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Trappist Monks and Nuns Revive Interest in Monastic Vocations Online
By Alison Roncin
November 8th, 2011
Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (www.trappists.org/)
For more than nine centuries, Trappist monks and nuns have witnessed to the gospel of Jesus Christ through a cloistered, communal life wholly ordered to contemplation. Cistercian communities across the U.S. are reaching out in new ways to revive awareness and interest in the monastic vocation. To help answer the needs of men and women discerning a call from God to become a monk or nun, the Trappists have developed creative online resources.
PEOSTA, IA (Cistercians of the Strict Observance) - For more than nine centuries, Trappist monks and nuns have witnessed to the gospel of Jesus Christ through a cloistered, communal life wholly ordered to contemplation. Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as "Trappists" are an order of the Roman Catholic Church who founded their first monastery in the U.S. in 1848.
Cistercian presence in the U.S. has since expanded to include 17 monasteries across the nation. Yet recently, monastic membership has drastically decreased-50 percent since the 1940s-leading those 17 communities to explore more modernized means of fostering new membership.
Young, single individuals still in the process of discerning their life's vocation represent the ideal demographic of monastic candidates. But Trappist monks and nuns have found it challenging to connect with such a group immersed in today's largely secular society.
Father Alberic, member of New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, identified secularism as the number one factor generating the 50 percent decline in membership over the last 70 years. He describes secularism as "a radical setting up of life and relationships without reference to God."
In contrast, Trappist monks and nuns structure their days with prayer, communal liturgy and Scriptural study, striving to maintain mindfulness of God in all that they do. "Our life doesn't make sense to people who live without conscious reference to God," said Father Alberic.
The secular "setting up of life" common in present times "has never been tried before in the history of the world," Father Alberic observed. Families used to pass down faith traditions from generation to generation and their religious beliefs dictated how they should live their lives day to day. Today's culture indicates that continuity between parent and child has since dwindled.
According to Father Alberic, most people nowadays enter monastic life in their 30s or 40s-much later in life than ever before. "It just takes people longer these days to mature and leave their parents and decide what they want to do with their lives," he said. "With the cultural conditions we are in now, it's harder for people to make such a long-term commitment. Very difficult for young people especially."
In response to the changing cultural conditions, Cistercian communities across the U.S. are reaching out in new ways to revive awareness and interest in the monastic vocation. To help answer the needs of men and women discerning a call from God to become a monk or nun, the Trappists have developed creative online resources.
Father Alberic, the regional secretary for formation, leads development efforts for trappists.org, coordinating content contributed by fellow Trappist monasteries. As a way to incorporate dynamic, engaging content on the site, Father Alberic established two blogs, "A Nun's Diary" and "A Monk's Diary."
Although it's not common practice for Trappist monks and nuns to keep records of daily events, much less publish them online, regular updates to these blogs come from the personal journals of an actual monk and nun for the purpose of giving others insight into an otherwise hidden vocation.
The website also includes a feature called the Twelfth Century Chat Room. While not a chat room in the modern sense, this portion of the site shares a modernized transcription of a "chat" that took place 900 years ago between Aelred, one of the great wisdom figures of the Cistercian tradition, and a young man who just entered the monastery. "Candidates have told me again and again that that conversation had addressed some of their questions and concerns about becoming a monk," Father Alberic said.
Father Alberic and his Trappist brothers and sisters hope that the chat room, diaries and other information on the site will engage people's curiosity. The very nature of a monastic community that spends much of its time in silence and solitude creates a level of mystery. The unknown makes it difficult for those seeking a deeper purpose in life to learn about or understand the Trappists' ascetic lifestyle.
Ultimately, Father Alberic's goal with the information on trappists.org is to encourage people to visit a monastery. "Vocation in life always comes from relationship," Father Alberic said. "You meet a community and feel a sense of solidarity."
From the day a visitor arrives, he or she lives the life-rising before dawn to pray the first of seven Liturgy of the Hours prayers, participating in community liturgy, studying and meditating on Scripture, and working side by side with the other monks or nuns doing manual labor.
While taking part in the community dramatically increases the chance of someone staying, many people decide it's not for them, Father Alberic explained. Only a very small percentage of the people go on to take the solemn profession of vows, in which a monk or nun makes a lifetime commitment before family, friends and God to live the monastic way of life. "It's not a life many people are capable of living," he said.
In fact, according to the Rule of St. Benedict that guides Trappists' beliefs and practices, the process should be difficult for someone to enter into monastic life. "It requires a testing of one's spirit and motivation," Father Alberic said. "You have to make sure they have the right motivations and deep motivations."
Those who do enter always do so in response to God. Father Alberic was 26 years old and studying in New York City when cancer turned his life upside down. "It was just the jolt I needed to see what was important in life," he said. "In the wake of that, I heard God address me and call me by name." In response, he gave up all his possessions, marriage, children, travel-everything-to devote his life to God.
For those that seek a meaningful life, fully devoted to God, Trappist monks and nuns offer their personal stories, their community and their prayers to assist one's discernment process. Intending to engage and inform rather than persuade and convert, the resources at trappists.org or a monastery visit give a unique glimpse into the Trappists' contemplative religious tradition.
"We all have a human capacity for contemplation," Father Alberic said. "There's a monk in every human being. That doesn't mean they're called to be a monk in a monastery, but it's part of our human nature. There's a monk in all of us."
To learn more about Trappist spirituality, Google search "Trappist".
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