One of the great things about taking a retreat at one of the Trappist monasteries is that you have an opportunity to live a contemplative life for a few days. They welcome you to come to many of the prayer services and the guest houses are usually filled with books to read during your stay. Without the manual labor that the monks are doing, retreatants have quite a bit of time for silence, solitude and contemplation. While it might sound relaxing, if you truly try to take on the contemplative nature of these places, you will find it can be emotionally draining, yet fulfilling. The truth is, very few of us spend much time in total silence and do not know what to do with that silence. We become acutely aware of all the thoughts and feelings that are in our hearts and heads everyday that we never notice. My recommendation before taking a retreat at one of the monasteries is to develop a contemplative practice before you go. Whether it is mediation, centering prayer, or lectio divina, have a practice where you spend at least fifteen to twenty minutes in relative silence-anything to get you prepared for long periods of silence. This is just a recommendation. Of course there is no requirement by the monastics for this. They will welcome you either way. So what will a day at a monastic community look like? Let's get into that now, starting with how a day might have looked for a Trappist monk at any point from the twelfth century until the Second Vatican council in the 1960s.
A TRAPPIST'S DAY - 12TH CENTURY TO the 1960s
As I have mentioned previously, a Trappist monk desires to seek a closer relationship with God through work and prayer. Prayer is not the active prayer that we in modern Western Christianity are used to, but a contemplative praying or resting in God. These desires led the monks into seclusion from the world and into a life where they saw their contribution to the world in "being" rather than "doing". In an attempt to meet their goals and desires, the Trappist communities scheduled their days into three equal parts of: prayer, work and sleep. Here is a breakdown of the time they spent on different activities:
- 4 Hours: Divine Office and Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- 2 Hours: Mass
- 2 Hours: Study, spiritual reading
- 4 Hours: Manual Labor
- 4 Hours: Private devotions, reading , minor duties
- 1 Hour : Meals
- 7 Hours: Sleep
According to this schedule then, the monks days were equally divided into thirds: one-third for chanting the Offices, Mass and spiritual reading, one-third for manual labor and study and one-third for sleep and meals. During this time, the monks would have also taken a vow of silence. This silence was observed at all times. Communication between the monks would have been through an internally developed sign language. Monks could speak to guests as necessary, but limited there speaking to each other for only extreme cases of emergency. So what might a typical day then be like for a Trappist monk before the Second Vatican Council that began in 1962?
There would be two different schedules to the day, one for the choir monks (monks who were, or would become, priests) and one for the lay (non-ordained) monks. For the choir monks, their day would begin at 2 AM with two hours of prayer. A mass would be held from 4 until 5:30 AM and at 5:30, the office of Prime would be sung. At 6 AM, the monks would go back to the dormitories to straighten their rooms and then gather in the refectory for breakfast. After breakfast, the choir monks would either do lectio divina (sacred reading) or have private devotion until almost 8 AM. At 8, the community (choir and lay monks) would gather in the chapel for the office of Tierce and community mass. After mass, the monks would perform their duties of manual labor. These duties usually involved some type of agricultural work (gardening, farming, clearing of land, etc....) or perhaps working on construction of new buildings for the monastery. The manual labor work would continue until 11:30 AM. At 11:30, they would assemble together again in the chapel for the office of Sext. At noon, the manual labor resumed until 2 PM (except for the ordained priests who would be studying during this time). At 2, they gather for the office of None and afterwards gather for dinner (lunch to most of us). The time from after dinner until 4:15 PM would be for private study, reading, or private devotion. At 4:15, they gather again for the office of Vespers which would include a meditation period, lasting until 5:15 PM. From this time until 6 PM, the brothers would use again for reading, and private study or devotion. At 6 PM, they will gather for the last time of the day for the office of Compline. Compline and private readings would last until 7 PM, at which time the monks retire to their rooms for the night.
The lay brother's days were more centered around manual labor, but did include time for prayers. They also rise at 2 AM for prayer and private reading. They help serve at the mass from 4 AM to 5:30 AM. After mass, they would have their breakfast and then spend the rest of the day until 2 PM on manual labor. At 2 PM they join the choir monks for dinner and then resume their manual labor until the 6 PM gathering for private reading and Compline. They, too, retire to their rooms following Compline at 7 PM. As a reminder, all of this was done in almost complete silence. Communication within the community was done through an internal sign language and voices could only be heard during the chapel offices and mass.
SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL - 1962-1965
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council brought about some significant changes within the Catholic Church. It also greatly influenced change within the Trappist communities. Before looking at the modern schedule of a Trappist monk, I should share some of those changes. Prior to Vatican II, there was no outside communication allowed inside of the Trappist monasteries (newspapers, magazines, television) and outside communication in the form of letters from friends or family could be read by the abbot at any time. The monks were only allowed one annual visit per year from family or friends and the visit could be no more than three days. Up until Vatican II, these communities were very much separated from the world. Below are the most significant changes that would alter the daily life of the Trappist monk:
- Unification of the choir monks and the lay monks. After Vatican II they adopted a common monastic lifestyle. There was no longer a requirement for any monk to become a priest.
