"We’re here not for what we do, but for how we live."
September 14, 2005
It’s inky-black in this high alpine valley, and as still as a tomb under a dome of stars in the early morning.Even the coyotes are hours away from waking and howling their way into the day. At St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, though, the monks have assembled and it’s time for the first observance of the rites that dominate their days. At precisely 4:30 a.m., the 15 monks gather in near total darkness at the monastery’s chapel for Vigils, along with a few hardy “retreatants,” as they are called by the abbot, Father Joseph Boyle.With a mixture of prayer, citations from scripture, sing-song chants and readings from one of the thousands of religious volumes in the abbey library, they start another day of monastic life.
Tucked away in the upper reaches of the Capitol Creek Valley, well removed from the hustle and bustle of Aspen and the increasingly congested Highway 82 corridor, the monastery is something of an anomaly.Founded in 1956 by a group of monks sent out from St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Mass., it sits in the midst of some 3,500 acres of prime pasture and alpine meadows, sloping upward in a rugged, serene bowl.Infused with a blending of warm conviviality, ancient spirituality and a bit of business sense on the side, it is inhabited by a collection of men who are otherworldly in their spiritual devotion, yet happily earthy in their outlooks on life. Talkative and erudite, the monks aren’t the gruff hermits one might expect. Silence and contemplation are at the core of their existence, but they like to chat when approached and questioned about their lives.At the same time, they are utterly attached to the monastery, its rhythms and rules, and the overarching silence that envelopes the place where they live, work and teach. And they go about their more important work – prayer – with a silent intensity that can be somewhat unnerving to the uninitiated.
In the Chapel at Vigils, the monks sit quietly as prayers and scripture are read aloud, or follow Brother Chuck’s solid tenor lead in chanting hymns first penned centuries ago in Latin, but translated into English for U.S. monasteries.Following vigils, time is set aside for meditation, prayer, study and, as the urge strikes, breakfast grabbed on the fly in the big kitchen at the back of the monastery.The next scheduled observance is lauds (the morning prayer) and the saying of the Mass, which is performed by different monks in rotation.The monks then scatter to the day’s work in the fields, the bakery and other places, following a schedule that is kept by one of the veterans, Brother Charles (the monks rarely use last names either among themselves or with outsiders.)The next observance is at sext, a short prayer conducted at 12:30 p.m. by a circle of monks just outside the refectory door, inside which “dinner” (or lunch, in modern parlance) has been prepared by the cook of the day. On this day, that is Brother Benito, who was supposed to cook lunch the day before but was given time off to celebrate his birthday. A “Happy Birthday” balloon still floats against one wall, anchored to a wooden cross by a short ribbon.At 1:20 p.m., the daily schedule calls for none, or a short afternoon prayer, preceding an hour of free time and then more work. There is no organized evening meal, although monks may snack at their leisure.At 6 p.m., the monks come in for an hour of meditation before vespers and compline, the evening prayers held at 7 p.m.Then, according to the general schedule, the rule is “silence until after Mass next morning.”
Brother Charles, who has lived at the monastery for 28 years and whose title is “cellarer,” makes up the work schedule each week. When called upon, he also is the man who supplies whatever is needed beyond the basic requirements of shelter and meals.”Whenever somebody needs something done, I’m the person they look for,” he said with a somewhat rueful tone, “anything from food to a ride to town” and more.”Sometimes people can be very demanding, you know,” he continued, sounding for all the world like a harried military supply clerk. “They want it now. The cellarer makes sure the monastery has everything it needs to function.”
And making money is part of the deal for the monks, noted Father Joseph, who emphasized that “each house has to support itself” as there is no such thing as subsidies from either the order or the Catholic Church.Brother Micah noted that some monasteries have become famous for their wines, beer, jams and jellies or other items. But the Snowmass house has opted instead for a succession of enterprises, including selling eggs and cookies.Among Brother Charles’ duties over the years was oversight of a major revenue-generating operation, the employment of 10,000 chickens in the laying of thousands of eggs for sale to local consumers.The egg operation was discontinued about 20 years ago, and Charles became responsible for the income generator that succeeded the chickens – baking cookies. At its height, the cookies were marketed through a small, Christmas-oriented mail-order business that took up a huge portion of the time and energy of the monastic community.”You had no life from now until Christmas,” Charles recalled on an early September day.
