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: ‘Do you love me?’: This question central to newly ordained’s priesthood, Archbishop says

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During his homily at the May 19 priest ordination, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila told the five new priests that Jesus is asking them again: “Do you love me?” The archbishop referred to the Gospel in which the risen Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, as a reparation for the three times he denied it before being crucified.

The ordination took place at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. The five new priests are Fathers Angel Perez-Brown, Roberto Rodríguez, and Tomislav Tomic, who all received their formation at Redemptoris Missionary Mater in Denver, and Fathers Darrick Leier and Shannon Thurman, who studied at St. John XXIII seminary in Boston. This seminary provides training to those seminarians who discover their vocation at an advanced age. Curiously, none of the new priests come from the Saint John Vianney seminary, and the average age of the five men ordained is 41 years.

Heart formation

Archbishop Aquila highlighted the importance of intellectual formation and indicated that it should go hand in hand with “the formation of the heart and the spiritual formation” and urged them to follow in the example of Saint John Vianney who, though lacking in great intellectual gifts, was a “humble man” and whose only wish was “the salvation of souls.”

From left to right: Father Darrick Leier, Father Tomislav Tomic, Father Angel Perez-Lopez, Father Shannon Thurman, Father Roberto Rodriguez. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“The heart of every priest must be the love of Jesus Christ,” he said to them.

Archbishop Aquila also exhorted them, paraphrasing Pope Francis, to “go into the peripheries of the world […] of the lives of so many who have abandoned Jesus Christ, who do not know the good news. Even among families and friends there are those in the peripheries who still don’t know Jesus Christ”.

Later, he reminded them that their ministry does not consist in announcing themselves: “we are called to serve Jesus and to serve the Church to lay down our lives as Jesus has laid down his life, and to go wherever we are called to serve Christ.” He also pointed out that the image of Jesus, the good shepherd, “must be your model and is the model for the priesthood.”

The new priests lie prostrate before the altar during their ordination ceremony on May 19. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

And as a model of love and perseverance, the archbishop invited them to look at those couples who have been married for 50 or 60 years and compared their love to “the same type of love that would enable you to feed the lambs, tend the sheep, and serve as Christ served,” he said. He told them that every time they’ll celebrate Mass “is the same sacrifice that Christ offers on the cross”, and there is where “the joy of the Gospel” is found.

Hundreds of faithful congregated in the Cathedral to witness these ordinations. The cultural diversity present was a sign of the universality of the Church. There was a large delegation from Santo Domingo and several from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as hundreds of local people who accompanied these five new priests. Archbishop asked from them, once again quoting Pope Francis, that they be shepherds “to smell like the sheep,” so they can “accompany them, shearing with them, going out with them and always using Jesus as your model.”

Featured image by Anya Semenoff