Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
It was big news back in 1956, much like it would be today. The organization itself hasn’t changed much in 1,500 years, but when one of its offshoots buys coveted ranch property and moves into the valley, it creates a buzz that can’t be denied.
My dad muscled our car up the dirt road, arriving by invitation to check out the drastic changes happening at what had been the Lamoy Ranch. Before Lamoy, it had been the Hart spread, tended by original homesteaders, set in the widest part of the Capitol Creek valley and notable for the grand, brick house that even today signifies longevity and determination.
As we drove around the house and headed to a valley well out of sight of the main road, we spotted a man out in the hayfield, moving the irrigation water. At about that instant, the horse he was using for transportation bolted for the corrals, causing my dad to comment that even a monk would cuss such bad luck. Within moments, we arrived at the still-under-construction abbey of St. Benedict’s Monastery (Trappist Order) and were given the grand tour.
Maybe you’ve been by there for mass or vespers and wondered, “Who are these men who have ‘left the world,’ who live a solitary life within the confines of a community?” According to the Trappist website, their vocation, “is to ‘go apart’; to die to themselves and be raised again as a new creation.”
Monasteries are clearly rooted in religion, the Trappists in Roman Catholicism. However, unlike many born-again believers, the Trappists have tolerance toward other faiths and judge a man not by his religion but rather by his “discernment” in becoming a monk. The monastic life is not an escape, and if the abbot or other members of the community detect a less-than-noble desire in one attempting to join the order, the impostor will be asked to leave.
“Siddhartha,” the classic novel by Herman Hesse, came early into my life at Aspen High School. For a time, several of us became fascinated with the idea of asceticism, believing that at some point in our lives we would undergo a spiritual journey of significance. It was a short-lived conversation, and even though Siddhartha’s vision was fixed primarily on Buddhism and other Eastern religions, there are remarkable similarities with Christianity. Inescapably, Siddhartha and my visit to St. Benedict’s Monastery have remained in my memory all these years.
Popular local legend tirelessly promotes the “Aspen Idea,” the soothing integration of mind, body and spirit, as though we invented it. The Benedictine monks developed that philosophy more than 15 centuries ago.
There is a vow of poverty, in the sense that personal possessions are not allowed, and once the final vows are taken (a journey of six or seven years), one is “all in.” Essentially, when one takes the vow to become a monk, he is making a “gift of (himself) to God and the community.”
We can wonder what really pushes a person to enter into such a relationship with the world and other fellow beings, but the essentials are actually quite clear. As mentioned, escape is not an acceptable reason for one to join such an order, but according to monks in the know, “Experiencing ourselves is the greatest challenge, perhaps – fleeing from the truth about ourselves.” Accepting oneself for who he is rather than who he pretends he is spans two different realities. It takes guts to climb mountains and ski the steep and deep, but learning to bring serenity and grace into our lives might be the biggest challenge of all. The Trappists do it with silence and solitary purpose of mind.
The quiet and hermit-like existences are not unknown concepts, for that is how I’ve lived much of my life, in the summers, anyway. The religious dedication lets me out of any substantial conversation, for that is not part of my philosophy. My own personal reflection, should I live so long, might be the simplistic refrain, “I am what I have become rather than what I might have been.” However nonsensical that statement, only time will tell.
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