One great thing about Cistercian monasteries is we are different in size (buildings and humans) and different in our work (fruitcakes, caskets, beer) but we are the same in our horarium, or order of the Divine Office. The time might be slightly off—in Berryville the monks pray Vigils at 3:30 am, in Conyers they pray it at 4:00, Gethsemani at 3:15—but they all pray it and the Office remains fundamentally the same-Vigils is Vigils. That makes it easy to visit one of the houses and get into the rhythm quickly.
I just spent a few days in Atlanta visiting my kids and as I usually do, stayed at the monastery there. That monastery, which was given ‘birth’ to by the Abbey of Gethsemani (Kentucky) in 1944 has recently opened a Heritage Center which includes a museum about their community that is housed in the barn that was the monastery in ’44, a gift shop and small cafe. An ambitious undertaking, especially for a Trappist monastery, but one they have successfully pulled off. It is a wonderful place to visit. Like most monasteries today the monks at Conyers continue the 1500 year old tradition of prayer and contemplation while also making sure they can stay alive by running a business or two. Conyers has fruitcakes too as well as a bonsai tree farm.
While there I thought about how unbelievable it is that this tradition, the monastic Cistercian and Benedictine tradition, has survived centuries including wars, plagues and anti-religious fervor. Yet, those threats somehow seem minor compared to the threat today of having enough vocations to keep our houses open. Popular culture doesn’t help us. Young people have just so many other things to do and think about and consider for their future. It’s hard to get men and woman to consider the contemplative life today…
But Fr. James reminded me today upon my return that it has always been that way. Monasteries have grown and shrunk, grown and shrunk for centuries. Monasteries have teetered on the brink and been flush with monks/nuns and money…like life in general, monastic life has its ups and downs.
We have to remember that here in Berryville. As we work hard to get vocations and keep the monastery running with 14 monks, we have to remember that it wasn’t always like this and it isn’t going to always be like this in the future. The Holy Spirit will decide what we look like; our job is to function in the present moment with what we have where we have it.
I also thought about how much I can continue to learn from this fact and from my time in the monastery even though I’m a layman and not a monk: my prayer life, too, has to be regular and have some structure…when I pray the Office I too am praying with the thousands of monks and nuns worldwide…I can learn so much from the regular nature of monastic prayer life.
I can be reminded also that my life too will have its ups and downs. And…and here’s the good part…the Holy Spirit is keeping an eye on me too, just like he is at Our Lady of the Holy Cross and every other monastery in the world. There’s great comfort in that.