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Father Muench Says...

Exploring monastic living

May 20, 2020

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

When I think of a saint for a “stay at home” kind of life, I think of Thomas Merton and all the Trappist monks who spend their life in monasteries at prayer. We try to figure out how to live a day at home, a week at home, two months at home. The Trappist monks spend a lifetime dedicated to the Lord Jesus at home in their monastery. I continue learn more and more about that monastic life, especially through the writings of Father Louis, Thomas Merton.

Let me again share with you my story and how I got in touch with Thomas Merton and the Trappist monks. Way back in high school (a thousand years ago), I attended the public high school in Fayetteville, New York. As Catholic, we attended religious education in what was called released time. Once a week, we Catholics took off last period and went down the street, about a half a mile for religious education at Immaculate Conception Church. The teacher for our class was Sister – oh, no, I completely forgot her name. However, that Sister had a profound effect on my life, especially my spiritually. I must admit that she also influenced my vocation, also. In addition, she put me on to Thomas Merton.

I remember that I could decide on what to write about for my senior term paper. I mentioned this to Sister – oh, how I wish I could remember her name. She suggested Thomas Merton and the Trappist monks. They truly stayed in the monastery for a lifetime. They were not parish priests or missionary priests, rather they dedicated their lives to the Lord in prayer and work in the monastery, following the Rule of St. Benedict. So, I took Sister’s advice. I delved into the story of the Trappist monks, beginning with St. Bernard and his developing the earliest Trappist Monasteries, where the monks prayed and worked and lived in silence and the writings of the monks throughout the centuries. They studied the Sacred Scriptures and prayed together, prayed the hours of the Divine Office and celebrated Mass each day together.

Working on this term paper, I decided I needed a little personal experience. I discovered there was a Trappist Monastery in Piffard, New York, just south of Rochester – Our Lady of Genesee. I talked my father into driving me there for a day visit. I am certain that he had no idea what he was getting into. The only part of the monastery we could actually visit was the book store, as well as the grounds. However, I was able to talk for a while with the Brother Porter. It was an interesting day. Here was this group of men living and praying and working together in this monastery dedicated to the Lord. I found it truly appealing. I still remember that day well – learning about monks, but also a day of traveling with my father.

So, Sister encouraged me to read Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain.” This was the story of Merton’s early years, his schooling, and his days at Columbia University and his conversion to becoming a Catholic, influenced by his many friends. Then his discovering the Monastic life, his entrance into the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. Merton has written a great deal about the monastic life and prayer. He characterizes the prayer of a monk is the prayer of contemplation. Merton writes this: “Contemplation is really simple openness to God at every moment, and deep peace.” I have discovered contemplation as a prayer of silence and solitude – taking some time in quiet prayer and allowing God to become part of your life. As we take time to stay at home with the family and with the Lord, we open our hearts to our Savior. We will all have a story to tell one day of how we stayed at home and the Lord came to be part of our lives, just like the Trappist monks.

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