e-mail us

Special Section: Religious Life


Theology that’s also history


By Dianne Aprile
Trout Lily Press, 246 pages, $39.95


Until we know ourselves better, it’s perhaps only normal that our ideas and behavior zig and zag in trial and error until we get life right. Thus we sway between conservatives and liberals, Apollonian and Dionysian, Catholic, Jew and Hottentot, as we test the terrain between birth and death.

One manifestation of this ebb and flow is the constant urge, on the one hand, to an easy life, and, on the other, to the aspiration to sacrifice. History confirms that the majority of humans are willing to settle for the low road of least resistance, yet there are always upstarts to challenge the norm — signs of contradiction.

Religion is the arena in which this contrast is most striking, because the stakes are higher. While Trappists are not the only icons of this paradox, in the countercultural context they are solid gold household names.

And speaking of household names: The first good thing to be said about The Abbey of Gethsemani is that Thomas Merton does not take over. Rather, the account is chronological, with a vengeance: It goes back beyond Gethsemani, beyond the first Trappists, back 17 centuries to the first Christian monks.

Tradition says the first monk was Anthony of Egypt, who in 285 gave away whatever he owned and moved to the desert where he thought he could live a simple way that would reflect the life and teachings of Christ.

Among the many notable things Jesus never said was that his followers should become monks in the desert. This lack of specificity has allowed the rest of us, non-desert dwellers, including the rich and famous, to be followers, too. But every so often someone would say, in effect: Wait a minute -- surely Jesus had something more ideal in mind, or more simple or more stripped down or even heroic.

Anthony went for the stripped down version. Drastic though his decision was, men and women in big numbers followed his example -- and in doing so ruined Anthony’s own quest for a solitary life. But he knew a good thing when he saw it. So he drew up the first monastic rule, a simple routine of prayer and work to impose order on each day. He moved deeper into the desert, but the followers followed, though Anthony’s crowd all lived separate, solitary lives.

Meanwhile, another hermit, Pachomius, went another route. He organized his many followers into communities. In this context, the theory behind community is that other cliché about safety in numbers.

Now there were two ways of being monks. The contemplation movement quickly spread across the Middle East.

Author Dianne Aprile suggests that the political circumstances of the day were a factor. When, in 313, Emperor Constantine granted the church official status, many Christians “feared an increasingly privileged status might erode their religious fervor and distract them from the rigorous moral demands of the gospel.”

In the fourth century, monasticism also moved west. But it was Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 529, and then wrote his famous rule, who fathered the monasticism that has flourished into our own time. The secret of the rule’s success, everyone seems to agree, was the combination of spiritual insight and practicality -- a balance romantics might say squeezes some of the heroism out of religious life but makes it tolerable for the long haul.

Eternal reform

Success in religious life is a two-edged sword, however. It was no more trouble to play fast and loose with Benedict’s rule than with Christ’s gospel. The urge is to make the religious life, like any life, user-friendly. That usually means concessions to human nature. It means, eventually, added bells and whistles -- often in imitation of “the real world.” And before you know it, the exceptions are the norm and the rule is left behind.

The French Abbey of Cluny simultaneously flourished and deviated in that way. It became a dominant force in Europe. At one stage the Cluniacs controlled 1,000 monasteries. There went simplicity, poverty and probably humility. It was time for more reform. One such reform was the Cistercian movement.

On Palm Sunday, 1098, 21 French monks under an abbot named Robert left their abbey at Molesme and traveled north to Citeaux -- which led to the name Cistercians -- where they built a monastery “to retrieve what had been lost.” Their great success demonstrated again the ongoing appeal of poverty and simplicity. Within a few years, along came Bernard of Clairvaux, a nobleman and mystic, unlikely as the combination might seem. In 38 years as abbot, he acted as emissary for popes, preached the Second Crusade across Northern Europe, wrote reams of spiritual writing, founded 68 new houses, all without jet travel or even the Internet.

The burgeoning Cistercian order also founded monasteries for women, the first at the unfortunately named Abbey of Tart. Several popes were chosen from the ranks of the Cistercians.

