There are many common questions that we are asked regarding the abbey and the monastic life. We have compiled the following list based on questions we frequently hear, but if you have questions of your own that are not answered here, please feel free to contact us through our online form here.
- What is a monastery?
Strictly speaking, a monastery is a place inhabited by monks or nuns who, in the Roman Rite, usually follow the Rule of St. Benedict. There is some visible separation from the populated areas around the monastery to help the nuns or monks cultivate their vocation.
- What, then, is the monastic life?
The monastic life is a communal way of life in which men and women seek to respond to the conversion, the turning to God, offered by Jesus in the Gospels. In the monastic life, that turning to God is accomplished by means of renunciation. The various forms of renunciation are rooted in the teachings of Jesus and are not taken up for their own sake, or to be better than anyone else or to demonstrate one’s endurance. They are not embraced to prove that one is flawless or to draw down God’s grace like a magnet. Rather, the renunciation of one’s will, of marriage and family, of ownership, self-determination – ultimately, of oneself – are like an athlete’s training, to render body and soul a more responsive organism to God’s work. Just as athletic training doesn’t guarantee winning the game, this renunciation doesn’t guarantee sainthood. But such renunciations could focus one’s attention and reveal how much we depend on God. They can also free us from what would distract us from serving God and allow us to serve our community and the Church by prayer, sacrifice and living the communal life.More importantly, these renunciations are rooted in the teaching and example of Jesus. No matter how imperfectly we live them, they orient us to Christ and open us to his support and mercy and grace.
- Are Cistercians Benedictines?
Cistercians follow the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to live the Gospel. But organizationally, Cistercians are different from Benedictines and emphasize a different perspective on the Rule.I’ll have to give you a short history lesson here.At the end of the 11th century, some Benedictine monks in Burgundy (eastern France, nowadays) wanted to live a simpler monastic life and follow the Rule more closely. They also wanted to be a little more disengaged from their social system and its privileges. Ultimately, they founded a monastery at Cîteaux, which, in the next century, had generated hundreds of monasteries throughout Europe with distinctive customs and religious habit. “Cistercian” is the adjective derived from the Latin name for Cîteaux
- Sometimes I hear the name ‘Trappist;’ what does that mean?
You’re asking for another history lesson. ‘Trappist’ is the adjective from the name of the French monastery La Trappe, part of the Cistercian Order. In the mid-17th century, they were one of the reform movements in the Cistercian Order. They managed to survive the French Revolution, and reformed monasteries in France and Western Europe and America, in the 19th century. We are descended from that branch of the Cistercian Order.
- How much does your Bishop and local parish contribute to the upkeep of the monastery?
Nothing. Like all monasteries we have to find ways to support ourselves. Our work contributes to our support: what we do for ourselves–cooking, cleaning, gardening, administration–saves money on salaries. Then we try to generate income through our bakery, the gift shop, our guest house (retreat house), cemetery, renting out farm land; and since we live in the economy of the twenty-first century, we also need to make some investments and do some fund-raising. Our monastic Order is over nine-hundred years old and is an international “Institute of Consecrated Life” (to use the language of Roman Catholic Church’s Law) constituted and governed distinctly from the Diocese. But we co-operate with and respect the our Bishop. We cannot enter a diocese without the local bishop’s approval; but we are not under the bishop’s jurisdiction as some forms of religious life are. We are organized and governed and defined as described by the Constitutions and Statutes of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance which elaborates on the norms of the “universal Law” (or Canon Law) of the Catholic Church. For example, our Constitutions stipulate that our monk-priests cannot be recruited to fill in the gaps in local parishes; similarly, it would be improper for us to go to parish pulpits to ask for money. Given the distinction between our Order’s leadership and the administration of a Diocese, the local church has no responsibility for our support.
- You mentioned a Guest House; I think of that as a Bed and Breakfast but I found out it’s a Retreat House. Why do you call it a Guest House?
