For monks, a life of sacred acts


Abbey: In western Massachusetts, 80 Trappist monks pursue a simple life of prayer and work on 2,000 rolling acres. Above all, they seek to be `ordinary.'

May 22, 1999|By Gerald Renner | Gerald Renner,HARTFORD COURANT

SPENCER, Mass. -- "Come on," the monk says, taking his shepherd's crook to prod the ewe and her two lambs. "It's graduation day."

The ewe is reluctant to leave the pen in the barn, so the Rev. Robert Morhous picks up her lambs and carries them outside.

That motivates the mother ewe to follow. In the spring sunshine, the lambs wobble on their skinny legs before they find their footing in the unfamiliar mud. Then they do funny little leaps as if mounted on springs.

"That's the first time they discover the real world, and they are so happy," Morhous laughs. He returns to the barn to fetch several more week-old lambs ready to join the monastery's flock.

It's lambing season at St. Joseph's Abbey in western Massachusetts, where 80 Trappist monks lead a simple, cloistered life of prayer and work.

The abbey sits atop a steep hill amid 2,000 rolling acres -- 1,400 of them wooded with oak, maple and pine. The monks' cloister, chapel, 11-bedroom retreat house for lay people and other buildings are made of fieldstones taken from the New England stone fences that farmers used to separate their properties.

Some of the monks, like Morhous, are ordained priests; others are lay brothers. All take permanent vows of poverty, chastity and obedience after a preparation that typically takes seven years. Priests and brothers dress alike in black and white robes or in work clothes when doing manual labor.

The monks moved to the abbey in 1950, after their former monastery in Cumberland, R.I., burned down. They don't preach, teach, serve parishes or perform the duties that diocesan priests do.

"The work you do is part of your prayer," says Morhous, who has been a member of the Roman Catholic monastic order since he graduated in 1954 from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

At that time, he said, the abbey had 180 monks, 80 of them novices preparing for the order. Now there are 80 monks, eight of them in formation. The decline reflects the fact that fewer young men elect vocations to the religious life. But the wish for a simpler life dedicated to God still attracts some, and the abbey has enough monks to sustain itself.

Many of the newer monks did not join the monastery right out of college, as Morhous did, but left other careers to become Trappists. Former doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, artists and truck drivers are among them.

About half the abbey's income is made from fruit preserves, jams and jellies the monks make and sell nationally in supermarkets. Most of the rest comes from custom vestments the monks design and make for priests, deacons and ministers, an ecclesiastical business they call the Holy Rood. (Rood is a Middle English word for cross.)

The small flock of sheep is only an abbey sideline, but it is in keeping with the agricultural tradition of the Trappists, founded at La Trappe in France in 1098 and known formally as the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance.

It is also in keeping with ancient Christian tradition. An early and enduring image of Jesus Christ is that of "the Good Shepherd."

Before the lambing season began in mid-April, Morhous had 19 ewes and a ram. Within a week, the ewes had given birth to 17 lambs, mostly twins. Five more ewes were expected to give birth to 10 more lambs this season. Some will be kept, some sold for lamb chops -- although the vegetarian monks won't eat any.

Morhous shears the sheep in the fall. The wool is made into blankets at a nearby mill. The blankets sell for $130 or more in the mill's store and the abbey gift shop.

Morhous spends most of his time supervising the monks who cook, bottle, label and ship 600,000 cases (12 jars to a case) of Trappist Preserves a year.

The factorylike kitchen presents a striking contrast to the peace that prevails elsewhere. Monks dressed in white trousers, shirts and paper hats wear green earplugs against the high-decibel whir of the automated machines.

Presiding is "Brother Cook," who declines to give his name and has a reputation as a perfectionist. No one dares speak to him as he flits from one stainless-steel container to another and busies himself at a temperature-control console.

"Each one of these jars is a sacred event," Morhous says. "We look on everything we do as a sacred act. That's what gives meaning to the whole thing."

Across the road, in a building of pink stucco, is a completely different work environment. The monks who design altar vestments work silently. There are no rules against speaking; it is just that they are intent on their work, and besides, monks are not a gabby lot.

Monks do the designing and cutting of the vestments, and 25 women in a large white house near the entrance to the monastery grounds are employed to do the sewing.

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