The Quiet Life: Reflections from a Trappist Monastery

It was Ignatius of Loyola who observes that the Divinity “hides itself.” (Spiritual Exercises 4th week, 1st contemplation).   The sentiment seems to come alive when one enters the lives of the Monks who live at the Abbey of the Genesee near Rochester New York.  Here one discovers the 20 or so Trappist Monks who live the hidden life in silence, away from the “hustle and bustle” of ordinary life.

Following the rule of St. Benedict, The Trappists of The Strict Observance, have prayer and work as two fundamental pillars upon which their life is founded. For example, they wake up at 3:15am and at about 3:30am will pray with the psalms.  After a few hours of quiet personal reading, they gather again to pray the psalms and worship at mass. They then work for a few hours largely in a bakery where they will produce bread and other baked goods.

They will then gather together at noon to pray the psalms.  After lunch, and about an hour of free time, they will gather again to pray the psalms and go to work. After this, (and a brief respite) they gather again to… pray the psalms. Finally, just before retiring to bed, around 7:30pm they gather again to … can you guess what they do?

The schedule, which is most certainly contemplative, allows the monk to pray for roughly 5 hours a day. This does not factor in private prayer that many of the monks adhere to.

I’m sure the reader at this point may ask – what’s the point?  There is no active ministry per se that engages the public. In quiet and in silence the monks live their lives.  They give no lectures, they write few books, and most seem to die in obscurity without any knowledge to the world that they were even amongst them.

One point, or perhaps the point, is perhaps that there is no point (in a worldly sense).

In the eyes of the world, such a life is a waste of time.  After all, our world prizes honours and wealth and such commodities are not found when one hides oneself from that world.

However, for those seeking a heavenly home, such a life makes complete sense.

The monk begins with the idea that “heaven is for real”  and that when they die they will be with the Lord. Therefore, there is an attempt to live one’s life here and now with this reality in mind.   That is, the entire life, with all its hiddenness, seems to be a preparation for death.

Some may think that is “good for them,” but the rest of us have “bills to pay.”  I would like to make the argument here that every Christian is called to live such a life. This doesn’t mean we are called to live in silence or withdraw from the demands of daily life .

What I mean is that the people of the world ought to look at our lives and “scratch their heads” saying, “Really? You live like that?” That is, whether we teach, preach, or change diapers, there shouldn’t be an earthly justification for the way we live. Everything we do, and are, ought to find its meaning and its reason in the hand of Christ.

But there is a cost.  At the end of the day, to allow oneself to be hidden from the public eye, is to give up at the same time on receiving honours and praises in the way others do. It is to intentionally humble oneself (1Peter 5:6), so that we may receive the crown of victory in the hereafter (James 1:12).

The more our meaning is found in Christ, the more we will become a contradiction to the world. What’s more, if they persecuted Him, they most certainly will persecute us as well (John 15:20). It is perhaps those who are most comfortable with this hiddenness who have realized that “God alone suffices.”

The Trappist then for me seems to echo well the sentiments of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion.  It was Campion who confided to a friend that “…As for me, all is over. I have made a free oblation of myself to His Divine majesty both in life and in death. I hope He will give me the grace and the force to perform.  This is all I desire.”

Hence, the Monk who lives hidden, offering himself to God daily both in life and eventually in death, becomes like the martyr.  What’s more the martyr is a life that in its offering becomes most like Christ.

Hence, as usual we have a complete reversal in the Christian story.  The life that once did not make sense becomes the life that makes complete sense.

Greg Toland is a New York based writer.

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 04:18h, 05 June Reply

    Disciplined chant praying, work, eat and rest as a community that spend most of the time in silence is a choice of life, a way to attain Love. The monks may be hidden from the secular world but definitely not disconnected from being one Body in Christ with the rest of creation. I trust that the monastery has its own concerns for basic survival. Offering retreats and praying for the rest of the world are important ministry, in addition to creatively baking bread. “Community is the sandpaper for sanctity”, Thomas Green, a late Jesuit once told me. Whether loving God in active or contemplative life, the Tempter will always be lurking around. Possession, privilege and power are not necessarily what those living in the secular world always look for though there are much more opportunities. Contemplative in action, detachment, discernment and finding God in everything are some of the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola that help lay and religious alike. We will be in communion with the monks and hope that they will continue to pray for us in this crazy world, some in total isolation at this point.

  • John McManus
    Posted at 06:18h, 05 June Reply

    Wonderful, and so appealing given what is going on around us today. How many of us look at the world and become confused and disoriented, having no idea what motivates some of those with power and riches, who seem never to be satisfied with what they have, and are so determined to get more, regardless of the cost to others. “Retreating” into contemplation helps bring some order into the chaos at the personal level, and is the right path for some, but for others it is important to bring the order of contemplation into the chaos of the world through our actions (big and small) on a daily basis. Impossible without prayer. Fortunately God can do the impossible.

  • Bernice Dookhan-Khan
    Posted at 07:30h, 05 June Reply

    A “quiet life” just being with the Lord is a beautiful gift filled with graces and blessings. I can relate to this depth of spirituality as I continue daily to come before my God in silence, stillness and simplicity…
    God bless.

  • Peter Bisson SJ
    Posted at 08:54h, 05 June Reply

    Thank you Greg!

  • Roger Yaworski SJ
    Posted at 09:32h, 05 June Reply

    Having made my 8 day retreat at the Genesee last September with Bernie Carroll SJ, I appreciated Greg’s calling back to mind the schedule and beautiful prayer that can happen. However the 3:15 am prayer was a challenge.

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