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Why a book about Trappist monasteries?

Tina and Fr Alberic discussing fruit cake production.

If you read the first blog post, then you have some idea of who the Trappists are and a little bit about how they live. Certainly there is much more to these men and women and I will dive into the contemplative nature of them and their communities in future posts. But before we get deep into the life of the Trappists, I thought I would address the question that Tina and I are most often asked by both the monastics and the retreatants that we have met at our time at the monasteries. And that question is "Why are you doing a book about Trappist monasteries?"

This is a very fair question, especially if you know anything about Tina and me. The first thing is that we are not Catholic, which has been a revelation to many of our fellow house guests! We are both very interested in all world religions, but did not know anything about the Trappists until 2011 and I guess that is where the story begins.


We were introduced to the practice of Centering Prayer by Tina's stepdad who has led retreats at the Trappist monastery in Snowmass, CO. In September 2011, Tina and I went on a five day silent retreat where Centering Prayer is practiced three times a day and you are supposed to remain in total silence from the opening prayer to the closing prayer. Tina and I shared a room, so we did talk to each other some over the five days, but the majority of the five days was spent in total silence. While on retreat, we were able to attend many prayer services at the monastery chapel. This was our first glimpse into these beautiful, loving, spiritual communities. The services were like nothing I had ever been to before; they were simple and quiet and moving. These were not the prayer services of my youth in the country Baptist church, this was something quite different. There was the chanting of a few hymns, antiphons and the Psalms followed by periods of silence. In some services there would be a reading; sometimes from the Bible and other times from a book that the community was reading during lunch (more about daily routines in the monasteries in a future blog). After the reading, there would again be silence to allow the words to melt into your soul. There were no instructions given on what the words should mean to each person; it is up to each individual in their own silence to find their own meaning. While the entire five days was moving and a spiritual experience that I had never known, there was one particular moment that moved me in a way that nothing ever had. It was the third or fourth day of the retreat. When you are in silence most of the time, you can really start to feel your soul stirring and by this day, my soul was primed for an existential experience. I had not yet attended a Vigils service. This is the night service and is now held usually between 3 AM - 5AM (it varies between communities). The retreat center and hermitages where guests stay are about a half a mile from the monastery, so the walk to vigils at 3:30 was in complete darkness (the monastery in Snowmass sits in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks, so there is virtually no man made light seeping in). It was on the walk to the monastery that I looked up into the night sky and was almost knocked off my feet by the number of stars in the sky!! It felt like there were billions of stars visible in this amazing Colorado night sky. I could not believe I was in that space and that time. I was really getting a sense of my place in this universe. I was quickly aware of how small and insignificant I was in the space/time spectrum. Yet at the same time, I felt a sense of belonging and purpose and that I was loved and cared for. It was that perfect balance of humility and grace.


In October of 2012, my birthday present from my future wife was a one day workshop with an Arkansas nature photographer. I had been a bit of a hobbyist with the camera, but had never considered myself to be a good photographer. I just enjoyed taking pictures. That day changed everything for me in that regard. Tim had such a passion and by the end of the day had me convinced that even I could produce some wonderful landscape and nature photographs. Below is the very first photograph I took that day; it is still one of my favorites!

First photograph of Falling Waters fall with Tim Ernst.


Now all we needed to start this project was some inspiration! I cannot tell the story as well as Tina, but maybe someday I will get her to write details about her "inspiration". The inspiration would come to Tina in quite a unique way. She was at a dream conference in North Carolina in the spring of 2014. She was taking an early morning walk in the Blue Ridge Mountains taking in another beautiful sunrise. While on her walk, and in a receptive state of mind (or at least a somewhat quiet state of mind for her) a song from her playlist (over 2,500 songs) began to play. That song was Water Night from Eric Whitacre. This is a very meaningful song for Tina, as it was sung by her youngest son's choir group when he was in high school. As they were learning this song, her son told her, "Mom, THIS is what God is for me!" Wow, what a powerful statement from a teenage boy. That should give you a good idea of how powerful this song is and hearing it in that place and that moment, the "plan" was sparked. Tina knew that we had to travel the country and find spiritual places to photograph and share with anyone that we could. That was her initial concept of this project. It is amazing what comes to us when our hearts and minds are open and receptive to all the possibilities!!


But, wait..... If you were going to just photograph spiritual places, why Trappist monasteries? Well, as we began to try and plan the project, we quickly became overwhelmed with how to narrow down spiritual places. Our initial idea was to put out a book that would encourage people to go out and take a "pilgrimage" and that they could do that without leaving the borders of our country. We thought we could identify two places in each state to highlight with photographs. If you do the math, that would have been one hundred places to visit and photograph and, top that off with how do define "spiritual place" (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American...) and we were ready to give up on the idea completely. It was at this time that we made another visit to the monastery Snowmass. This time, just on a private retreat and to take a few photographs. We were lucky enough to get some time with the Abbott at Snowmass. This gracious and wise man listened to us ramble about our idea for quite some time without saying a word. When we finished, he calmly spoke to us and said something like "Well, what if you just focused on the Trappist monasteries. There are only seventeen monasteries and I could give you an introduction to the communities". What a wonderful idea!! We had not even thought about how we would pitch this idea to people in places that did not know us. I had no published works and no backer funding the project. In retrospect, it might have been a tough sell to many of the places we had considered. But here was the perfect solution. We had a connection within the Trappist community who was willing to vouch for us (after meeting him for only the second time!). There were a reasonable number of monasteries. They were spread out across the country. Best of all, the monasteries are located in some very scenic places. All of these factors made the Trappist monastery plan ideal for what we hoped to do. Isn't it amazing how things work out when we don't let our own planning get in the way???


So that is how we ended up doing a photography book on US Trappist Monasteries. It is definitely a book of inspiration. Without inspiration, neither one of us could have come up with such an idea. It is also a book of love. As we have visited with the monastics in each of the monasteries, we have come to admire each one of them for their hospitality and love. They have greeted us with open arms and in many cases, have opened up their cloistered areas in order for us to get the full perspective of these communities. They had a basic trust in our intentions and opened up their homes to us. We have been fortunate to have had many individual conversations with monks and nuns. They have shared with us their stories of how they came to be in these places. Maybe someday, we can do a book just about them. But for now, we want to share these places with you and make you aware of their existence and what they have to offer, which is immeasurable.

Now that the introductory blogs have been written and shared, I hope you will come back for what I expect to be the meat of this blog. I will start exploring the lives of the members of these communities. In particular I plan to emphasize their contemplative practices. It is my belief that anyone could benefit from these practices regardless of religious background. Thank you for taking the time to learn about our project. I hope you will continue to return to learn more about the Trappists and contemplation. Have a blessed day!!

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