Understanding the contemplative life

Father John A. Kiley

The Trappistine Sisters in Wrentham, MA. have happily inaugurated a newly enlarged chocolate factory whose delightful products help sustain their monastic life. The new building also boasts an improved gift shop and, more important, an expanded and selective religious book store – La Sallette and Tally’s watch out!

As might be expected, new and classical texts focusing on the interior life and on the lives of contemplative saints are amply offered.

One volume that caught my Blackstone Valley eye was a history of the Trappist Fathers as they moved from France, to Nova Scotia, to Valley Falls, to Spencer. “Through Faith and Fire, The Monks of Spencer,” by Father Gabriel Bertoniere is an edifying as well as a frankly enlightening saga of these Cistercian fathers and brothers, and the sisters too, who fled assorted French revolutions, endured snow and fire in Canada, maintained an arduous New World/Old World fraternity in the days before steamships and airplanes, were almost too warmly received in Cumberland, and then settled west of Worcester in that Disneyland of monasteries, St. Joseph Abbey.

The lean years in Canada were rewarded with an abundant recruitment after World War II. The astonishing generosity of well-to-do benefactors was amply matched by the demanding manual labor of the monks in their construction and agricultural pursuits. And not to be overlooked was the rigorous, repetitive contemplative life that occupied their day’s prayer before 20th century reforms.

On certain, not infrequent occasions, the choir monks would be required to pray the entire temporal office of the day, the entire office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the entire sanctoral office of a feast or possibly the entire office of the dead – all together! None of these offices is brief.

The notion of a diocesan priest reading his comparatively terse breviary three times each day would be unthinkable – but chanting it in choir? God bless these pioneers in American monasticism.

The Valley Falls’ portion of the history is most interesting to the Rhode Island reader.

The gracious welcome by Bishop Harkins in the 1890s, the encouragement of Bishops Hickey and Keough in later years, the involvement of Archbishop Cushing and then the bishops of Springfield and Worcester as the abbey finally moved north is respectfully narrated.

The enduring support offered by local residents and businesses who purchased the dairy and farm produce and requested spiritual bouquets over the decades is warmly reported. The practical and sympathetic rescue first by Mount St. Charles Academy and then by Bishop McVinney and Governor Pastore when the Cumberland abbey burned in 1950 and the monks took shelter in the Rhode Island state park buildings in Glocester is acknowledged in great detail.

The contemplative life has been part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition from Old Testament times. Elijah listening for the wee small voice at Mt. Carmel, John the Baptist taking refuge in the Judean desert in preparation for his evangelization work, Jesus Christ spending his nights in solitary prayer in communion with his Father, Francis of Assisi and Charles Borromeo keeping nightly vigils in rural Tuscany and urban Milan, Theresa of Lisieux and Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) dedicating their lives to community prayer, and today’s monks and nuns of Wrentham, Spencer, Gethsemane, and other priories and abbeys around the world, bear sometimes silent, sometimes choral witness to the interior life of faith that is the root and foundation of all Christian activity.

The vast majority of believers are called to witness to God in the world – through spousal fidelity, parental responsibility, social justice, parochial service, missionary activity, religious education, the patient endurance of suffering, an active church life.

Yet interiority – devotion to prayer, Scripture, church teaching and personal reflection – is vital to every Christian pursuit. Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, admirable models of Christian activity, were women of intense prayer.

Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II, admired today by contrasting groups, were both men of intense practical piety. Pope Roncalli said the 15 decades of the rosary every day!

This Cistercian history of interior and choral prayer lived out in our own neighborhood, sometimes with great challenge but always with great commitment, is a thoughtful summons to interior renewal especially appropriate for the dark, quiet season of Advent