These days though, the cookie-baking has been scaled back to supplying just the Snowmass Monastery’s own store, orders from other monasteries around the country and the world, and special gift orders for a select few.One continuing major source of revenue is from the sale of hay, raised and harvested by the monks under the direction of Brother Ray, the ranch manager. High-altitude hay, explained Father Joseph, is of a higher quality than usually is fed to cattle, and commands a higher price. The monastery’s hay is sold to the valley’s equestrian set as fodder for horses.The monastery once ran a herd of more than 300 cattle, an enterprise that ended in 1967, and recently had a small flock of sheep (with a llama for protection) on the ranch. But all that is over with, Joseph said, noting that the monks discovered that “agriculture doesn’t pay your bills very well” and that the flock of sheep was doing little other than providing snacks for local coyotes.Now, neighboring ranchers lease some of the land as pasture for their cattle in the summer months, and those cows are normally the only livestock you’ll see there.Money also comes from the sale of books, including a table-full authored by Snowmass monks and published by small publishing houses; wooden bowls carved by Brother Dean, flower cards made by Father William, and other efforts.And there are plans, said Brother Micah, to publish a coffee table-book of photos and text in time for the 2005 Christmas season.
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But the main income for the monastery, which Father Joseph estimated costs more than $250,000 per year to operate, is from the fees charged to “retreatants” who come to the Retreat House for stays that range from a few days to a month or more.In particular, the monastery offers intensive “Contemplative Prayer” retreats, based on the books and lectures of one of the more celebrated personalities in the community, Father Thomas Keating, originator of the “Contemplative Prayer Movement.” Father Joseph said as many as 1,500 retreatants a year have been coming since the mid-1990s, when the Retreat House was finished at a cost of roughly $3 million.The retreats are run by Father Keating, with the help of Brother Micah and other monks. The retreatants have their days scheduled for them and their meals prepared by the staff, primarily two women named Carol DiMarcello and Beth Berkeley, who do a variety of jobs and chores in return for staying at the old ranch house (the original monastery) and soaking up all the monastic serenity and spiritual guidance they can get.But people come not just for the structured “Contemplative Outreach” retreats. They also register for individual or small-group retreats, making their own meals and scheduling their own time. They typically attend Mass and other prayer sessions, and spend the rest of their days in quiet contemplation.
As mentioned above, the monastery, formally part of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance and popularly known as Trappist (from the Congregation of La Trappe), was founded in 1956 by a group of monks who came to Colorado from Massachusetts and proceeded to design and build the original abbey at a cost of less than $500,000. The 3,500 acres reportedly cost about $150 per acre.The Cistercian Order, which is but one of the Benedictine orders within the Catholic Church, draws its fundamental guidelines from the Rule of St. Benedict for monastic living, written in the sixth century for Italians who wanted to pursue a religious life.”It wasn’t intended to be extremely ascetic,” noted Brother Micah concerning the Rule, adding that it was not until the 11th century that a group of Benedictine monks tired of the political machinations and avarice they saw in their order and longed for a return to a simpler style of living. They founded a new monastery, Citeaux, near Dijon, France, and took the name Cistercian. Another paroxysm of reform in the 17th century led to the founding of the Congregation of La Trappe, ultimately known as Trappist.”That’s what we are,” said Micah.The order grew and spread around the globe, and at one stage admitted nuns into the brotherhood. There now are 101 monks’ houses and 70 nuns’ houses around the world, according to the order’s main website. Of that total, 18 are in the United States – 12 for men, six for women.Father Joseph was the first novice to sign up at the new monastery in Snowmass, just as the monks were moving in 1959. He recalled that the buildings were fairly full in those days. He said that during his novitiate there were 37 residents in “The House,” including 13 novices.
