The lives of monks and monastic nuns seem about as far divorced from the cacophony of modern society as anything could be. With their daily rituals of prayer, silence and work, monastics seem to move along a peaceful track, a route that offers little opportunity for the frazzled nerves and stress overload that mark life in the early 21st century.
But thousands of people every year take time to visit monasteries, whether for a programmed retreat, a few days of silence or the opportunity to live, pray and work with the monks for a few weeks.
Peaceful, yet demanding
Trappist Father Jonah Wharff, guest chaplain at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, said the guesthouse there welcomes both guests who come on retreat and men who want to come to live and work with the monks. Some are discerning a vocation to the monastic life.
“Our guests, essentially, are looking for the quiet and the ambiance that is created by our way of life here,” Father Jonah said. “Ninety percent of the community has been here for more than 50 years. These are men who all of their adult lives have been saying, ‘Not my will but yours be done.’ The guests are the ones who feel the peace that comes from that.”
While the monks’ way of life may look peaceful, Father Jonah said, it is anything but easy.
“It’s a demanding way of life,” he said. “They’ve made a decision to do the will of God, as expressed by the instructions of the abbot.”
August Turak, a businessman who wrote “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity” (Columbia University Press, $29.95), came to much the same conclusion after spending much time throughout the past 17 years with the monks at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, S.C.
“You can take it literally if you’re Christian or metaphorically if you’re not; if you seek first the kingdom of heaven, everything else will take care of itself,” Turak said. “Most of the time, people work it backward. They want to have the physical success in life, and if they have to light a candle in church from time to time they’ll do it. … Earthly success is a byproduct. It happens to us in ways we can’t possibly imagine.”
Letting success happen
|August Turak with a monk at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Photo courtesy of FSB Associates
In Turak’s case, the story involves a skydiving accident, a broken ankle, anxiety attacks in the hospital and a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Mepkin Abbey in 1996. He wrote about the abbey eight years later in the Templeton Foundation’s “Power of Purpose” essay contest and then developed the winning essay into a four-part article for Forbes magazine. That article, in turn, became the basis of his book, which looks at the business success of the monks, who must work to support themselves. At Mepkin Abbey, that includes growing and selling mushrooms and operating both a brick-and-mortar and online store.
“How do 20 or so 70-year-old men who only work four hours a day, in silence, how are they so successful in business?” Turak asked. “These monks break every rule in Business 101 except the attention to quality, and that might be the secret to their success. But quality doesn’t just mean the quality of the product. It’s also the quality of the way they live. There is something magical about the Trappist way whether you are a monk or not. They don’t make success happen; they let success happen.”
Sense of community
Rocky Thomas also has a funny story about how she first encountered the monastic life. In her case, it was simple curiosity about the priest who married her parents and then baptized her in 1942. The parish priest went into Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, became a monk and was never heard from by his parishioners again.
Years later, Thomas had read Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” and was standing near his books at a bookstore one day in 1995, wondering if he ever mentioned Trappist Father Augustine (Gus) Moore. She struck up a conversation with another woman in the spirituality section and mentioned that she wanted to know whether the priest was still living.
The woman replied, “He was when I left him this morning.”
That’s how Thomas learned that Father Gus had moved to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga. That weekend, she drove up to stay in the monastery’s guesthouse.
“I wasn’t going looking for anything. I just wanted to meet him,” she said, acknowledging that when she arrived, she found the quiet of the monastery to be disconcerting. “The silence got me, especially the silence during meals — for about a day. Then it’s liberating.”
She visited many more times before Father Gus died seven years later, and she has continued to visit ever since. During those visits, she has found her way to a spirituality that goes beyond her “good Catholic” routine of church on Sunday and trying to follow the rules.
“It wasn’t so much the words that were spoken, it was the example I saw,” she said. “I have seen monks yelled at, I’ve seen them insulted, and the way they react — they listen.”
She took that example of community back to her job in a pediatrics clinic and tried to follow the example when interacting with patients and parents. Thomas recalls a woman who was venting all her anger and frustration at her. Instead of yelling back, Thomas took a breath and said, “You must be having a tough day.” The woman broke down in tears.
“For me, the biggest thing I’ve gotten from the monks is the sense of community,” she said. “It could be the community of monks in the monastery, but it could also be the community where you work, or your family, or the people in your neighborhood.”
Building up to prayer
Trappist Brother Mark Dohle of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit said that nearly everyone who visits the monastery is looking for peace or balance.
“People come here with heavy burdens, and they need time and space to deal with (them),” Brother Mark said. “What a lot of them need to know is that what they are going through is normal. Some people need more prayer, some people need more time to reflect.”
For many, the silence is conducive to reflection, he said.
“When I go visit my family every two years, I’m amazed at the amount of noise,” he said.
Brother Mark said that when people ask about developing their own prayer lives, he suggests starting with a small commitment, maybe 15 minutes a day, because starting with too much can bring discouragement. And he tells them to be aware that God is responding.
“In monastic life, it takes years to work up to our life of prayer,” he said. “If you dedicate 15 minutes a day to God — put on a timer or whatever you need to so you’re not looking at the clock — it will make a difference. People who come back here usually tell me it does make a difference.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.