Questions About Monastic Life

Why do Trappists wear leather belts?


Why do Trappists wear leather belts if you are vegetarians?

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God bless you, thank you for contacting us at Trappist.org. You asked about our practice of wearing a leather belt as part of our monastic habit.

While it is true that we Trappists observe a vegetarian diet, it is not generally meant as ideological vegetarianism (although it certainly could be for individual monks or nuns) but more as an offering of self-denial, in much the same way that Catholics traditionally abstain from eating meat during Fridays of Lent, except that we do this year-round.

Actually, the tradition of wearing a leather belt relies precisely because it does come from the death of an animal, and thus serves as a constant reminder of our own mortality; that we like that animal and all living things will die, but at the same time it is a reminder that in Christ we and the whole cosmos will share in His Resurrection. The leather belt becomes a memorial that we and all things have and share in a bigger Life.

If Jesus Christ initiated and or became a member of your Order of Cistercians, how could or would his followers and we be saved?


If Jesus Christ initiated and or became a member of your Order of Cistercians, how could or would his followers and we be saved? I find this order to be "out of order"  If one lights a candle, is it right to cover the light?  You may cause a fire.  You may darken the room and people could trip and fall. Your order seems to encouraged a life of hermitage.

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Very true, Jesus did not found or join a monastery - and he could have! The Essenes were close at hand, living a life comparable to the monastic way; some scholars have even suggested John the Baptist may have had some connection with that group. A cousin like Jesus would have been quite a catch!

Jesus had a different mission, and you and I are who/where/what we are today because of his fidelity to the mission to the end.

Ever since then his followers have participated in his mission according to his call to each. No Christian can fully live, fully express all that Jesus was and did. As St. Paul says "Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all prophets?...." (1 Cor 12:27-30)

All these roles are necessary - and many more besides. There are the indispensable visible roles - and thank God so many Christians fill them so well! There are also the equally indispensable invisible roles - which is where the contemplative Orders in the Church come in. They too continue the work of Jesus - entering into his solitary prayer to the Father, interceding for all the apostolic ministers of the gospel and for all the People of God.

We pray for those who speak the Word of God and for those who hear it. We pray for those who want to pray but cannot. We pray in the night for those who labor in the night, those who suffer in the night, those who are tempted in the night.

It is ultimately a matter of vocation, of God's call to each Christian. Obviously God calls many more to active apostolic work; the call to a hidden contemplative Christian life will be to relatively few. But to those invited to this, it is an imperious call. The Church has blessed this life, encouraged it, considers it a necessary part of evangelization, a living witness to God's transcendence, to the fact that God is worthy of the total gift of the human heart, and calls some persons to make this total gift, and to satisfied with nothing else.

You are quite right that each Christian must proclaim the Good News, must bear witness to the light. But there are as many different ways of doing this as there are Christians. Some may and must burn brightly before the world; some must be simply a living flame of love in God's presence, trusting that this light of love will reach to the ends of the earth.

Can a Trappist monk or nun wear their rosary or a cross/crucifix if they choose to do so?


I have seen members of other orders wear their rosary or a cross/crucifix. Can a Trappist monk or nun wear their rosary or a cross/crucifix if they choose to do so?

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Many Trappists have a real devotion to both the rosary and the cross, but we do not normally wear them as a part of our regular habit. Most of us keep our rosary in our pocket—so that it is handy for use! And some do wear a crucifix on a chain around the neck under the habit.

Actually the choir robe part of our habit (we call it the cowl) has the shape of a cross, and this is an important symbol for us.

Leaving the Monastery to Care for a Sick Parent


Is a Trappist normally permitted to leave the monastery to care for a sick or aging parent in cases of necessity?

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In special circumstances, a Trappist monk or nun is permitted to return home for a time to care for a sick or aging parent. This would generally only be arranged if there is no one else able to provide for the parent. Though a Trappist's donation of himself or herself to God in a cloistered life, involves a radical separation, and new kind of relationship with our family, Jesus' teaching regarding the love and active care for parents is very clear, and we honor that.

It should be said that, in general, when a man or woman applies to enter a monastery, the Vocation Director would make inquiries to establish that parents of the candidate have recourse to other family members to provide for them in old age. In most cases, the aging or ailing parent of a Trappist, having their basic needs met, appreciate very much the presence of their son or daughter in the cloister interceding on their behalf.

Can I maintain my own dietary discipline as a Trappist?


Are the monks and nuns strict vegetarians (no meat, fish,chicken ever)? I am a 90% raw food vegetarian and have been for many years.  If I wanted to become a Trappist monk and maintain my dietary discipline.  Would that be possible? Are monks and nuns strictly separated from each other in their living and working conditions?

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Yes, in accord with the sixth century Rule of St. Benedict, and in keeping with a special concern manifested during the seventeenth century Trappist Reform, we are vegetarians as regards “four footed animals.”

