I thought my first blog should answer the question that I am most often asked when I tell people about our book project and that is: "What is a Trappist?" I will give a basic answer to that question in this blog, but the answer will undoubtedly lead to more questions! I will attempt to answer those questions in future blogs.
The short answer to the question is that Trappists are a Catholic, contemplative, religious order of cloistered monks (or nuns) that follow the rule of St. Benedict. If you are like I was about 6 years ago, the only thing you understand from the answer is Catholic and that is a good place to start. Yes, Trappists are members of the Catholic church and observe mass everyday.
So what about the rest? Let's start with monks, or monastics. Monastics. Monastics are religious men and women that renounce worldly pursuits to devote their lives for spiritual pursuits. Notice the phrase "renounce worldly pursuits". Monastics do not "reject" the world, quite the opposite. They are continuously in prayer for the world. They just choose to not pursue the things of the world and focus on developing a deeper, personal relationship to God through work and prayer. Monasticism has a history in all major religions, not just in Christianity. Christian monastic roots can be traced to the 3rd centuries with the Desert fathers and mothers of Egypt. These men and women went out into the desert in hopes that a more austere and isolated life would lead them into a closer relationship with God. Other people began to hear of the wisdom of these isolated monastics and sought them out in order to learn from their spiritual experiences. This lead to "communities" forming. Thus began the idea of monastic communities.
These communities lived together without any instructions or rules on how a group of people living isolated lives should try and live together. In the early 6th century when St. Benedict of Nursia wrote down a set of instructions that became the foundation of Christian monastic living. St Benedict was the son of a Roman noble who left the city of Rome and eventually settled in the caves near Subiaco and is believed to live as a hermit for 3 years. After the death of an abbott at a nearby monastery, St. Benedict was asked to replace him by the monks. Because his life as a hermit was much different than that of the monks, this experiment did not go well. The monks tried to poison him on more than one occasion. Revered for his wisdom and spirituality, St. Benedict later founded 12 monastic communities near Subiaco and his "rules" for the monks in his communities became the foundation of Christian monasticism. Many other Christian monastic orders follow the Rules of St Benedict including the Benedictines, Cistercians and of course the Trappists.
The original order of monks to follow the Rule of St. Benedict was the Order of Saint Benedict or Benedictines. Over the centuries, there were different reform movements lead by some Benedictine monasteries. These reforms began when the monks within a community felt that they were no longer following the rules as strictly as they should be. One of these reform movements began in 1098 at the monastery near Citeaux, France. Lead by Robert of Molesme, Alberic of Citeaux and Stephen Harding, the monks at Citeaux Abbey began a more strict observance of St. Benedict's rule. By living a more simple, austere and more prayerful existence, the Cistercians believed they were more closely observing the rule compared to their Benedictine counterparts. In 1664 a reform movement started at a Cistercian monastery. Again, these monks felt that they had gotten away from the strict following of the rule. This reform movement was led by a monastery in La Trappe, France. In 1892, the reform movement finally became a separate order with approval of the pope. Thus began the Trappists or formally the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
The center of life for all Trappist communities is prayer. They observe the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours) everyday. These are times set aside each day for reciting of the Psalms, singing of hymns and contemplation. Currently, the entire Psalms will be recited over a two week period. Many of prayers will be done as a community in the chapel; however, some will be done in small groups or individually during hours of work. The Office has 8 prayer times (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, and Vigils). I will cover this more in a future blog since it is such an important part of the daily life in the Trappist monasteries. Along with the Divine Office, the Trappist monks and nuns also use other contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina to deepen their relationship and knowledge of God. Along with prayer, work is also a central part of the daily life of the Trappists. Each community has to be self sufficient, so they each have some enterprise in order to provide for the daily needs of the community. The work varies greatly between the communities ranging from making cheese, to making fruitcakes and even making beer! Whatever their work is, it is always done in a "prayerful" manner and as mentioned above, will take a back seat to observing the Divine Office.
Contemplation though, should not be confused simply with prayer. For many, prayer includes speech and specific requests or acknowledgements. Contemplatives develop practices intended to deepen their personal relationship with God. Again, contemplation is a topic for another blog, but you should know that silence is a key requirement for contemplative practices. Trappists have been known as a silent order and at one time even had their own sign language so that talking was kept to a minimum. While they still observe a great deal of silence (including during all meals); they have relaxed the rules to allow for more verbal communication than in centuries past.
So, I hope this gives you some idea of what a Trappist is. I hope you will come back to learn more about the Divine Office, contemplative practices and other wonderful information about the Trappists. Eventually I hope you will be intrigued enough to make a visit to one of these beautiful monasteries one day, if for nothing else, but to feel the serenity that abounds in each of these communities. Until next time........