Friday, October 17, 2008

What is Life Like In A Monastery--Part One

What It Is Like to Work in A Trappist Monastery—Part One
By Rev. Kevin L. Baker

When people think of monks and monastic life, I am sure images of beautiful settings, paradise, Gregorian chants, peace and quiet, contemplation, and silent other-worldly monks fill the imagination. Yet, there is more. I am often asked what a monastery is really like. I pray this very short article will give a glimpse into monastic life while protecting the privacy of the community in which I live and work.

Two years ago, God gave me a blessing that ranks among the most significant opportunities of my life. I was hired to work in a Roman Catholic monastery as a Controller. My job has since developed into more of a Director of Finance and Marketing. The monastery where I work is a chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. You can learn more about them by clicking the links at the conclusion of this article.

Cistercians, or Trappists as they are also commonly called, live under a Benedictine Rule. The Cistercian way of life is one of living by the work of one’s hands and prayer. The center of work life at the Abbey of the Genesee is primarily a bakery called Monks’ Bread. Since 1953, our products have been a regionally popular line of breads and cakes. It is a large industry and needed an MBA to look after the business in an increasingly complex and competitive marketplace. In addition to the bakery, there are three retreat houses with a capacity of 47 beds, a farm, forestry industry, bookstore, online store, and the Abbey Church.

As a priest, I am no stranger to the spiritual life, liturgy, or prayer. Yet, a monastery is completely different than the life of a local church pastor. A monastic community, on one level, can be compared to life in the military. The armed forces protect their nation from enemies. Monasteries protect the God's holy nation from spiritual enemies (1 Peter 2:9-10) with spiritual weapons of warfare that are mighty unto God to the pulling down of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). My experience is that the monks are the special forces of God.

Life in a monastery feels like you are on a military base and in a church at the same time. The community life is very institutional. The life is one of rank, order, obedience, self denial, hard work, prayer, striving for perfection (be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect), and discipleship. Much like life in the local church, the monks are working out their salvation in the context of a group of imperfect people. Humanity is definitely part of monastic community life. People are people.

The very human side of the monastery also reveals the presence of the Divine. In the midst of the order of the Benedictine Rule, the discipline of the liturgy of the hours, the work of the hands as counter-balance to the intense focus on the interior life, and lectio divina (spiritual reading), the monastery is also a conduit of God’s presence, power, and glory. There are many times while I am working that I experience a sense that heaven and earth have truly become intermingled.

Keep watch for Part Two of This Article Soon.

About the Trappists

Abbey of the Genesee

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