Fish may be occasionally included in a meal. I'm not entirely sure what maintaining a “raw food vegetarian diet” involves, but I can assure you, your diet in a Trappist monastery will consist of very simply prepared meals of mostly vegetables, beans, and grain products. As regards one's diet, there is also a strong emphasis on the spiritual value of living the “common life” of the community, that is, of conforming, in your behavior, to what you see the senior monks doing whose experience makes them something like a living “Rule.”

Finally, if I understand your question correctly – yes, monks and nuns are separated in monasteries of men and women. However, within a particular monastery of men or women, members live and work closely together.

How is Devotion to Mary manifested in the Lives of Trappists?


I am interested to know if the monks and nuns pray the rosary in common.  Also, could you explain the Trappist devotion to Mary and how this is manifested in your daily lives?

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Each monk and nun bears the name of Mary (e.g., Sister Mary Catharine, Brother Mary Paul, etc) – and each of our monasteries is called by a title of Mary – Our Lady of the Angels, Our Lady of the Assumption, etc.  We have a sung commemoration of Mary at each hour of the Divine Office, and we conclude our day with the lovely “Salve Regina” sung in her honor.  Since we are choir for at least 4 hours each day for the Liturgy of the Hours, we do not normally pray the rosary communally.  We do this individually whenever we wish.

The Mother of God rightly means a great deal to Trappist Cistercians – our Constitutions end with this beautiful invocation of her intercession:  “May God grant that by the breath of the Paraclete, the monks and nuns may observe these Constitutions in a spirit of fraternal charity and fidelity to the Church, and so joyfully make their way to the fullness of love, with the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Citeaux.”

How exactly does the Holy Spirit help us to grow in holiness?


If our goal is holiness, how does revelation, our passions, virtue and grace; especially the gift of the Holy Spirit , help us reach that goal?

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Regarding the roles of revelation, the passions, virtue, grace and the Holy Spirit in our quest for holiness, you will find much to help you regarding this question in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but let me answer it from the perspective of a Trappist monk. A few days ago, Fr. Edmund began mass by pointing out that, in the gospel for the day, Jesus asks the invalid: “Do you want to get well?”, and the invalid, proceeding to a detailed explanation of why he can't get into the healing waters of the “Sheep Gate” pool, never actually answers Jesus' question. I thought, “Is it possible Jesus has asked me personally – Do you want to get well? - and I never gave him an answer? But I really do want to grow in holiness. This is my deepest desire.

A little later, at a community meeting, a brother sat silently, and after a while dozed off. I was angry at the brother who never speaks at meetings, but remembering what is revealed about Jesus' gentle solicitude for me: “Do you want to be well?” I imagined Jesus saying the same to this brother suffering from indifference, and was able to let go of my rancor. Later, grateful that a certain burden of anger had been lifted from my heart, I had the distinct impression of it being lifted under the influence of a powerful set of wings and, for an instant, had a vivid experience of the nearness of God's Holy Spirit whom I realized had visited me that morning.

It is the beauty of the life of a Trappist to find the mysteries of revelation and the spiritual life made very real and close to us in circumstances like those I've described here.

Monks don’t have contact with people – what do you pray about?


What do monks pray about? A cloistered monk does not have the challenges, I assume, of someone in the outside world. Nor does a cloistered monk have contact with people for whom he might pray. So what is the content of a monk's prayers? Does he pray for the whole world? For himself? For his brother monks? I would very much like to know.

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A beloved and popular parish priest who became a monk once said to me: “As a priest, I embraced my parishoners. Living a life of prayer in the cloister, I can embrace the whole world!” And he suffered with the world. He suffered a lot. His prayer for the world came out of the suffering he endured learning the truth about himself and, subsequently, the mercy of God.

It is good to pray for all who suffer in the world. Your prayer is more powerful if it is informed by a deep understanding of the nature and source of that suffering. The source of the worst suffering is estrangement from God. We become estranged from God by becoming estranged from ourselves at whose center is the living God.

A monk does not have fewer challenges, he has fewer distractions, which makes him much more present to the daunting truth about himself, and this can be enormously challenging. Self-knowledge can break a man completely to pieces and put him back together again as a new man. It is out of this crucible of life-long conversion and self-abnegation that a monk prays for the world, for his brothers, and for himself. I am convinced most of the compulsive talking and busyness in the world is driven by the fear of solitude where, people instinctively know, they're going to have a radical encounter with themselves. Solitude is like a cave that people are afraid to venture into. Monks go into the cave. They do that for you and for the world. Do we know what's going on out there? We know the important things. Our contact with the world comes in various forms: the newspaper, continuous new prayer requests posted on our bulletin board, often without names; heartrending cries like distressed voices coming from a dark wood. Neighbors share with us their family joys and tragedies. All this we take back into the silence and solitude of the cloister and into our private and communal prayer.