The monastic life began in the middle ages before there was any notion of making a retreat; our monasteries were in remote places and reserved to the monks or nuns who lived there. However, we profess the Gospel and couldn’t just turn away visitors or pilgrims into the wild. St. Benedict urged us to receive visitors–some sincere, some freeloaders–“as Christ”. He prescribed a little ceremony to receive them: bless them, tell them about our life, share a meal with them. He set a standard of hospitality. Even today, we offer accommodations as hospitality, not a room for rent; we suggest an appropriate offering, we don’t demand a fee. We don’t offer a structured retreat program but the fruits of our way of life: silence, prayer, this beautiful property; a confessor; peace, a new perspective.
- Before you go any further, you mentioned that your Order has Constitutions and Statutes. Like the Constitution of the United ?
In a sense, yes. Think of the word “constitution”: it constitutes a nation or, in this case, a monastic order. Our constitutions define and describe who we are, how we act; like the Constitution of the United States, they describe our rights by describing procedures to follow–how to elect an Abbot, how to receive new members, how to take a consultation, who’s eligible to do what. Our Constitutions (and the Statutes that fine-tune the particular Constitutions or topical statements) describe to us and the Roman Catholic Church how we are organized in respect to the rest of the Church, what is to be expected of us and so forth.
- What sort of people become monks or nuns?
All sorts of people become monks or nuns.People of every nation and social class. If you don’t count Antarctica (and penguins don’t seem to be clamoring to enter monasteries), our Order has monasteries in every continent of the world.All sorts of personalities enter the monastery; introverts and extroverts; workers, thinkers, doers and dreamers; nerds, doctors and plumbers (would that we had more of them); urbanites, suburbanites and farmers; the cool and the clueless.A community, like any group, needs a variety of members of differing gifts and personalities.
- Are there signs of a monastic vocation? How would I know if I’m called?
I’d have to answer both “yes” and “no” to the first part of that question.Sure, there are some signs: an attraction to prayer; a desire for God; a capacity for living with people and a basic flexibility; a disposition that could adjust to structures, routine, manual work. Of course, none of these guarantees a monastic vocation. So, no, there are no infallible signs of a monastic vocation.Any vocation – to the religious life, to the married life – is a gift from God. A gift can be accepted but it does not have to be accepted – that’s how much God respects our free will. To live in a monastery unwillingly, because I think I “have to,” whether I like it or not, would be like serving a prison term. It would be torture to myself and the poor people who live with me. So there are no signs that I must enter a monastery.But there is a way to recognize a monastic vocation: contact and meet with a monastery’s Vocation Director. Together you can examine what God has done in your life and what is happening now; you may learn something from the Vocation Director’s own experience or come to understand your own story better. As you grow familiar with a concrete community, you’ll discover how well you “fit” together. You’ll gradually gain the language and experience to understand what God is calling you to be. You’ll come to know yourself and your relationship to God in a deeper way. As St. Thomas Aquinas sagely observed, “Grace builds on nature.” God wouldn’t call you to something you couldn’t do, so you need to experience yourself from a new, informed point of view. It’s the Vocation Director’s job to help you arrive at that point of view.This time-tested and graced approach does not give instant answers to the question, “How do I know if I have a monastic vocation?” But it can give you solid answers.
- Are there basic requirements?
Yes. To become a monk, you’d have to be a baptized, confirmed and practicing Catholic man, in good standing with the Church. I know you already realize that, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t. You need basic good health, both physical and mental, and freedom from chemical addictions and dependencies, as well as smoking. You’d have to be unmarried with no one dependent on you; free from criminal charges, impending litigation and debt. The minimum age of entrance is 22 and some work experience is very desirable. It is worth noting, I believe, that we don’t require a college education. Any candidate will be expected to read and, within his capacity, to study and attend classes in the novitiate. But our goal isn’t academic; it’s to fine-tune the candidate’s abilities and interests and inner resources to be able to live our life with some real degree of contentment and personal development. However, should you be seriously considering ordination to the priesthood, you would need the required background to qualify for the seminary studies determined by the Church.
- I’m still young but I’m in school – and I feel called to the monastic life. Should I quit college?
