Our monasteries may be found throughout the United States: in the Redwood forests of California; deep in the Rocky Mountains of Utah; in the hills of Kentucky or the fields of Iowa; and elsewhere. Many of our homes were built in the 1940's and later, when groups of monks from of Gethsemani (in Kentucky) and New Melleray (in Iowa) set out to build daughter houses. Their goal was to help accommodate the thousands of new aspirants to the Cistercian life in the wake of Thomas Merton's phenomenal publishing success.
There are fewer of us now, but we are no less fired with the love of God, and our homes have only grown more beautiful thanks to His love, constant care, and example. Our life, guided by the Gospel and the 1,500 year old Rule of St. Benedict, is one that can only inspire gratitude to God, who makes all things possible.
Monks or ascetics existed in the Catholic Church from at least the third century. Pachomius (c 292-346 A.D.) in Upper Egypt had large monasteries of community-type monks called cenobites. Meanwhile, in lower Egypt, near the Nile deta, lived hermits or solitaries, who built cells in the desert, where they lived in loosely structured colonies or by themselves. About the same time, in Syria there arose a monasticism of the solitary type. Hilarion initiated monasticism in Palestine by becoming a hermit around 308 A.D. Colonies of monks sprang up around him. In Asia Minor Basil (329-379) founded monasteries and wrote rules for the monks.
Western visitors and ascetics, attracted by the fame of the Egyptian monks, visited them and wrote their histories, like Palladius' Lausiac History, and the anonymous collection of the sayings of the desert fathers, called the Apophthegmata. Jerome (+419 A.D.) and Rufinus (+410 A.D.) translated some of these works from Greek into Latin for the benefit of the Romans and other Europeans.
John Cassian (+c 433 A.D.) visited the monks in Egypt and later recorded their teaching in his famous Institutes and Conferences, which were written in southern France and had a considerable influence on western monasticism.
In Italy, Benedict, (c 480-550 A.D.) founded the famous monastery of Monte Cassino and wrote his Rule for Monks, a set of prescriptions for monastic living, which we still follow in principle. Even before Benedict, and during the centuries that followed, monks established monasteries throughout western Europe. They established schools and promoted studies and learning during the so-called Dark Ages.
Monasteries have periods of fervor and of decline. In periods of decline there often appear saintly and fervent leaders who effect reforms. One such reform took place in eastern France in 1098 A.D. Robert, abbot of the monastery of Molesme, north of Lyons, took with him twenty monks and founded a monastery at Citeaux, which became the center of the Cistercian Order, to which we belong. The monks of this order came to be known as the "white monks," in contradistinction to the traditional monks, who wore black and who became known as Benedictines.
In the early 17th century a further reform was called for in the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe in northern France, which had fallen into decay. Armand-Jean de Rance (1626-1700 A.D.) became the abbot and reformed the community. It is from this monastery and its foundations that we get the popular term "Trappist."
In 1790 all monasteries and religious houses in France were suppressed, and their property confiscated by the Revolutionary Government. The monks and other religious were either guillotined, escaped into exile, or abandoned their religious status. The novice master of La Trappe, Augustin de Lestrange, escaped from France with twenty-one monks of his monastery and set up his community in a vacant Carthusian monastery in Switzerland.
When Napoleon's armies threatened to invade Switzerland, de Lestrange, together with his monks and nuns, journeyed all the way to Russia. After a year or two, not finding themselves welcome there, they gradually made their way back to France. Many candidates came to fill their ranks, and eventually they established monasteries in France, England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. The first two houses in the U.S.A. were Gethsemani in Kentucky and New Melleray in Iowa.
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