Yesterday, 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
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.
I 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.