Do monks typically avoid stimulus coming from their environment?


In terms of physical activity and lots of stimulus in the environment, do monks withdraw from large gatherings and spend a lot of time in solitary, peaceful rest and some communication with a few other monks?

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If you take note of the images on this website, you will note two things about the physical environments we inhabit: they are filled with light, and they are very simply designed and furnished. Cistercians learned centuries ago that living in light filled rooms of stark simplicity (and dim lit rooms too), is an aid to fostering contemplative prayer and “mindfulness” of the mysteries of God. “Withdrawal” or “flight from the world”, as it is traditionally called is, of course, foundational to our way of life and self-understanding.

We are, by temperament, men and women who tend to gravitate toward solitude as that place where God, in the person of Jesus Christ, becomes more real for us and can be known intimately. Though we live in community, we are also solitaires. Communication with each other is disciplined and circumscribed. Actually, the entire block of time from the end of Compline in the evening until after mass the following morning is generally observed in our monasteries as the “Great Silence” in which there is no communication between monks / nuns at all. Then there are places of silence: The church, the cloister garth, the refectory, the monk's cells and the corridors adjoining the cells. All this helps to create a very quiet environment.

Our life is a sign to the church and to the world, pointing people toward the truth that their vocation in Christ is to “go apart”; to die to themselves and be raised again as a new creation. Silence, solitude, and simplicity of life, are all values that monks cultivate in order to provide this witness to the world.

Do Trappists use heat and air-conditioning?


I have always thought that Trappists life was a life of self-denial. So I was thinking do you have air conditioning and heat in your abbey? 

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A Trappist monk embraces a life of rigorous physical asceticism, partly as his way of meeting God half way by doing penance for sins, partly because a deep instinct in him says this is a good, healthy, and sanctifying way to live. Self-denial is the contribution we make to the miracle which God alone can accomplish called “self-transcendence.”

A person who has transcended himself is available for love, deep prayer, and service to others. In light of these deep motivations characteristic of the heart of a Trappist, we generally do not make use of air-conditioning. My monastery has no air conditioned rooms except those in the infirmary occupied by very elderly monks. The heat in August, radiating from the limestone blocks of the walls of my monastery, is a penance I am asked to embrace with faith and joy. I accept by choice the discomfort as a means of being in solidarity with many, many people who suffer the effects of heat and who have not choice. Most Trappists I know live happily without air conditioning. Heating, by contrast, can be necessary for survival. Where I live, in Iowa, temperatures can plummet to forty degrees below zero. Heating is a non-negotiable of our life in January and February. However, were you to visit, you might notice the building is chilly. We heat in order to maintain the bodily health necessary for us to fulfill the mission God has given us – not to make ourselves comfortable.

Can monks have their own books or electronic reading devices?


Can monks have their own books or electronic reading devices?

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Trappists take a vow of poverty by which we renounce our right to possess anything at all.

So – no, a monk does not posses his own a books or electronic devices. Most monasteries have a large library which provides more books than any monk could read in a life time, but these are owned communally and for common use. I am not aware that electronic reading devices make much of an appearance in our monasteries at present. In the event they do in the future, the would likewise be owned communally and for the common use of all.

What sort of books and magazines do Trappists have access to?


What sort of books and magazines do Trappists have access to?

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The earlier inquiry you read was concerned specifically with ownership of books. Yours concerns monk's access to books and this is another matter.

While monks have never owned their own books, they have, historically, enjoyed access to large libraries, and this is one of the real blessings of a monastic way of life. Monks these days have access to a wide variety of books and periodicals, both religious and secular in nature. We even have access to responsible use of the internet for study purposes.

Regarding Thomas Merton – though he was surely an attractive personality, a gifted writer, and a spiritual master, his personal lifestyle was not actually representative of how his brothers at Gethsemani lived in the 1950's, (nor most other Trappists at that time.) As a relatively young monk, who became a nationally acclaimed writer and later outspoken cultural critic, he was permitted by his superiors to have access to a variety of reading materials and was also allowed to cultivate numerous personal contacts with people outside the monastery. The distinctive habits you read about in his journals need to be understood in this context. Merton experienced a unique call from God, which he lived out in a creative tension with the received monastic tradition – and sometimes with Dom James Fox, his abbot.

What does a Trappist library contain?


What does the typical Trappist monastery library contain? Are the books only on the Christian tradition, or are there books on secular topics and other spiritual paths? How about periodicals and newspapers?

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Monastic libraries typically house thousands of books on a wide range of subjects.

My own monastery at New Melleray Abbey, is probably representative of what you would find in many Trappist monasteries today. Our library, containing about ten thousand volumes, is dominated by books on Theology, Scripture, History, Philosophy, Spirituality and Monasticism as you might expect. But one will also find there books on Psychology, Sociology, Linguistics, Non-Christian Religions, (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism), Comparative Religion, New Age, and Atheism.

