Brother GregoryGethsemani Abbey

“Communal prayer is basic and essential nourishment…”

It was an unexpected family reconciliation that stunned me and brought me back into the church, from my own personal “Siberia.” The Hound of Heaven knew exactly what he was doing when he led me song-in-heart to St. Patrick’s to give thanks for it. There I was swept promptly off my feet and whirled around by Someone inexplicably head over heels in love [agape.] That was the end of me. And the beginning. An unmistakable interest in monastic life started to make its urgent but peaceful presence felt, and I could sense the strands of my life coming together. All I had to do was say yes. It was the switch that turned everything on.

Never in a million years did I think, arriving in my teens on the eastern seaboard to go to school and return home with a higher education, that I would transmogrify into a New Yorker and embark on a path leading me ultimately to a consecrated life in the heartbeat of the church as a 21st-century Cistercian focused on service and praise. The path from black-and-white Holsteins to black-and-white reverse-penguin habits looms as an adventure walked not alone but in dark faith. As it turns out, there was more guidance for the forks along the road than I had any right to expect. In between were teaching stints at slums up and down the continent, training at Columbia and Yale in architecture, building a free clinic and a prototype eco-city in the heartland, assisting an ecumenical chaplain on the west coast – and, above all, years working as editor in the arts in the Big Apple.

I grew into the faith early on with the help of the usual osmosis from elders, relatives and peers lay, ordained and religious. I imbibed it with mother’s milk on the farm on the Pacific coast outside Lima, and from friends and neighbors including jovial friars, solemn higher-ups, and guileless seminarians breaking their midnight fast with us after Sunday mass in our country church.

Back in the church, I discovered spiritual direction, spiritual reading, and yearly retreats, and I took to them like a fish to water. Alternating between Ignatian guided exercises and less structured Trappist retreats up and down the east coast, I found what it was like to be soaked in healing prayer and energizing solitude and silence. Here at last was deep communion with the Father’s forthright love and sustaining power in a definitive grounding through the heart. Now I had to learn to live that out and share it.

After getting on board this amazing life, it’s become obvious that we have greater power to build up our community than we would assume. As the community and the life challenge us to grow, we’re in for the experience of our lives – and a mind-blowing laboratory of human nature it is, helping both the group and the individual. It’s both a very down-to-earth path to the good life and a so-called art form of the spirit.

Now it’s also crystal clear that contemplative communities have the simplest and most powerful tools of all and can build up the church itself with much humbler means than we commonly suppose: praise and service. Communal prayer, our specialty and the centerpiece of our life and our tradition, is an essential service we have the privilege and duty to provide to our world. It’s not about just praying for the world but with it, and inviting it to come pray with us. And this invitation is made real when we make our liturgy all it can be.

Brother Gregory: "Communal prayer is basic and essential nourishment..."Coming together in prayer whenever we are set on fire by isolated cases such as the aftermath of 9/11 and major natural disasters is necessary for us and for the social fabric, but it is definitely not enough. Communal prayer is basic and essential nourishment which must be regular to make an impact, not occasional. It has the power to ignite the life force of our ailing world and heal the spiritual hunger of our time. We have a whole church to feed. A whole world. And these are our few loaves and fish. Our communal prayer events are not called the work of God for nothing; they beat like waves against the shores of eternity.

To thrive in the real world – which we cannot escape and are not trying to – our liturgy can’t avoid competing with the offerings of our day and so must be ready for prime time, the way John Chrysostom in his own day won hands down over the many pagan attractions he was up against in attracting an audience. As Trappist thinker Michael Casey recommends, now that the newest Roman Missal is out, our historical task across the full spectrum of monasticism is to unify, enhance, and simplify our liturgy in the aftermath of the many lessons we have learned from applying the tectonic findings of the Second Vatican Council.

We Cistercians have been doing this from the get go in our precarious beginnings. It’s not a luxury for the comfortable times, but part of our traditional and happy obligation of hospitality to our guests, whom we see as Christ in person. By the grace of God, we muster the hope, courage and creativity for the job that makes us pulse again with energy and welcome newcomers in search of some spirit and guts.

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