last three or four days.

Since Trappists are generally not people inclined to proselytize, visitors professing a different faith or no faith find themselves at ease in their company and are able to spend a few days in stillness and silence listening to what ever word God might wish to communicate to them. Usually, there is a monk or nun available for retreatants to meet with if they feel a need to talk. They are also invited to attend the monastic liturgy and possibly join the monks or nuns in their daily manual labor. Your “fascination” with contemplative life would most likely lead to some interesting conversation with your Trappist brothers and sisters. I pray the Lord will bring you to our door step sometime soon.

I wonder about what meaning life has. Might I find it in helping others?


I have never known God.

The fact that I am writing these words is astounding to me. I have suffered many things throughout my life, and so I often ask what life is all about? I do not have the answer for this question.

Recently, I have been studying to become a doctor so that I can use the skills and knowledge to help others. I wish through helping others I could find some meaning in life. However, the study is difficult, and I doubt my ability.

Would you please let me know what God would say to me about this matter? Thank you very much.

This is what I believe God would say to you: “You astound me!”

I believe you are astounding to God for many reasons. He created you out of nothing and this means you exist in distinction from God in a way that even God finds amazing! You were created free. In fact the freedom of consent you give to anything, lays hold of its object as efficaciously as God's “yes” to God's own Self. This means you are in very truth an image of God, which is astounding.

You have suffered greatly; you have seen the face of evil – a phenomenon for which there is no explanation because evil is blackness and nothingness and can in no way be made intelligible to our understanding. You have seen it's face, but have not been defeated and aspire to the noble vocation of a doctor and healer. That is astounding.

Most importantly, you are gradually coming to awareness of all this, which is clear in the words you write: “The fact that I am writing these words is astounding to me.”

You are astounding. God always thought so. Now it is dawning on you.

Give thanks to God that you are a creature “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Praise Him. Thank Him. Express your thanks by pouring out your life for others. Love – make sure your motivation is love, and then do what seems best.

Finally, I would encourage you to consider making a retreat at one of our monasteries. Many people have experienced a retreat at a Trappist monastery to be most helpful at a moment of decision in their lives.

Contact a Vocation Director to learn more about the Trappists or pursue your vocation.