Bread of Heaven

What do you think of when you envision a monastery?
A stone building?
Beautiful gardens?

A large, ornate church?
Monks wearing robes and sandals?

That’s what I pictured too- and most of it is accurate but there is much more to a monastery than silence and hooded monks.

When people found out I was going to a monastery for a Lenten retreat, most made some joke about the difficulties of being silent while drinking beer. Again, accurate but not the point. The point was that I was going to a place of devout religious life where men made life long pledges to follow Christ. A place that would teach me a lot about this title I’m trying to live out- Christian.

The monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey are monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known as Trappists. The Trappists are a Roman Catholic order of monks and nuns that can trace their history as far back as 1098. The order seeks to live in unity with God through Jesus Christ by practicing a life of prayer, worship, and hospitality. The daily of a monk is both regulated and free. Its an interesting paradox, which we got a small taste of during our short time there.

Monks rise at 3am and retire at 8pm. They attend services for the Liturgy of the Hours; one service once every couple of hours. The first service is vigils at 3:30am and the last one is compline at 7:40pm. And yes, I did attend the 3:30am service, once. Between services the monks work on grounds, have time for prayer, and have time to read and study. The Liturgy of the Hours services and work take up a majority of the monk’s daily routine but he does have some free time to pursue his faith. Many take time to walk the grounds, read one of the books in the enormous library, spend time in prayer, or talk with their Brothers.

We attended most of the services, none of them were mandatory, and spent our mornings in conference with a monk named Father Peter. He entered the life in a monastery in his native Germany where he spent 25 years there before moving to the abbey in Spencer, MA. He’s been there for 18 years. His dedication was inspiring. He entered the Trappist lifestyle as a young adult and has stayed with it even though a monk is not married to monastic life until he takes final vows.

One of the main things that hit me time and again during the week was the intention and dedication of these men to a life centered on their faith. They rise at 3am to worship their Christ. They attend multiple services a day and live a life of contemplative prayer. I took a few walks during my time at St. Joseph’s and most of the time I ended up in the visitor’s chapel. Every time I was in the visitor’s chapel, at least one monk praying in the lowly lit, silent abbey church. Their dedication to a life of constant worship and prayer is fascinating and awe inspiring. I don’t think I’ve had that amount of dedication for a single hobby, never mind a way of life.
Their way of life is their daily bread. They live on the the love of the Spirit and keep Christ as their focus. When they take the Eucharist they take part in a breaking of bread that is over 2000 years old. The Love is their sustenance.

They are nourished by the Spirit, the bread of heaven. I am hungry.