While going for the gusto, however, the Cistercians’ “contemplative spirit suffered.” This led, once again, to a split. One of the split parties called itself Cistercians of the Strict Observance, led by one Armand Jean de Rance, who by the age of 12 controlled several monasteries, including La Grande Trappe -- which gave its name to the Trappists.

Those who consider joining a monastery in search of an easy life should think twice. The French Revolution closed down the monasteries and put many monks to death. Among those who fled were the first Trappists to try settling in America, in 1805, a pathetic effort that failed unaccountably in a few years: “No good reason was ever recorded for their decision to pull up roots.” It might, though, have something to do with the fact that France had again become safe for religious.

Then, in 1848, a group of 44 Trappists left the French Abbey of Melleray for what would become the settlement of Gethsemani. Led by Fr. Eutropius Proust, the trip was a true saga. There is a moving account of the emotional parting from Melleray. Those leaving walked the first 17 miles, those who were able. Some were as old as 70, and such an odyssey must have seemed enormous to them after a lifetime living a vow of stability. The trip was one vicissitude after another.

Nor were their troubles over when they reached Gethsemani, where they had bought some buildings from the Sisters of Loretto. Abbot Proust, in ill health, went back to France. His successor, a severe, uncompromising man, was at the heart of endless conflicts with the local Kentucky population. The new community arrived just in time to be embroiled in the Civil War. Merton, in his history of Gethsemani, The Waters of Siloe, suggests the choice of this no-nonsense monk was “a sign of the community’s desire to return to a more contemplative way of life after so many years of upheaval.” This evaluation may be more charitable than accurate.

Abbots and others

This book, which is in equal part prose and pictures, is large and handsome, a coffee-table book with something to say. No arty pretense here: the author raided the archives and produced a family album that reproduces old newspaper clippings, a century and more of snapshots and Abbey objects (for example, an amazing crosier made by one of the early monks from 7,000 pieces of inlaid wood, a gift to the first abbot).

The book devotes a chapter to the life and times of each successive abbot. After the holy terror inflicted by Dom Benedict Berger, the monks did what is often done in papal and other arenas: chose Benedict’s opposite as successor, the benign Dom Edward Chaix-Bourbon. The new abbot turned out to be indecisive, however, and during his tenure the abbey was rocked by scandal and other troubles which the book -- for which Gethsemani holds the copyright -- tells with commendable frankness.

Next came Dom Edmond Obrecht -- the chapter heading calls him “citizen of the world” -- who ruled for 37 years and turned Gethsemani from an embattled enclave of ill-fitting foreigners into a prestigious American monastery. After that, Dom Frederic Dunne was abbot (1935-48) (the chapter heading: “Exploring new frontiers”); then Dom James Fox (1948-67) (“From Harvard to hermitage”); Fr. Flavian Burns (1968-73) (“Quieting down”); Fr. Timothy Kelly (1973-present) (“Out of the front office, into the street”).

But the pictures soon remind the reader that for each abbot there were hundreds of monks. While their vows of obedience, stability and conversion ensured the appearance of quiet lives, each soul’s journey, one eventually feels, was a heroic story of striving for significance, each soul in its unique spiritual landscape. This is the same great story Anthony lived and fostered for others back in the early desert, a story humans must stand still to even notice as the world rushes to the third millennium.

One of the most telling photos is on page 135, called “Lay brethren 1936.” The Trappists, like most orders in the old days, were divided into choir monks and lay brothers. However holy the intention, this division suffered from many of the most demeaning aspects of the caste system in India or the class system elsewhere. Education and money and more entered into it. The haunted faces of the brothers of 1936, so lived-in, so intense and worn, are more eloquent testimony than anything else in the book that in our century people are still wrestling with their souls and God. I found myself hoping their lives were happier than the photo suggests, and the reward great.

Thomas Merton -- Fr. Lewis when he was at home -- is placed in perspective. It is well-known that he favored the solitary life of the hermit over the communal life at the abbey. This, it turns out, is a common hankering among the monks, and many have lived in hermitages in varying degrees.

Times have changed in other ways. There’s more talking in the monastery now. There was a Trappestine nun in residence, the author reports, when she was researching her book. There are phones and other contemporary contraptions not found in the desert. Still, author Aprile’s account assures us the life is exemplary and not in need of yet another drastic reform.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999