Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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

The Orchards of Perseverance

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 modern standards: no hospitals for the sick nor food pantries for the poor, no preaching to convert sinners. They offer their monasteries as retreat centers for pilgrims; they labor (usually in agriculture and/or hand crafts) to sustain their communities economically. And they pray.

It's very, very simple—the sort of thing hyperactive, terminally exhausted evangelicals like me regard with envy. Wouldn't that be wonderful, we think, to free ourselves from cell phones and cable TV, from building and grounds committees and soccer coaching, from the constant hum of industrialized living and the endless stretch of concrete and asphalt (it is one of the world's modern wonders to me that an unbroken stretch of pavement connects my home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, to the home of my brother in Mission Viejo, California—not to mention thousands of other destinations). Wouldn't it be a dream instead to spend one's life in the quiet confines of an agricultural community, to work with our hands, to give spiritual direction to others, and to pray—to commune with God, to become intimate with things divine, to perhaps enjoy mystical union.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that books on the monastic life have been spilling from publishers' offices. The latest surge began with Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk (Riverhead, 1997), whose winsome retelling of her retreats with Benedictine monks alerted us once more to the spiritual possibilities inherent in the monastic way. In Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (Doubleday, 1999), Paul Wilkes relays the insights he gained by spending a year, on and off, with Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Matt Murray not only sheds light on the unique dynamics of his family's life but also gives us a peek into the mysterious attraction of monasticism in The Father and the Son: My Father's Journey into the Monastic Life (HarperCollins, 1999).

But that's only the beginning. Recently I've run across Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life (HarperSanFrancisco), by Hugh Feiss, OSB; A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Servant), by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourette; and Benedict's Way: An Ancient Monk's Insights for a Balanced Life (Loyola, 2000), by journalist Lonni Collins Pratt and Benedictine Daniel Holman—not to mention the many new editions of ancient monastic rules and teachings, such as the 1998 Vintage Books edition of The Rule of Saint Benedict.

And on it goes. The curiosity, I think, can be boiled down to Paul Wilkes's simple declarative sentence toward the beginning of his book: "I wanted to find out how monks experience God." The assumption, of course, is that monks, especially prayer warriors like the Trappists, have inside knowledge about this experience and that if we could just spend some time with them, we too would learn how to enjoy a greater experience of God.

It was this perennial hope that drove me to and through David Perata's The Orchards of Perseverance: Conversations with Trappist Monks About God, Their Lives, and the World. Reading Perata was the next best thing to being there; as the introduction explains, "This book is about men called by God, about the way they perceived their God calling them, and about their responses to their divine call."

Perata has for years been a regular visitor to New Clairvaux in Vina, California (just north of California State University at Chico, once rated by Playboy magazine the most party-friendly school in the nation). He has become good friends with many of the Trappists there, and has recorded a number of conversations with them to prepare articles about their life. With the approval of Abbot Thomas Davis, he transcribed and edited these interviews into chapter-length monologues for publication. The result is this book.

Perata is no objective sociologist here, and does not pretend to be one. He considers these men members of his extended family, and he's obviously in awe of their spirituality. In some ways, the book is his family album, and it includes a number of photographs of interest only to those who are part of the family (e.g., the Refectory in 1956 and then today; monks hamming it up for the camera, and so on). He is enamored with the exclamation point and the cliche ("It was a truly magical experience!"), but he does have sense enough to get out of the way after three introductory chapters and let the monks speak for themselves.

The Call to Growth

The life of these monks begins with a call—sometimes even, in rare instances, a clearly supernatural call. For Brother Francis, who has been at New Clairvaux since 1970, it was a "locution," an audible divine or angelic voice that came to him repeatedly, once when backing out of a driveway: "Someday you're going to be a monk."

For most, however, it was a more mundane process, perhaps beginning with the reading of a book, like Merton's history of the Cistercian and Trappist orders, Waters of Shiloe. That was the case for Father Paul Mark, though it was hardly clear at the time: "I can see today with perspective that it was at that time when I read the book, I just felt or knew … that I had received my vocation. … I know what I was looking for in my heart."

Yet for everyone, the call includes a detailed process of discernment that is as rational and methodical as gaining a license to practice law. There is an initial screening by the novice director, then aspirancy, a one- to two-week program in which the candidate prays with the community. Candidates must fill out a questionnaire on practical, psychological, and medical issues, and the monastery requests five references. Then there are formal interviews with the abbot and two former novice directors, followed by observership, a minimum four-week stay at the monastery, after which a final decision is made whether the candidate is accepted for postulancy, a year-long program, after which the abbot's council evaluates them.

