On a 500-hectare estate of rolling hills in the Virginia countryside live 11 Trappist monks.
There used to be almost 70. But the decision to become a monk is not as popular as it once was.
This might explain why: The monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which dates from the 6th century. They have given up their worldly possessions. They have promised to remain in the same community under a vow of “stability.” They agree to remain celibate, and they live separately from the world.
And silence is maintained as much as possible.
“The first rule of St. Benedict is ‘listen.’ He believed in a restraint of words. It’s a particular message for our era, in which words have become so cheap,” explained Father James Orthmann.
He is originally from New York City, and has lived at the Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia for 39 years. Now, he is 65.
The Benedictine monks’ motto in Latin is Ora et Labora, or in English, “Pray and Work.” Each day, the monks pray for eight hours, sleep for eight hours, and work for eight hours. The work can be manual labor, sacred reading, or charity.
And they pray. The monks pray five times a day at 3:30 and 7 in the morning, 2 and 5:30 in the afternoon, and 7:30 in the evening. They sing medieval chants in English, and every two weeks they pray all 150 Psalms or inspirations from the Bible.
By about 7:45 pm each evening, they go to bed.
But the monks and the abbey are facing a difficult reality. The number of monks has declined since the abbey was founded in 1950. At its peak, there were 68 monks. Today, there are just 11, and many are older than 70.
“Nowadays, it’s hard to recruit new monks,” said Father James. “It’s a huge adjustment in our culture, much more than when I entered 39 years ago.”
“Advertising for monks doesn’t work,” said Kurt Aschermann, a lay person -- or helper -- who promotes the abbey as a volunteer. The target market for monks is men between the ages of 35 and 55. Men of that age have enough life experience to know they want to join the monastery.
Candidates must pass a background check, said Father James. They live at the abbey for three months to see if it’s right for them. They participate as active members for one year, but are not formal members yet. Then they are considered novices for two years.
They finally take “simple vows,” then “solemn vows.”
Lastly, they have to sell all their possessions before they are formally monks in the Trappist brotherhood.
Adapting to Modern Realities
Because fewer men have entered the monastic service, the abbey has taken some innovative steps to ensure its survival.
“We are changing our relationship with the society around us,” said Father James. “There is an inter-penetration and an interaction with non-monastic people.”
For example, Holy Cross Abbey has launched “Monastic Immersion Weekends” for both men and women. Those have been “wildly popular,” said Aschermann.
During the immersion weekends, you can spend 48 hours living the life of a Trappist monk. People of any religion – or no religion – can come.
“There are lots and lots of people who find monastic life to be an interesting lifestyle,” said Aschermann. “But they have wives and children and jobs. Very few have the capacity to give up everything and go to the monastery.”
The immersion weekend gives people a taste of monastic life.
Last year, the abbey offered a free event on the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton, a famous Benedictine monk. All 50 tickets were claimed in just two hours, said Aschermann.
The Holy Cross Abbey also rents rooms in a retreat house where up to 16 guests can come for weekend or weekday visits. No religious study is required. Guests can come to enjoy the scenery and quiet around the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River.
Englishman Ralph Wormeley, a friend of George Washington, bought the property in 1730 and named it the Cool Spring Estate. There is an historic house on the grounds that was built around 1784. It was built by the Wormeley family and sits next to the abbey.
The monks also raise money by selling fruitcake and creamed honey in their gift shop. In addition, they sell hooded T-shirts with the Abbey logo, scented soaps and biscotti.
The monks are self-sufficient financially. And they’ve become innovative about raising income from the estate. They rent pasture to a local farmer, who grazes black Angus cattle on the property. They lease land to another farmer who is growing organic vegetables.
And they offer “eco-friendly” burials that are less expensive than usual burial methods. You can be buried with a monument made out of local rocks.
“Last November, we won a Lord Fairfax award for an outstanding farm since 2010,” Father James noted proudly.
History of the Benedictine Communities
The first Benedictine monastery in the U.S. was St. Vincent, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1832 by Bonifice Wimmer, a German monk. He brought Benedictine nuns from Germany to serve in Pennsylvania and other states.
Today, there are more than 2,000 Benedictine monasteries on six continents, according to “Christian Spirituality: The Classics.” Holy Cross Abbey is one of 12 Trappist monasteries for men, and five for women in the United States. Trappist monasteries are also called Cistercian monasteries, and they follow the Rule of St. Benedict.
Deep prayer is practiced in other religions, as well. Zen Buddhists emphasize meditation as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Sufism explores an inner mystical dimension of Islam. And Kabbalah is a branch of Judaism that promotes spirituality through mysticism.
I’m Mary Gotschall.
Words in This Story
estate – n. a large piece of land with a large house on it
monk – n. a member of a religious community of men who usually promise to remain poor, unmarried, and separated from the rest of society
motto – n. a short sentence or wording that expresses a rule guiding the behavior of a particular person or group
charity – n. the act of giving money, food, or other help to people who are sick or needy
medieval – adj. of or relating to the Middle Ages; of or relating to the period of European history from about A.D. 500 to about 1500
recruit – v. to find suitable people and get them to join a company, an organization or the armed forces
immersion – n. complete involvement in some activity or interest
fruitcake – n. a very sweet baked good that contains nuts, fruits, and spices
T-shirt – n. a shirt that has short sleeves and no collar and that is usually made of cotton
biscotti – n. an Italian food containing almond biscuits.
mystical – adj. having a spiritual meaning that is difficult to see or understand