Thou shalt not steal beer

This past weekend, J and I went to the annual open house at Spencer Brewery, the Trappist brewery located on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. I’ve been to the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s before, so I’ve seen where the monks pray, and this weekend’s open house gave me the opportunity to see where the monks work.

Beer flow chart

Walking around Spencer Brewery got me thinking about the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora,” which means “pray and work.” The schedule of monastic life at Saint Joseph’s makes sense if you remember that Trappists seclude themselves to focus on these two things. The liturgy of the hours offers a structured way for cloistered monks to spend their day alternating prayer and work, prayer and work, prayer and work.

A system of pipes

The public perception that cloistered monks and nuns are inactive and quietistic exists because we divide monastic orders into the categories of active and contemplative. Monks and nuns from so-called active orders work in the world as clergy, teachers, nurses, or missionaries. Contemplative monastics, on the other hand, live apart from the world in monasteries or convents.

Tanks and pipes

Contemplative orders point to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha to justify their vocational path. When Jesus visited the home of these sisters, Martha busied herself with the household logistics of hosting a guest while Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen while he teached. When Martha complained that Mary wasn’t doing her share of the domestic chores, Jesus famously took Mary’s side, saying “Mary has chosen the better part.”

The division of monastic orders into active and contemplative, however, is misleading, as all religious communities (and all religious people) are a combination of both. Yes, Trappist monks live apart from the world and lead a prayer-centered life that is largely silent. But Trappists also live in communities that strive to be self-sufficient, and that necessitates the “work” half of “Ora et labora.” In contemplative communities, work and prayer are like two hands that work in tandem. One’s work supports one’s prayer, and one’s prayer supports one’s work. In my Zen school, we say “A day without work is a day without eating,” and a Trappist would agree with the spirit of that saying.

Where beer comes from

Years ago at a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Providence Zen Center, Father Kevin Hunt traveled from Saint Joseph’s Abbey to represent the “Christian” portion of the retreat. During the time for questions, a retreatant asked Father Kevin how he could justify isolating himself in a monastery when there was an entire world out here in need of help. Father Kevin responded by asking the woman what she intended to do when she got home from the retreat, and she said she’d probably make dinner for her family and get her kids ready for another busy school week. “Excellent,” Father Kevin replied. “When I get back to the monastery, I have toilets to clean. You take care of your family, and I take care of mine.”

Palletized

We all work in our own separate ways: some of us raise children, some of us tend pets, some of us teach, and some of us sit at desks, toiling and typing. The important thing isn’t what you do when you work but why you do it. Trappist monks make jam, jelly, and beer because they need an income to support their prayerful practice. That prayerful practice is shared with the world in turn through the monastery’s hospitality. People like me can visit the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s because there is someone there whose work keeps the lights on and the toilets clean.

Abbey church

After spending Saturday with a friend in central Massachusetts, I stopped on my way home at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer.

Abbey church

Decades ago, I’d visited Saint Joseph’s as an exhausted graduate student at Boston College. The campus ministry program there had advertised a silent weekend retreat at Mary House, a retreat center right next door to the Abbey, and I jumped at the opportunity to take a weekend away from my life as a frazzled grad student juggling teaching with my own studies.

Cross and cloud

Several campus ministers ferried me and a group of undergraduates–I was relieved that none of them were my own students–to the Mary House, where they provided an abundant supply of food and gave us the freedom to spend the weekend however we wanted. We came together for meals, which we ate in silence while one person read to the rest of us, a monastic practice known as “refectory reading.” Apart from meals, we were free to come and go as we pleased, either staying close to the Mary House or venturing over to the monastery grounds.

Grass and sky

I don’t remember much from that decades-ago visit to Saint Joseph’s Abbey, but I do remember how lovely the grounds were. I spent one day walking the grounds with its rolling hills, beaver ponds, and wild turkeys, and the beauty of the landscape seemed to reflect the tranquility of the monks’ practice.

Cross and clouds

I also spent a lot of time on that retreat tucked away in visitors’ chapel, which was (and is) tiny, dark, and cavernously quiet, like the bottom of a deep well. If you visited the chapel during one of the regularly-scheduled prayer times, you could hear but not see the monks reciting the Office from their choir stalls, which were contiguous to but visually hidden from the chapel pews: no peeking.

Visitors' chapel

Since I hadn’t come to Saint Joseph’s to peer at monks, I’d intentionally visit the chapel during off times, when I knew no one else would be there. To me, the draw of the place wasn’t the presence of mysterious monks: I’d read enough Thomas Merton to imagine what the life of a monastic was like. Instead, I went to the chapel to drink in the silence left behind after the monks had gone. As an inactive Catholic who had practiced Zen meditation for years, I craved the deep steep of silence the Abbey church provided, its stone walls almost oozing with prayer.

View from under a maple

Yesterday as I drove the winding road to the Abbey church, its stones unchanged over the several decades since I had last been there, my heart was heavy with the news of the world: white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, the Denier in Chief sowing discord from the White House, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming everywhere. How can you retreat to a silo of silence when the the world is on fire? Or, better yet, how can you not seek spiritual solace then?

The visitors’ chapel was just as tiny and dark as I’d remembered, and the silence was just as profound. After briefly praying in the shadow of an altar illuminated by a stained glass image of Mary and the infant Jesus, I went back outside to admire the monastery fields bathed in the long-angled light of late afternoon.

Monk walking with trees and geese

And that is when I saw him: a lone, white-robed monk walking down a quiet road through a grass-green field. In the distance, a flock of geese moved through the grass, either grazing or floating in an invisible pond hidden behind the crest of those rolling hills. The monk walked slowly, deliberately, neither hurrying nor dawdling, and he stopped briefly to look at the same geese I was watching. Surely the scene was just as idyllic and lovely from his perspective as it was from mine.

The world is on fire, and everywhere people are consumed in the flames of anger, fear, and bigotry. Where can you find the still, small voice who wants nothing more than to help this suffering world?