An Oasis from the World: Visiting a Trappist Monastery

imageYesterday, I travelled to a rural western valley to visit a monastery of Trappist monks. Tucked in a quiet corner of the foothills, the abbey is comprised of a cluster of Quonset huts nestled in a lonely grove of oaks. The tall trees provide a cool place of respite from the hot Utah sun, but there is something about the abbey that makes it an oasis in more ways than one.

The abbey was founded not long after World War II and entering its premises is almost like stepping back into the ’50’s. The buildings are all Quonset huts, doubtless purchased for a cheap price from the post-war military surplus. The monks themselves are remnants of that era. Most of them joined in the 50’s, and few have ever left the premises. One of them spent his 19th birthday in the battle of Iwo Jima. The priest whom I was visiting has been there since 1950, and only left once in the ’60’s to help at a sister abbey in Virginia.

There is something calming and soothing about the atmosphere of the abbey. It is quiet and simple, untouched by the frantic materialism of the outside world. One walks into the chapel, hears the monks chanting their ancient hymns, and feels at peace.

My friend has lived at the abbey for almost 64 years, and, as he likes

The Trappist abbey seen from above.
The Trappist abbey seen from above.

to say, “Each day gets better!” Like all Trappist monks, he leads an austere life, waking up at 3:15 every morning for matins and spending the rest of the day working, studying or praying. Except for very special occasions, they eat no meat. They follow a rigorous schedule that requires them to be in the chapel seven times a day, everyday, for community prayer. It’s hard for most of us to imagine someone with such a demanding lifestyle being happy, but I can honestly say that my friend Fr. Pat is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.

I love speaking with Fr. Pat. His joy and peace is truly contagious. He treats all of his friends with tremendous love and concern, making each individual feel welcomed and cherished. The man has lived the past six and half decades in prayer and union with God, and he exudes the peace and happiness that comes from such intimacy. When one is with Fr. Pat, he makes him feel like he is the center of the world.

Fr. Pat is well into his 80’s, but is perfectly healthy – he doesn’t even wear glasses. I have no doubt that his good health, both physical and emotional, is linked to the life he has chosen to live. His life is simple and stress-free, but by no means shallow or dull. Although he has his feet firmly on the ground, he lives in another dimension at the same time – the dimension of faith. He is constantly in contact with the supernatural, and he relishes his life of prayer. As he told me yesterday, the simplicity of his monastic lifestyle has given him incredible freedom: his detachment from the craziness of the world allows him the freedom to connect with the beauty of God in a way that few of us can achieve.

imageI must admit that, at times, I find the peace and simplicity of monastic life to be attractive. However, God has given me a different calling: not to be a cloistered priest, but a priest who lives and battles in the world of today. It was difficult to leave the peace of the abbey and go back out into reality, but I find it deeply reassuring to know that Fr. Pat is there, in his peaceful seclusion, spiritually supporting me and everyone of us, cleric or layperson, who is called to be in the thick of the epic spiritual battle which is our times.

“What will you do with your dash?”

imageI mentioned in a previous blog that I had been accompanying a very beloved family member in the last stage of her life. On May 6th, the moment finally came and she silently slipped into eternity. Since then, we have been mourning her loss, but also celebrating the beautiful love with which she  lived her life.

According to her wishes, the last weeks of her life were spent at home. Living close to a dying family member is not easy, but, as painful as it is, I believe that it is a good thing. The suffering forces the family to come together, and just as a physical body exerts all energy to assist an ailing part, the individuals of the family sacrifice time and comfort to be at the side of the sick loved one. Thus, they are brought into the dying process, their love is tested and it is brought to a new level.

Another thing happens when you are close to the dying process of a loved one. Death becomes more of a reality. It is no longer something you hear about or see in movies: it is just down the hall. In my case, I was at her side when she breathed her last. The abruptness and finality of the experience left a deep impression on me: one moment she was there and the next moment she was not. When you are that close to someone’s death, you realize that not much stands between you and the other side. Death is just a few seconds away.

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The German philosopher Heidegger described man as a “being-towards-death” (Sein-zum-Tode). Although his philosophy was devoid of Christian hope, this aspect of man is nevertheless true. Whether we realize it or not, our daily existence is conditioned by our upcoming deaths. We live the way we do because we know that our time is limited. We work and seek happiness, and we do so almost frantically, because we only have so much time at our disposal.

I once had a very interesting conversation with a minister’s wife on a train ride from Manhattan to Westchester County. She was telling me about a common question in her husband’s preaching: “What will you do with your dash?” The dash refers to the little line that will appear on your tombstone between the date of your birth and the date of your death. It stands for all of the time that elapsed between your entrance into the world and your departure. It may represent 25 years, 50 or even 100. But it doesn’t matter how much time passed: on your tombstone it is going to be signified by nothing more than a little line.

After our conversation, I got off at my stop in the town of Valhalla20140417-161738.jpg and I was struck by something ironic. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the great banquet hall of the after-life. My short train ride ended in Valhalla, just as my short life will, God willing, end in Heaven. Really, compared to eternity, earthly life is as quick and fleeting as a daily commute.

But the shortness of life need not be a source of dread. Rather, we should view our time on Earth as an exciting prelude to the real thing. It is a journey towards and a preparation for something so great, so beyond our imagination, that a lifetime is needed to get ready for it. To use a mundane example, our life is like the preview of a movie: it is short and quick, but it offers a glimpse of something even better.

As painful and as dark as life can be, there are still rays of beauty that shine through, tugging at our hearts and reminding us that something greater is just around the corner.

20140418-112210.jpg“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”¬†– John 14: 2 – 3

Time is ticking between now and the moment you enter the Father’s house. What will you do with your dash?