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ESSAY: Wauwatosa Man Learns Silent Lessons from Trappist Monks

John Phelan

Essayist and poet Richard Hedderman may live in Wauwatosa, but every year he travels to a spiritual retreat at a Trappist Monastery. He reads his piece, "The Longitudes of Silence":

Sprawling across an open hilltop and surrounded by 1,800 acres of woodlands and fields outside Spencer, Massachusetts - very nearly the exact geographic center of the state - is St. Joseph's Abbey, a complex of fieldstone buildings comprising a monastery with a chapel, bell tower, cloister and retreat house, and approximately 80 Trappist monks. It is deeply rooted in their tradition for Trappists to offer refuge to travelers, and each year I return and spend a week with them in January - the true geographic center of winter.

The Trappists are a Catholic religious community of cloistered monastics, a branch of the Benedictines formally known as the “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.” Deeply contemplative by rule and by practice, the order has emerged over the centuries as the standard for Western monasticism.

St. Joseph’s was settled in 1950 by a group of Belgian and French monks from Nova Scotia and Rhode Island. In these rustic hills of central Massachusetts the monks cleared the land and built their monastery themselves by hand with the guidance of local contractors.

Trappists rigorously follow a way of life that is at once faithful to the archaic traditions of their order, and likewise adaptive to modern life. Though cloistered, the monk’s of St. Joseph’s keep up with the news. They read the papers, listen to the radio and many of them have e-mail accounts. At least some among them appear to be sports fans. I once saw an elderly monk removing a Yankees cap before donning his robes for Vespers. (And this in Red Sox country!)

Historically, most of my fellow retreatants at St. Joseph’s have been clerics of one class or another: priests and monsignors, and once, by some odd chance, a Baptist preacher from North Carolina. Above all, I am here for the silence, and I imagine the devout regarding me with suspicion as I bundle out the door in hiking boots for my morning hike down the hill to the main road and back, or spend an evening in the retreat house parlor under a lamp, with my feet up, reading a murder mystery.

Except for meals, one's time at St. Joseph's is almost entirely unstructured, and there are essentially only two rules: don't make any noise, and never tread unaccompanied into the monastic enclosure—that part of the monastery and its grounds forbidden to guests. Securing permission for a foray alone into the monastic enclosure is nearly impossible unless you can confirm, absolutely, that you are retreating from a grass fire.

After the midday meal, the broad, revenant swale of afternoon is before us. One drifts wordlessly across the longitudes of silence. The retreat house and its inhabitants fall into a tranquil, contemplative torpor. As I quietly read in the deep afternoon light, or invite sleep, the sky above our hilltop often stages dramatic expositions of weather.

Winter winds rarely blow gently here but howl, hammering windows and rooftops, and roaring like the breath of God shoved through a needle. Gusts of heavy rain or billowing snow and violent lashings of wind scour the hilltop, hurling enormous volumes of towering cloud. In the spellbound dusks, veils of snow unfurl and lay upon the hills like a leaf from the Gospel.

At 5:30 each evening, a brother leads us to Vespers, a word sounding deliciously like "whispers," and deriving from the Latin for "evening." We follow a winding path through the monastery complex, down a labyrinth of passageways padding solemnly over polished stone floors gleaming softly in the medieval light. There are vistas through a series of soaring, arched windows of an inner courtyard deep in snow and snow-bound statues of the Virgin, and others, too rimed with ice to recognize.

Contrary to common belief it is Compline, and not Vespers, that is the final service of the monastic day. The word “compline” derives from the Latin root meaning "complete," and of all the services in the Divine Office, it is my favorite. The chapel is dimmed to the light of a single candle suspended from the nave. Monks in pale robes chant. The chapel is submerged in unbroken shadow, consuming the fires of day, and assuaging the soul of the mystic, the penitent, and the uncertain.

One night, as I lay drifting off, a pack of coyotes yipped and howled somewhere beyond the walls of the retreat house as they ranged the moonlit fields in utter disregard of the monastic enclosure. So feral and unrestrained was their exclamation, that hair rose on the back of my neck and I dared not look out. For what I heard had in it something beyond us: a savage lament for the undefined terrain of the spirit, or perhaps just some primal salute to the unknowable.