Not necessarily. Finishing your degree could benefit you and your vocation. But a vocation is a delicate growth. Just as a newly planted seedling needs to be watered, weeded and tended, a vocation requires care and cultivation. Finish your degree, but keep regular contact with the Vocation Director and make retreats at the Abbey. Discuss your concerns with him about our lifestyle, your discoveries, your new self-knowledge. We’ll pray for you and your particular needs, give you direction and support as you need it.
- You mentioned renunciations. Could I be happy in the monastic life?
If it’s your vocation, you can be as happy as you would in any way of life – but for different reasons.To speak personally, I believe I’m happier in the monastic life than I’d be in any other way of life.Granted, no human life, no human growth, involves nothing but happiness. But despite some bumps in the beginning, I have found the renunciations of our life a way to greater personal freedom. And more than happiness, there’s spiritual peace and hope.
- Okay, that sounds good, but what about those “bumps in the beginning?” What would I do without?
I presume you mean beyond the obvious: no more dating, no credit card, no car. And those can be major bumps.There’d be no television, radio, movies or the mall, if that matters. You could still enjoy exercise, but not on football, basketball, baseball or soccer teams. We have a good library (with novels), a CD and video collection, but if you spent most of your time with earphones on, parked in front of the VCR, we’d wonder if you’d missed your stop when you got off the bus.You couldn’t drive off the property at will or go somewhere else for Sunday mass for a change.There’d be no personal pets or computer – that sort of thing.
- Are you guys masochists or what?
I’ll admit, you’re not the first person to ask that, and I had posed that question myself. But no, we’re not. We don’t decide to do without things to see how tough we are or because we hate ourselves.But consider this: most people in the world have less than we do. Whatever we give up can make us grateful for what we have and more sensitive to the needs of others.We also put these things aside consciously to make room and time for God in our lives. Listening to Beethoven’s quartets might refine me spiritually, but having to listen to every interpretation of them ever recorded would leave me no time for prayer, for community, for life. I’d just become a self-absorbed snob. And it’s not unusual that when I sorely miss some little thing or activity, I also discover how unnecessary it is. I’ve been known to discover that not having it brings me closer to the community and – wonder of wonders – may leave me a little freer from my own selfishness, a little more open to God.
- Then do you gain something?
A relatively simple life, a steady life with a sense of orientation. Despite the predictability of any monastic day, there’s lots of room for the unexpected and the spontaneous. And there’s time and quiet for reflection, even inner quiet from less input. There’s a closeness to nature and the seasons. Constellations in the night sky, the phases of the moon, the various birds can become identifiable.There’s time to ponder the Word of God and to feel its penetration into real life; to sense nature around me as another Book of God’s authorship, to see it as His Creation; there’s time for prayer, for savoring the presence of God, in my heart, in the sacraments, in my brothers, in the world around me.
- You mentioned room for the unexpected. Like what?
Like discovering new dimensions of my brothers in community, of my job; or new friendships, insights, enthusiasms. God’s working in prayer. Responding to the needs of the older monks; unanticipated assignments from the Abbot or Cellarer that draw upon our talents. There are anniversaries to be celebrated; there may be the death of one of the brothers. Any of these can alter the day and evoke new responses against the background of the familiar schedule.
- Are you totally cut off from the outside?
No, we go out to the doctor or dentist as needed and certain monks go shopping for the Abbey’s weekly needs. Electricians, carpenters and AT&T come in to do repairs and UPS picks up our bakery products for delivery. Some monks may go to school for theological studies or a graduate degree or travel to a seminar.Like any Christian family, we respond to our neighbors’ needs through the members of the community assigned such tasks by the Abbot.Our families visit us and even our friends on special occasions.We are separate, not cut off from others. But we don’t try to live our vocation on Main Street, because we would betray our particular charism and turn into one of the other forms of religious life already vigorous in the Church. And that’s the point of our lifestyle: it’s a gift from the Church as one way to live out the Gospel, stressing the reflectiveness and contemplative dimension of the Kingdom of God as our way to respond to the Church’s need. We’re not an elite corps in the Church nor are we an alternate Church; rather, we contribute to the richness of the Church so that God’s People may respond more fully to the diverse needs of the human race.
