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Awed by 900 years of Trappist prayer, silence


I was peaceful but sad as I left the Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Mass., after making an eight-day retreat. I was at peace after spending wondrous days at such a haunting place. But I was sad that so many, including myself, fail to heed the compelling Trappist message that the abandonment of self is the beginning of tranquility and joy.

As I concelebrated Mass each morning at 6:30 with 91 Trappists and eight retreatants I learned anew the power of prayer for the church. The monks had begun their day at 3:30 a.m. with the chanting of the Divine Office followed by an hour of meditation. They would continue their life of prayer throughout the day with matins, lauds, vespers and compline.

As I ended the day singing the psalms of compline and, along with all the monks, receiving the blessing of the abbot, I was overwhelmed with the realization that across the globe the Trappists, the Trappistines, the Carmelites and all of the contemplative orders pray day after day, year after year for my sanctification and that of the church. We are all linked in the mystical body like members of a family. God created a church so that all of its followers could love him and each other by prayer and by works.

All of this is basic Catholicism. But it became almost startlingly clear as I felt awed at the silent, robed Trappists walking to chapel and chanting the prayer that was invented centuries before the Trappists came into existence in the year 1099. I stand in admiration at the 900 years of Trappist prayer and silence. It is awesome and overwhelming. You feel insignificant for eight days as you observe and participate in this miracle of grace. The living church is majestic, wondrous, manifestly divine.

Just to know of this spiritual power strengthens your faith in the holiness of the church. Heretics, schisms and scandals come and go, but the church in prayer goes on. In every generation, God raises up purified souls who abandon family, fame and fortune to be able to talk with God all of the day.

Why don’t the contemplative orders attract more vocations? Their life is so attractive and valuable. But so many of us are trapped in the addiction to baubles that we do not even hear the call to a life that is filled with peace and joy beyond understanding.

Although some years ago I made a retreat with the Trappists, I was so overwhelmed this time that I found it hard to quantify what I learned or make concrete what I seek to do. But I know that some important changes came to my life. I have a much deeper reverence and gratitude for the praying church. I am awed (there is no other word) at those who have given up learning and all other things in order to be in the direct presence of the Holy Trinity at all hours of the day.

By their very being, they challenge our priorities. They stand as a daily rebuke to our attention to the frivolous and the inconsequential. They remind us of what we could have become. Most important, they pray ceaselessly that we will return to the path to holiness we renounced in a thousand quiet ways down the arches of the years.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999