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

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

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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: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images