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Trappist Monks

Ascetic Trappists Seem a Remnant of Medieval Times

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Trappist Monk

Trappist monk praying at the Abbey of Mount St. Bernard (circa 1931).

Photo: Getty Images
Trappist monks and nuns fascinate many Christians because of their isolated and ascetic lifestyle, and at first glance seem a carryover from medieval times.

The Cistercian order, parent group of the Trappists, was founded in 1098 in France, but life inside the monasteries has changed much over the centuries. The most obvious development was a split in the 16th century into two branches: the Cistercian Order, or common observance, and the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists.

Trappists take their name from the Abbey of La Trappe, about 85 miles from Paris, France. The order includes both monks and nuns, who are called Trappistines. Today more than 2,100 monks and about 1,800 nuns live at 170 Trappist monasteries scattered throughout the world.

Quiet But Not Silent

Trappists closely follow the Rule of Benedict, a set of instructions laid down in the sixth century to govern monasteries and individual behavior.

It's widely believed these monks and nuns take a vow of silence, but that has never been the case. While talking is strongly discouraged in monasteries, it is not forbidden. In some areas, such as the church or hallways, conversation may be prohibited, but in other spaces, monks or nuns may converse with each other or family members who visit.

Centuries ago, when quiet was more strictly enforced, the monks came up with a simple sign language to express common words or questions. Monks' sign language is rarely used in monasteries today.

The three vows in the Rule of Benedict cover obedience, poverty, and chastity. Since the monks or nuns live in community, no one actually owns anything, except their shoes, eyeglasses, and personal toiletry items. Supplies are kept in common. Food is simple, consisting of grains, beans, and vegetables, with occasional fish, but no meat.

Daily Life for Trappist Monks and Nuns

Trappist monks and nuns live a routine of prayer and silent contemplation. They rise very early, gather every day for mass, and meet six or seven times a day for organized prayer.

Although these religious men and women may worship, eat, and work together, each has their own cell, or small individual room. Cells are very simple, with a bed, small table or writing desk, and perhaps a kneeling bench for prayer.

In many abbeys, air conditioning is restricted to the infirmary and visitors' rooms, but the entire structure has heat, to maintain good health.

Benedict's Rule demands that each monastery be self-supporting, so Trappist monks have become inventive in making products popular with the public. Trappist beer is regarded by connoisseurs as one of the best beers in the world. Brewed by monks in seven Trappist abbeys in Belgium and the Netherlands, it ages in the bottle unlike other beers, and becomes better with time.

Trappist monasteries also sell such things as cheese, eggs, mushrooms, fudge, chocolate truffles, fruitcakes, cookies, fruit preserves, and caskets.

Isolated for Prayer

Benedict taught that monks and cloistered nuns could do much good praying for others. Heavy emphasis is put on discovering one's true self and on experiencing God through centering prayer.

While Protestants may see monastic life as unbiblical and violating the Great Commission, Catholic Trappists say the world is sorely in need of prayer and repentance. Many monasteries take prayer requests and habitually pray for the church and God's people.

Two Trappist monks made the order famous in the 20th century: Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Merton (1915-1968), a monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, wrote an autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which sold over one million copies. Royalties from his 70 books help finance Trappists today. Merton was a supporter of the civil rights movement and opened a dialogue with Buddhists on shared ideas in contemplation. However, today's abbot at Gethsemani is quick to point out that Merton's celebrity was hardly typical of Trappist monks.

Keating, now 89, a monk in Snowmass, Colorado, is one of the founders of the centering prayer movement and the organization Contemplative Outreach, which teaches and fosters contemplative prayer. His book, Open Mind, Open Heart, is a modern manual on this ancient form of meditative prayer.

(Sources: cistercian.org, osco.org, newadvent.org, mertoninstitute.org, and contemplativeoutreach.org.)

Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for About.com, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack's Bio Page.

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