The life of the Cistercian monks in the sacred valley of the Rockies

St. Benedict’s Monastery passes on Benedictine tradition in Colorado

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

At 4:30 a.m. the first bell rings in St. Benedict’s Monastery, marking the first prayer of the day. The lonely valley, still dark, encounters its first light, that of God in in the breeze of silence.

In one of the most beautiful valleys in Colorado everything seems peaceful and utopic, yet the Cistercian (Trappist) monks who live there well know the reality: Their life encounters the fullness of the human experience and is thus one of continued conversion, selflessness, prayer and work. It’s a life radically centered in the Gospel.

“We are attracted to the monastery because we feel a call to live a relationship with God according to the Rule of St. Benedict and the Cistercian life,” said Father Charlie Albanese, prior of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colo. “But it’s not easy. We’re human, too.”

Nonetheless, its fruits are far more abundant than its suffering, he assured: The Cistercian monks don’t only keep watch for the Lord and the Universal Church, they also help all those who come to them grow closer to God in their daily lives and are in a continuous process to be more Christ-like through their joys and sufferings.

“We try to give expression to what everybody can do in their lives,” Father Albanese said. “It happens. The Spirit works. People experience the contemplative life when they come here. They encounter God and their experience starts to transform their own lives.”

St. Benedict’s Monastery is nestled in a valley deep within the Rocky Mountains. (Photo provided)

The monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey built the monastery with their own hands in 1956 from their mother house, St. Joseph’s Abbey, in Massachusetts. The first community consisted of about 30 monks who did cattle ranching to sustain the monastery.

Through the decades, the monks sustained themselves in different ways. Ten years after their foundation, they developed a chicken business having around 10,000 chickens. Two decades later they went into the cookie business, which is still part of their work, but to a lesser scale. Now, their main source of income is the retreat house. Other than providing for most of the material needs of the community, it has also become an opportunity to lead visitors closer to Christ.

“Our primary mission is contemplative prayer. It’s specifically what we give life to and try to share through our retreat house,” Father Albanese said. “Many people have an experience of God even before they meet us. When they make the turn into Monastery Road, we often hear that it’s like entering into a sacred place.”

The Cistercian monks take this seriously, so much that Abbot Joseph Boyle has coined the term “keepers of the sacred valley” for his community.

Dedication to Christ

Yet, these experiences of God can also lead people to have a delusion of the monastic life. According to Father Albanese, one of the greatest misconceptions of this vocation is that it’s perfect: “What problems can you have when you give your life to God? I had the same illusion, that all my problems would be answered because I was joining the monastery.

“But God has been very gracious and merciful in my experience. You cannot come into a monastery and not realize very soon that there’s going to be a lot of work. You’re living with 12 to 18 people who are very different from you.

“No matter who we are, we’re going to find out the longer we stay, what God knows of us and what he wants to show us.”

The monastic life is a human life. The problems that a monk encounters are problems that any person encounters in the many circumstances of life, whether married, single or consecrated, Father Albanese said.

Father Micah, one of the Cistercian monks at the monastery, works in the carpentry shop. (Photo provided)

Loneliness is a challenge of this kind: “Loneliness is part of our life but it’s not all of it. You can be in a crowded city and be lonely,” he said. “It’s something most of us have to go through to know what’s on the other side: Relationships. We have to learn to experience God’s love in one another.”

Relationships are key in the monastic life, he assured. The monks pray and work together. They can talk during work but not during prayer or after the great silence, which extends from Vespers to Mass the following morning.

A fear of silence or loneliness should not be an obstacle to answer a monastic vocation, the prior stated: “If we give a little more time for prayer during the day, we may actually hear an invitation from God to listen in a deeper way to what he’s doing in our life. You can discover that in a monastery.

“It’s a paradox. It’s not going into the world and becoming a diplomat or missionary. It’s an inner exploration of prayer and community. And you will learn about yourself when you live in community.”

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Don’t miss ‘the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century’

Denver’s Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition brings to life Judaism at time of Jesus

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

“Welcome to Israel, the Biblical land of milk and honey at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia… an archaeologist’s paradise”: These words mark the start of a once-in-a-lifetime immersion into ancient Israel that the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition brings to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science March 16 to Sep. 3.

The exhibition, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Denver, not only displays the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls that have captivated millions of believers and non-believers around the world, but also a timeline back to Biblical times filled with ancient objects that date back to events written about in the Old Testament more than 3,000 years ago.

“We are convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the Judean desert are the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century,” said Dr. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities. “These scrolls, written in Hebrew, are the oldest copy of the Bible.”

In fact, some of these manuscripts are almost a thousand years older than the oldest copies of the Bible that had been discovered, providing a great wealth of knowledge about Judaism at the time of Jesus.

“So many things have changed [since this discovery],” said Dr. Michael Barber, professor of Scripture and Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver. “We now understand first-century Judaism in a way we didn’t in the past and see how the Biblical authors are breathing the same air as other ancient Jews.”

An exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science will be on display until Sept. 3. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

The air of first-century Israel was filled with expectations for the coming of the Messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been associated with a unique religious Jewish community that lived a structured life, are a witness to this reality, he explained.

“[These communities] were trying to live in such a way as to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. They looked forward to a new covenant and the restoration of the glory of Adam” Dr. Barber said. “We see so many overlaps of how the New Testament is a fulfillment of the Jewish expectations of the time.”

The exhibition immerses guests into the history of the chosen people of God, from artifacts impressed with seals belonging to Biblical kings, such as Hezekiah, to an authentic stone block that fell from Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 70 AD.

“We preferred to select scientifically important items, some very small, some very large… but all of great significance,” Dr. Dahari said.

“Israel’s archaeological sites and artifacts have yielded extraordinary record of human achievement,” added Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibit and professor at San Diego State University. “The pots, coins, weapons, jewelry and other artifacts on display in this exhibition constituted a momentous contribution to our cultural legacy. They teach us about the past, but they also teach us about ourselves.”