There are special sections containing books on Art, Literature, Physics, Biology, Medicine, and Botany. In a back corner of the library you find shelves offering introductions to Japan, Russia, Africa and a dozen or so other countries. Left over shelves provide small collections of books on ships, airplanes, space travel, and trains.

Besides books, our library contains numerous periodicals, religious, (AmericaNCR, Origins, Christian Century, Spiritus, Communio, etc.) as well as secular publications like Time and National Geographic. You will also find on display the DeMoines Register, and Dubuque's Telegraph Herald. Such a variety of reading material available to cloistered monks might surprise some but, monks are “Catholics” after all and, for hundreds of years, monk's literary interests have been appropriately Catholic.

Do Trappist monks receive academic instruction after progressing beyond the novice stage? If so, of what does the academic curriculum/program consist?


Teaching, in the monastic tradition, has always been more experiential than theoretical.

In the early days, an aspiring monk fell at the feet of an elder and said: “Abba – give me a word”. The Abba told him how he should eat, the schedule of prayers he should follow, times for manual labor, etc. He taught him what to do in the event he experienced temptations of various sorts – it was all very practical.

Monastic formation remains mostly experiential and practical. You learn to be a monk by living and talking with old monks.

There are some formal classes and these are offered beginning with the two year novitiate, once or twice a week. Typically, a novice will be offered instruction in Lectio Divina, the Psalms, Monastic History, Scripture, and house customs.

During the three years as a Junior monk, studies are more intensive and go into greater depth. Prior to 1969, the Juniorate was actually called the “Scholasticate” because this was the time when those monks the Abbot had called to priesthood began their formal studies. They were even given time off from work each day to apply themselves to these studies.

After Solemn Vows, a Trappist may be sent by his or her superior to do further studies, either for the priesthood or in order to prepare the monk to teach class in the monastery. So, for example, a monk or nun might be sent to a Catholic University to study Liturgy, or Scripture, or to Rome to study Canon Law.

Every year at Kalamazoo Michigan, the Cistercian Congress features many lectures on Cistercian themes and our monks and nuns often attend these meetings.

Do Trappist Monks and Nuns take the vow of silence?


For hundreds of years, Trappist monks and nuns have been known for living a very silent life. Consequently, people commonly know Trappists as “the monks who don't talk." They know we take vows and so naturally suppose we take a vow of silence.

The truth is, Trappists have never actually taken an explicit vow of silence.

We take three vows, which have their source in the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century:

  • A vow of Stability, promising to live the rest of our lives with one monastic community
  • A vow of Obedience to an abbot
  • A Vow of “Conversion of Manners”, the promise to live the monastic life in all its parts as described by the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitutions of our Order.

This last vow of “conversion” takes in the practice of celibacy, fasting, manual labor, separation from the world and silence. It then remains for the monk or nun to apply themselves faithfully to the observance of silence characteristic of their own community.

Relative to the way most people live, this is definitely a commitment to pretty radical silence.

A Trappist monastery is a quiet place! In a Trappist monastery, monks typically have three motivations to speak to one another: to get a particular work project carried out efficiently, to engage in a community discussion, or to discuss one's spiritual progress with a director or confessor.

Sometimes, too, Trappists will enjoy friendly conversations with each other in a conversation room or in nature. These different types of conversation are balanced with the discipline of fostering a general atmosphere of silence in the monastery.

Trappists find the silence helps them to practice continual prayer. But, strictly speaking – no, we do not explicitly vow to be silent on the day we make our profession of vows.

Do any monasteries in the U.S. still use sign language?


Thanks for your question. Some of the older monks and nuns in our communities would know the Trappist sign language taught to them in the 1940's and 1950's when they entered monastic life. Today, you might see these older members of the community making signs to one another out of force of habit.

There were signs used so often as to be performed almost unconsciously: a rap on the breast with a closed fist: “pardon me.” The two index fingers joined in the shape of a triangle: “finished”. The thumb propped under the chin, which is the sign for “death”, but can mean: “wrap it up.” or “that's enough”.

On a happier note – the fingers splayed and passed over the face like a fan: “beautiful”. (I once saw a monk in his eighties actually sign the 1941 Betty Grable movie: “Moon over Miami”!)

In 1969 Trappist monks and nuns began to rethink the essential monastic value of community and how best to live that. Rather than strict silence, requiring an elaborate sign language, (by which people were communicating after all!), we instituted places and times for silence. In the process we discovered that silence is actually better observed and deeper when provision is made for the essential human need for communication at certain times. Consequently, newcomers to monastic life after about 1980 would not have been taught any but a few of the old Trappist signs.

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