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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”