Currently, there are 15 monks with an average age of 65. The youngest, Brother Dean, is 44, and the eldest, Father Keating, is 82. There also are two novices and one “postulant” – a step below novice in the process of becoming a monk. It is during this process that the monks take their vows of “stability” (the pledge to stay at the admitting monastery), “obedience” (the agreement to listen to and follow the dictates of the community and the abbot), and “conversatsio” (the understanding that one’s life is changing forever). This last vow also contains within it the vows of “poverty” and “chastity.”Recalling the early days of his residence, Joseph said the monks in the 1950s and ’60s would clear ditches by hand. He conjured up an image of a dozen monks in robes lined up in a row with rakes and shovels in their hands, bent over the ground in concentrated effort. In those days, he said, the monks also harvested hay by hand.Now, he said, the monastery owns equipment to do the heavy work, and Joseph himself is known for his eagerness to climb onto a machine and go to work. Another passion is astronomy. When Father Joseph first came to Snowmass, he realized that the night sky was different than in New York, that there are a lot of stars that he’d never seen before.He began to wonder about the constellations, got hold of a star chart for the quadrant of the sky above the monastery and began to teach himself the various constellations and star positions. Although he modestly insists he is not an expert on the night sky, he says he can recognize a number of galaxies and constellations.He also is known to run a more “laid-back” house than some abbots. During the interviews for this story, he talked about taking trips to Lake Powell in Utah with Father Tom Bradtke, a Catholic priest in the valley and a friend of the monastery. He said Bradtke has a time-share interest in a boat there, which provides a particularly fine place for the monks to stretch their legs.
Although, he was quick to point out, being on a lake in the middle of the desert was “quite a spiritual experience” in its own right.Father Joseph was first elected abbot 20 years ago, and he is serving out an “indefinite term,” a designation granted to him after he had served two consecutive six-year terms.During his tenure, the monastery has expanded physically with the Retreat House, including eight “hermitage” buildings that sleep two per unit. Father Joseph also is credited with raising $2.7 million to build a new wing of the monastery that houses an “infirmary” for ailing and aging monks, as well as an exercise room and library.He also has watched with approval as the monastery has opened its doors to thousands of hopeful spiritual seekers. This kind of active contact with the outside world is something that monasteries once would have seen as an unthinkable.As part of this “opening,” Father Joseph has invited media into the monastery, starting with a story in 1988 by KCNC, Channel 4 in Denver. A highlight of that piece was when Father Thomas Keating remarked to a reporter that his family was opposed to his becoming a monk, afraid that he would be “buried alive” and never seen again. After thinking about it for a second, Keating added with a grin, “It was a little like being buried alive in the first few years.”In a later television piece, for Denver’s Channel 9 in 1992, Brother Chuck Foster spoke of tourists driving up and being “surprised that we can speak.
“We’re actually pretty gregarious,” he said into the camera with a broad smile.And in a 1999 video clip describing the monastery and its plans, Father Joseph appealed to viewers for donations to help build the infirmary wing. Nobody knows whether the video clip tipped the scales, but Father Joseph did succeed in raising the money to build the infirmary wing.In the end, though, the primary mission of the monastery is to provide a haven for men who want to devote their life to prayer and the contemplation of God and life’s mysteries.”We’re here not for what we do, but for how we live,” said Brother Micah, noting that for monks the critical points of every day are the prayer sessions.”Then we work the rest of the day around that.”
Asked if he worries about the future of the monastery, which fell to a population of seven monks in the 1970s, Father Joseph thought a moment and said, “I think about it, sure.”But with two novices and a postulant, he said, “I think we’re in pretty abundant shape.” He said some monasteries in Croatia got down to two or three monks during the devastating turbulence of the 1990s, but they managed to hang on.And if the Snowmass population ever dips again to dangerous levels, he said, there is a backup plan – inviting people to partake in an “associate program,” under which they could live at the monastery but not take vows or become monks. They would simply be able to avail themselves of the solitude and the contemplative lifestyle, in return for some sort of payment to help the monastery remain open.For the moment, however, the monks will contentedly continue to be stewards of one of the last islands of serenity in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.”What you see in this valley is what you’re going to see,” pledged Father Joseph.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org