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Mark Galli

The Romance of the Cloister

American readers are in love with monasticism. But just what do these monks have to teach us?

The Orchards of Perseverance: Conversations with Trappist Monks About God, Their Lives, and the World by David D. Perata, St. Theresa's Press, 201 pp.; $19.95, paper

At the last official count (January 1, 1999), there were 2,383 Trappist monks in the world. The Trappist order ranks 20th in membership among religious Roman Catholic orders, just ahead of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (with 2,308 members) and just three behind the Priests of the Sacred Heart (2,386). In other words, there are about as many Trappists in the world as there are students at one small liberal arts college, like Middlebury or Colorado College. By comparison, the Jesuits number 21,955, while the three principal orders of Franciscans together number 33,500. When it comes to religious orders for men, the Trappists are small potatoes (though admittedly not as small as the 42-member Servants of the Holy Paraclete, the smallest order). Still the Trappists, and their parent order the Benedictines (which rank fifth at 8,281 members), seem to exert an influence today far beyond their numbers.

This is no doubt partly due to the popularity of Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, which described his journey into the Trappist life, as well as his many other works, most of which in one form or another extol virtues characteristic of Trappist life: silence, prayer, meditation, and the like. As our era's pace, complexity, and noise have in creased exponentially, the Trappists' spiritual rigors have become increasingly attractive. Until a few years ago, on top of vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Trappists also took a vow of silence, and observed a precise and detailed order of living, down to the placement and style of tableware (e.g., two-handed mugs and wooden spoons and forks were mandatory).

Along with the rest of post-Vatican Catholicism, Trappists have loosened some of their characteristic rules, though not their main vocation: prayer. They continue to do little "useful" by ...

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