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

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

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.”

COMING UP: Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

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Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

Film shows suffering of the poor in five countries, hope brought by Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

Roxanne King

Powerful. Disturbing. Beautiful. Inspiring. That’s how viewers are describing award-winning Outcasts, the latest film by Joe Campo, owner and producer of Grassroots Films.

For mature audiences, Outcasts documents the hard, dark struggle of the poor living in New York and New Jersey, Nicaragua, Honduras, England and Ireland, and the light and hope of Christ brought to them through the ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (C.F.R.). Seven years in the making, it won “best film” at the Justice Film Festival last fall.

Campo, 65, a Third Order Franciscan, also runs St. Francis House in Brooklyn, N.Y., a home for young men in need of a second chance.

“The film company comes second, the guys come first,” Campo, whose’ Grassroots Films was also responsible for 2008’s award-winning The Human Experience, told the Denver Catholic.

The home Campo oversees was established by his friend, the late Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., who co-founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal order in New York in 1987. The friars live in poor neighborhoods around the world and have a two-fold mission: to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the destitute and homeless, and to evangelize.

A July 13 screening of Outcasts at Light of the World Parish in Littleton drew 400 people. Campo recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about the documentary.

DC: Why did you make Outcasts?

JC: I’ve been with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal since 1988 and I know the work that they do and their great love for the poor, which I share. I thought it would be a call to action — that people would see this film and their hearts would open up. Hopefully, through this film, people will experience things about working with the poor that normally they would never be able to see their entire lives.

DC: What is the film about?

JC: It’s really about the poor. It’s more about the poor than it is about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The friars don’t do any preaching in this film, the poor do. You see the friars, but you don’t hear them. The words of people speaking about God are from the poor: the destitute, the drug addicts, those suffering from HIV.

DC: The trailer features a voiceover from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which is incredibly moving juxtaposed against scenes of people suffering. What was the inspiration for using that speech?

JC: We actually had another trailer for Outcasts, but we ultimately couldn’t use it. We were fortunate to be able to get Charlie Chaplin. It was a comedy of errors, really, which proves that God writes straight with crooked lines.

DC: What do you hope people will take away from the film?

JC: An understanding of the poor. I hope that as people are introduced to the friars through this film their hearts and minds would be changed toward those who are poor or destitute and that they’ll see that these people are victims. When you talk with the poor and experience their lives you begin to realize three things: 1) That it could happen to anyone. 2) None of them planned for their life to turn out this way. 3) All they want is to be accepted — not for what they do, the negative stuff, but as people.

Outcasts producer Joe Campo (center) with some of the Fransiscan Friars of the Renewal who appear in the film. (Photo provided)

A lot of people don’t realize this: the poor will always be with us (Mk 14:7, Jn 12:8, Matt 26:11). So, it’s really our duty — and it should come from our hearts — to help those we can help.

Too, there’s not one person that doesn’t need to find a way to forgive someone or to be forgiven. That’s where we start in all of this — in our families and we go from there.

DC: How would you describe this film?

JC: It’s really a work of evangelization, but we never say that in our films. The world is always telling people: don’t age, don’t die and don’t suffer. But we all experience suffering. And we learn from the poor, from people who are suffering, how to suffer.

DC: The screening of Outcasts at Light of the World in Littleton drew a full house. What was that like?

JC: First, I want to thank Kathryn Nygaard [LOTW communications director], Dakota Leonard [who fundraised the $4,000 screening cost], the pastor Father Matthew Book, [parochial vicar] Father Joseph LaJoie and all the people who attended. I was tremendously overjoyed.

The questions people asked at the Q&A after the screening were fantastic. People could sign up for different ministries after seeing the film: Catholic Charities, [Christ in the City] homeless ministry, prison ministry, [Light of the World parish ministries]. Some did. I was overjoyed. You always want your films to be a call to action.

Outcasts

To view the trailer or to schedule a screening, visit: outcaststhemovie.com