But they're still not done. Next comes the novitiate, which includes a two-year intensive guided reading of the church fathers. Only then, with the approval of the conventional chapter, does the novice make a profession and receive the black scapular and the leather cincture.

Some of the criteria are commonsensical. Novice director Paul Mark says, "Someone who's attracted to our life is going to be someone who tends to be more introverted and more able to turn inwards and be more comfortable with himself." Some are spiritually practical: "If they can't pray in the world," he says, "they're not going to be able to pray in the monastery." Some criteria are, well, just plain realistic: they generally don't take men under 21 (not mature enough) nor over 40 (too set in their lifestyles).

Along with rational methodology comes mystery. When pushed, these monks seem unable to justify their vocations, especially in light of the needs of the church and the world for men of their spiritual sensitivities. Nonetheless, they all seem convinced that the monastery is where God has called them. As Father Timothy put it, "A vocation is a mystery. It's each person's mystery, and it's a vocation from God, and in his own way, he kind of prepares you for what he knows he wants you to do."

Some monks justify their vocation by pointing to prayer, which—with seven offices a day—orders their life. Father Timothy (who began at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1939, moving west with the founders of New Clairvaux in 1955) expresses this best:

There's always that tension at the beginning of vocation [to wonder if one could do more practical good in the world] but gradually you get into the monastic life and you find out that your reach is much further and more effective as a monk. … All our liturgy all day is the most powerful outreach to the whole world. You can do it yourself right in your own bedroom, praying for China, Russia, Kuwait, or Iraq or something you choose. You can reach out and your prayer is heard. We just intensify that same thing … but we focus our whole life on worshipping God and outreach to the world."

And he challenges my inadvertently atheistic pragmatism when he says, "The perception by some that a monk drops out from society and becomes a non-productive member only holds water if one believes that the material world is our sole reality, and that prayer is not a valid contribution to humanity."

Still, most of the monks do not emphasize this aspect of prayer. Instead they tend to view it as a means of personal and spiritual growth. When sixty-four-year-old Father Anthony (at New Clairvaux since 1972), for example, describes the various struggles he's had over the years, his language is relentlessly psychological. He says as a monk, he discovered he is a "producer," some one who likes to get a lot done. But he has learned that this impulse "has to be kept in check … that's not the full range of who I am." His experiences at New Clairvaux have taught him that "a large part of people's problems" come in the course of "trying to be comfortable and happy being who they are." Prayer for Father Anthony seems to be a means to this end: "You go to God and you sit down and say, 'God, something is bothering me. Do you mind if we talk this over?' And then you grow inside."

This emphasis on the inner person begins with an assumption about the main locus of revelation. Perata says, "The message in their respective visions of God is not that God is to be sought outside the self. … God is the life of the soul." Thus a great deal of spiritual discernment involves following Socrates' dictum, "Know thyself" (though none of the monks quite put it this way).

To be sure, the monks talk a lot about the importance of losing the self, or at least the old self. Perata quotes Abbot Thomas X. Davis: "In our spiritual tradition, there exists a dynamic wherein through love, persons enter into immediate contact with one an other and, in doing so, undergo an authentic loss of 'self.'" Then again, one of Father Paul Mark's comments is not atypical: "You're constantly going deeper and deeper in this faith journey. A lot of the time, nothing seems to be happening. I find myself caught up in distractions and daydreams and say, 'What's the point of all this? Is it doing anything for me? Am I really growing?' " Brother Cullen regularly asks himself, "What am I doing with my time? Am I getting where I expect to be, or where I hope to be? Am I getting out of life what I want?"

Even the use of Scripture, traditionally a source of guidance outside the self, is used to stir up the inner workings of the soul. As Perata puts it, "When a monk reads Scriptures—once he learns to get past his intellect and superficial emotions—the passages truly become the living Word of God, transcending language, exploding into the very heart of the reader where the divine message is received and understood."

Thus there is little traditional talk about a "dark night of the soul," of struggles with God, or spiritual battles. Instead, psychology is the battleground. "You have to tear everything down to the foundation and rebuild the structure up again," says Paul Mark. "You deal more with it the older you get because you're entering at a deeper and deeper level of the 'self,' you know, the ego, and you're discovering that what you identified as your 'self' is really a false self. And then you get to a new level and you realize this is the false self also."