- Speaking of neighbors, what do you do with all your property?
The Abbey’s property is a very important part of our vocation. Perhaps the most obvious aspect is that it protects our solitude. Solitude is an important ingredient for the contemplative life, enabling us to pull ourselves out of distractions, quiet down and become more attuned to God. Solitude is also a gift we can share with our visitors, guests and retreatants. Many people enjoy coming here to get away from their problems and busy lives, from the noise of the city or to get a fresh perspective on their lives and challenges.But we can do more with our property than that. As a community we are taking steps to be good stewards of this land. It is a sacred space, not just because it is dedicated to God’s service but primarily because it is created and sustained by God. Here we contemplate God’s “footprints” in creation, in the changes of the seasons, the rotation of sacred time, the web of life. We are acutely aware that this natural sanctuary fits into the world of human technology–and greed and exploitation! We have already placed some of our land in conservation easement to preserve it as green space in perpetuity. This will not save the environment, but if we don’t do what we can, we will make the world situation worse. We completed a Sustainability Study with the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, which examined our land, our buildings, our industries and our practices to become more conscientious stewards of this special place. We are fine-tuning our conservation of energy and resources, our recycling, our waste management. How we use our land and what technology we adopt, can contribute to the the climate’s equilibrium and the development of technologies affordable for developing nations. Of course, we can’t do this alone! Our contribution is so small. But using our land responsibly can be an example and encouragement to our visitors to be part of a global initiative to insure a future for our descendants.
- OK, so you are aware of what’s going on. But have you held on to your traditions?
In responding to contemporary challenges we are not ignoring our roots. In fact, we are trying to bring that rich traditions AND centuries of lived experience to shed light on present problems. However, we are not curators of a museum! We are trying neither to prolong the past nor forget where we come from. We live out of our tradition and often discover that wrestling, rather than ignoring, current challenges helps us to re-inhabit our vocation and traditions.For example, we maintain the traditional vegetarian diet and eat “low on the food chain.” We receive the Cistercian habit at the start of the novitiate and wear it as a reminder to “put on Christ”; while for work, we often use “recycled” clothing–and pass on clothing we don’t need to the poor. We live simply and economically–perhaps we all can appreciate more than ever how that effects the Economy!
- By the way, do you still chant?
Yes, we chant the Offices of Lauds, Midday Prayer, Vespers and Compline, using traditional Gregorian tones. Our liturgical prayer is in English, following the principle set down by our Order’s legislation, that the Liturgy should be in a language and mode accessible to all the members of the community. We sometimes sing Mass parts in Latin, depending upon the communities capabilities.
- Then is life pretty good in a monastery?
Life is good in a monastery but not good as a vacation or a fantasy seems good. A large part of the goodness of the monastic life is that it challenges our complacency.Life can be good in the monastery, but it’s not always fun. Remember, we are living a life of conversion – we even take a vow of continual conversion; but people in the process of conversion are not always the most pleasant people to be with. In fact, they can be just like you and me on our bad days. But I’ve always been able to find patience, support, direction and helpful challenge in the community if I looked for it. So, yes, life is pretty good here.
- Speaking of vows, what about the vow of silence?
Well, there is no vow of silence, despite what many people assume. A vow made to God before members of His Church is a serious business, not to be squandered on monastic customs, no matter how useful. After a period of at least six years, a monk in the Benedictine tradition professes for life vows of obedience, stability (that is, constant membership to that community) and conversion of life (which includes poverty and chastity).
- What happens during those six years?
The first year is spent as a postulant: someone who is trying out the way of life. A postulant follows the schedule of the monks-prayers, work, meals, meetings, classes – and meets with the Novice Director once a week.The next two years are spent as a novice: a new member of the community. He is clothed in the novice’s habit. His schedule doesn’t change, but he has increased his commitment. At the end of the novitiate, he professes temporary vows. These are the same vows the monks profess except that they are binding for only one year. Each year he has the option to renew those vows or is free to leave.He is for three years a Temporarily Professed Monk.If he successfully fulfills his commitment, he can request to profess final or solemn vows, committing himself to the monastic life for the rest of his life.