- Elimination of the observance of strict silence outside of prayer.
- 300 page rule of the order was replaced in 1969 by the general chapters and replaced by a one and a half page set of guidelines allowing each community to develop it's own monastic lifestyle.
A TRAPPIST'S DAY - 1969 TO PRESENT DAY
You can see now that the modern day Trappist lifestyle will look different from the pre-Vatican II Trappist. Also, the lifestyle and daily schedule now varies from one community to the next. They have been able to adjust their daily activities to accommodate things like geographic location and the age and size of the community. So the daily schedule I will give you is an example of what the schedule might look like. Before getting into the schedule though, I should mention that the labor activities of the communities have changed as well.
For many centuries the manual labor revolved around maintaining the property, adding buildings as communities grew and the agricultural work it took to provide for the dietary necessities of the community. The manual labor in modern Trappist monasteries revolves around specific enterprises that a community has selected that provides an income for the community. The money earned is then used to help pay for laborers and food and other items required to keep the communities functioning. So today, when we say these communities are self sufficient, that means that they do not rely on the Catholic Church for their financial needs. They do accept donations and for many of the US monasteries, they open up their guest houses and request a per night donation for guests staying on the property. In a future blog I will discuss some the enterprises that the Trappist are involved in and how you can buy some of their products. (Tina and I have tried everything that they make and their food and beer selections are wonderful!)
A typical day of a US Trappist monk begins with them rising before the first office for private prayer or reading. The first office of the day would be Vigils and is held somewhere between 3 AM and 5:30 AM. After Vigils, the monks will usually then either have private meditation time or do their sacred reading (lectio divina) before breakfast. After breakfast, the monks will gather for the office of Lauds and Mass. (In some monasteries Lauds would take place followed by Mass 30 minutes later.)
These services would take place between 6 and 7:30 AM. After mass, the monks would begin their manual labor. The offices of Tierce, Sext and None are most typically performed outside of the chapel, usually wherever the manual labor is being done. There are a few monasteries that do gather in the chapel as a community for Sext and sometimes for None. The monks do gather together as a community (typically between Sext and None) for dinner. During dinner there will always be a reading during the meal. One monk is designated to read from a book selected by either the abbot, superior or as agreed upon by a vote from the community. As part of the retreat experience at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, for example, guest retreatants take dinner at the same time as the community. The dining areas are adjoining and the doors are opened between the two areas so that guests may listen to the reading along with the monks. There is usually a period after None that the monks would have for private devotion or reading before the office of Vespers, which would take place in the chapel sometime between 4:30 PM and 6 PM. The time between Vespers and the final office of Compline would be for private prayer or reading. At the end of the Compline service, the abbot will bless each monk with holy water as they exit the chapel, and they will retire to their rooms for the evening. Remember that after Vatican II, strict silence is no longer observed. Monks may speak to one another at any time outside of the prayer services, although most still do not-the exception being in the work place. Where the monks used to communicate to each other using sign language even at their work, now they speak directly to one another if it is necessary for work. If it is not necessary, the monks still do their work in silence. One thing that all of the US Trappist monasteries do observe is a period of silence known as the Grand Silence or the Great Silence. This period of silence begins at the end of Compline (the night office) and goes through Mass. So the monks will remain in complete silence from around 7:30 PM until 8 or 9 AM the following day. I should also mention that all meals are taken in silence (the exception being the dinner reading). Many of the monasteries ask that guests observe the silent meals as well. They do usually offer optionally dining areas to those guests who prefer to talk. Our experience from staying at the monasteries is that almost everyone chooses to take meals in silence since that is an experience unique to these places. Further, the communities now encourage more frequent visits from family and there is some outside communication in most of the communities, which was good for us since we had to do a lot of emailing with the monks. So today's Trappist are much more plugged into the modern world than their predecessors, but their goal is still the same. They continue to seek to develop a closer relationship with God through their silence, contemplation and work. They continue to live "apart" from the world while praying for all the world throughout each day.
I hope you have found this writing interesting. Now that you know a little bit more about the daily lives of the modern day Trappist monks, I will begin to share with you what the retreat experience is like at the monasteries. Thank you for taking the time to learn some more about the Trappists. I hope you will come back to find out how you can learn more about their contemplative practices and how you can incorporate some of those practices into your daily life. Have a wonderful day! Until next time.......
Much of the information about the Trappist lifestyle before Vatican II was taken from the following:
History of the Trappist Abbey of New Melleray - William Rufus Perkins, A. M. - Published 1892
You can read the book online: History of the Trappist Abbey of New Melleray