Two monks openly describe nervous breakdowns they experienced at New Clairvaux and their need to spend time in therapy. "I started facing my anger and I got really to the point … when I didn't believe in God anymore," says Brother Francis:

I saw a lot of darkness. I saw a lot of sin in the world and myself. I never questioned my faith before I got here. I mean, I was helping other people who were questioning their faith, but I never had time to question my own. The faith I had before was a sincere faith but it was naive.

I went to therapy. I started believing again. The first therapy was pretty intense. … I'd be crying and I'd be in a rage sometimes. I had all this anger at God, my parents, my teachers, and myself. I was angry at God for all the negativity in my past life, and any time anything went wrong I'd want to walk out the gate.

A Strange God

One of the highest aspirations of the monks at New Clairvaux seems to be peace, that is, gaining an inner tranquility that is unaffected by outside events. Perata praises Father Timothy for the "aura of peace and gentleness surrounding this extremely soft-spoken man," and a teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, summarized by Thomas Merton, seems to lie at the heart of New Clairvaux's psychological ethic. Referring to God's will, the will or desires or interests of others, and providential circumstances, Merton says, "If such obstacles destroy our peace of mind, cause us to rebel, to get excited, to lose our tempers, or to become depressed or finally, to override the will of God and man alike to get our own way, then we have clear evidence that our intention was more or less selfish (in proportion to the disturbance), no matter what fine reasons we may have given for our act beforehand."

The monks insist that work, prayer, community, and psychological growth lie only at the periphery of their vocation. Perata says, "If we were to remove union with God from the monastic equation, all of the vows, usages, and structures that we've been discussing would be rendered meaningless." Brother Adam (entered the order in 1946; died in 1998) adds, "Although you've got this beautiful monastery with peace and quiet, and nature all around us, still it wouldn't be fulfilling if you take God out of it. God is, for me, my life."

Father Timothy describes his experience:

You're not waiting for feelings because in your most intimate relationship with God, there's no feelings, just Spirit. You're in awareness. There's an awareness of God but you can't locate any one of your feelings or anything. … That's may be just one short moment sometimes and then you're back with your feet on the ground. Sometimes I'll be praying and all at once you're just so aware of God's presence: He's my Father and he loves me! Not in so many words, but you'll just know that. Just a few minutes like that makes it all worthwhile, and then you go out and plant some more tomatoes or something.

But this sort of thing appears to be unusual. In answer to the question, "Does a monk ever really attain such a union?" Father Paul Mark says, "Such experiences aren't talked about because it is more prudent to keep silent. We don't actively seek the experience, for that is vain glory if not outright pride. But we are called to prepare for it. This is why faith is important in our lives, because we don't know if and when union with God will happen, at least to the degree that we believe is possible on this earth."

The impression one gets, however, is that extraordinary encounters with the divine are pretty rare. Brother Dave Cullen (entered New Clairvaux in 1962) says, "I've often thought that I felt closer to God through my prayer life and my reading outside before I came than I ever have here, which is kind of a strange thing to me. … I certainly haven't attained any mystical heights. I don't think I have, anyway. I'd be very surprised."

These monks, of course, are not trained theologians or men of great eloquence, like Merton, so in one sense, it is not fair to subject their statements to theological scrutiny. Then again, their comments reveal how Trappist spirituality in Northern California is really lived out. Furthermore, while it is not for me to question the mystery of their calling before God, I do think we might question our facile assumption that men in such a vocation have a great deal to teach the rest of us about experiencing God, at least the uniquely Christian God.

I was surprised, for instance, despite their insistence on the primacy of union with God, how readily the monks' prayer talk moves into talk about the development of the individual's soul, so that questions like What's the point of all this? Is it doing anything for me? Am I really growing? begin to dominate the conversation. Christian charity requires me to assume that these monks are so attuned to the ministry aspect of their prayer that it hardly seems worth mentioning. And to be sure, God meets us in the deep recesses of the self, and Scripture does have to become a part of the supra-rational self to enliven the soul. Yet a spiritual narcissism seems to be crouching at the door throughout the book.

For Brother Francis, who talked of his mental breakdown, therapy seems clearly to have been a path to a healthier spirituality—and perhaps this is the way we are to take all the psychological talk. But I can't shake the impression that all too often psychological language has preempted theological and spiritual language in the life of these monks.

