For over sixty years monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists, have been adoring God in the Shenandoah Valley. This photo of our modest church is far from gratuitous: it’s an apt symbol of our vocation. This particular view shows the choir stalls where the community meets to pray together throughout the day. Despite our inconsistencies, our human frailty, our faults or annoying quirks, we do not hesitate to come back here to pray. The psalms that we chant remind us that praying is also a human activity, even a natural activity, not just the privilege of angel hosts. Natural, in so far as the Psalmist urges the trees to clap their hands and the hills rejoice or the seas and all in them to thunder praise. Innocent creation praises God. For the less than innocent human being, the Psalter provides penitential psalms, psalms of ascent, psalms in times of crisis, psalms of lament–as well as psalms of praise and rejoicing. When I pray the psalms, there’s no risk that I’ll be a hypocrite or a bigot; there seems to be a psalm for every occasion, mood and human condition!
Sixty years ago, the first monks here prayed in one of the rooms of Cool Spring House, the original fieldstone house built on this property in the eighteenth century. By 1953, the simple cement block church was built, with a changing room, showers and washroom below. The interior of the church has been “tweaked” over the years but monks have prayed there in good times and bad, in security or uncertainty. Sixty years ago, the monks prayed in Latin and the Divine Office, the Prayer of the Church, was the prayer of the clergy. Even cloistered nuns who chanted the same prayers needed a priest present for the celebration to be considered the Divine Office. Sixty years ago, the monks celebrated the Mass according to the Cistercian Rite, a form of the medieval Gallican Rite, with its symbolic rubrics and peculiar calendar, merged with the Tridentine Mass. To even mention these forms must be like evoking an arcane cypher to most readers. In a little over ten years, the monks would be wrestling with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and begin praying in English. That same Council would remind us that the Liturgy of the Hours, our Divine Office, was the prayer of the universal Church. The transitions were neither smooth nor easy. I remember the day when, as a novice, I found in the sacristy attic dusty felt banners with snappy quotes that had breifly decorated the church’s walls; they’d been part of the liturgical expression of the 1960’s and seemed as comical and dated as they were abandoned. Mind you, the year was 1978 and felt banners were already history. I can also remember at the time that we still felt as if we were taking root and the Abbot of Spencer would remind us that “the first fifty years are the hardest”.
Well, we survived the first fifty years and are now adjusting to the new language of the Third Edition of the Pope Paul VI Missal, the reformed missal of Vatican II. Who would have thought that English could seem like a foreign language? But after forty years of celebrating Mass in one translation, I have some sense of what an elderly priest must have felt like in 1964 tackling the Mass in English. But the monks are still praying. After all, that’s why we come here: to truly seek God, to use St. Benedict’s words. Prayer is our relationship with God. Perhaps not all of the relationship but the primary expression of that relationship and the part of that relationship that gets things back into perspective and on track. That’s why we pray.
And we pray to be here for another sixty years–and well beyond that. Yes, we pray for intentions but we pray to continue our praying into the next sixty years. Prayer is our life. If we don’t pray, there’s no point to being here or doing the things we do. We may be the monks who bake the fruit cakes but we’re not here to bake fruitcakes; we bake fruit cakes to have the time and sustenance to support our life of prayer. If we have sunk our roots in the past sixty years, we are seeking to spread our limbs in the next sixty years. We are seeking to actualize our calling in the Church of the twenty-first century. We are grateful for your support and interest that has sustained us over the past sixty years and now we would extend our hospitality to pray with us. We invite you to pray the Prayer of the Church with us. We invite you to pray with us recognizing that our varying callings support one another as we all truly seek God. If we have sunk our roots and sread out our limbs we hope to offer you shelter and shade under our branches. Then, indeed, wouldn’t this tree clap its hands and sing praise to the Lord?