And what about emphasis at New Clairvaux on acquiring peace or "quiescence"? One wonders what is distinctively Christian about this. Jesus was anything but undisturbed throughout his life. We see him irritated with his mother, impatient with his disciples, angry with the moneychangers (and even a fig tree), and furious with the Pharisees. Paul is anxious about some of his congregations, furious with others. He weeps, he rejoices, he admits to despair.

When it comes to the saints in Christian history, it's hard to find one that exemplifies this undisturbed peace. Jerome was about as cantankerous as they come; Francis of Assisi scolded friars and preached judgment to the crowds; Catherine of Siena chastised popes; Theresa of Avila had little patience with church bureaucracy; and on it goes.

In my reading of the New Testament, Christian peace is not primarily a subjective state of quiescence but rather reconciliation with God, above all, and between formerly alienated groups, like Jews and Greeks. This new ontological peace, in turn, often unsettles the soul when it sees injustice (non-peace) rampant in the world—making us rightfully furious. I'm not sure it is a Christian virtue to be tranquil in all circumstances.

The peace for which these Trappists strive is mighty attractive, to be sure; it is a form of self-control, after all. None of us likes to be whipped about by events and people, problems and vices. But is this a goal for the Christian? Should these monks be our teachers in this? Might it be that a higher Christian virtue is to enter into life's evil and sufferings, to subject ourselves to the vicissitudes of life, the ups and downs, the misery and the joys, trusting God throughout? Jesus did not recite a mantra from the cross, but only a most disquieting and disturbing groan, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

This brings us full circle to our fascination with monasticism in general. The monks talk about the mystery of their calling, but it is difficult to discern how the mystery of their calling is fundamentally different from the mystery that lies behind all our callings. Perata tries to explain it thus: "When he enters the monastery, he then begins the process of stripping away this untruth that prevents him from attaining a perfect union with God. It's not that he needs to go to a monastery to locate God, but the monastic life affords the necessary solitude away from the world's hustle, bustle, and illusion to begin his inner search." He quotes Thomas Merton for support: "The monk becomes a stranger to the world of other men, not because secular life is evil, but because he travels to a new region of the Spirit 'which God will show him,' to which he is led by divine grace and providence and where he will spend the rest of his days in the presence of God."

But these two quotations only raise further questions. If, in fact, the world's "hustle, bustle, and illusion" blind us to the presence of God, well, that certainly is, contra Merton, evil, and we should flee the world at all costs. And if monasticism in fact offers access to "a new region of the Spirit" where one can know "the presence of God" in a way that is not possible outside the monastery walls, then we should all take orders. But if, as Paul says, God's presence is plainly discerned in his creation; if it is true, as we believe, that the God of the Bible entered the hustle, bustle, and illusion-filled world to reveal himself in the very midst of it; does it not follow that the "new region of the Spirit" is not a community divorced from the world (monasticism) but rather a community engaged with it (the church)?

What finally appears to be the case is that the monks of New Clairvaux are, like the rest of us, in large part the product of the surrounding culture. Like many spiritual seekers outside the monastery (and spiritual seekers in Northern California especially!), they use the language of psychology and Eastern religion to help them understand their experience of God. This may be interesting and helpful, but finally it is not a particularly Christian path to spiritual understanding.

For these reasons I question whether we should be looking to such monks to help us understand our relationship with God. And frankly, I don't know that the monks themselves would disagree. They are an impressively humble lot who don't take themselves nearly as seriously as do Perata and many others. "I'd have to say I don't think we're any different from any other 'single person' in the world," says Brother Dave Cullen. "I mean, we don't have a wife and we don't have a family, but we're making our own way; we're earning our living, and theoretically, we're contributing to society in some way. … We have a different lifestyle, that's the only difference that I can see."

Well, I beg to differ with Brother Dave. Significant differences abound. These monks have given up worldly wealth. They've forsaken the pleasure of sex. They have committed themselves to live with a group of men for life. They pray. Thus they have a great deal to teach us about sacrifice, about learning to live with other sinful human beings, about persevering in community and in prayer, year after year after year.

Yet I'm unsure, as they themselves seem to be unsure, of exactly what they have to teach us about experiencing the God of Jesus Christ. Brother Cullen said it was "strange" he didn't have as intimate an experience of God inside the monastery as he did outside. Yet when we consider the God who willingly entered the hustle and bustle "outside," it may not be so strange, after all.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following product, which was mentioned above, is available for purchase:

The Orchards of Perseverance: Conversations with Trappist Monks About God, Their Lives, and the World, by David D. Perata

Most ReadMost Shared