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: Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

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Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Initiatives include independent investigation and independent reparations program

Mark Haas

With a desire to “shine the bright light of transparency” on the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors within the Church, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has announced that the three Colorado dioceses have voluntarily partnered with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children.

In a joint news conference on February 19 at the attorney general’s office, it was also announced that the three dioceses will voluntarily fund an independent reparations program for survivors of such abuse.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” said Archbishop Aquila. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process.”

It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Discussions for these two initiatives began last year with former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and then finalized recently with Weiser. Both Coffman and Weiser praised the dioceses’ willingness to address this issue.

“It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Coffman added: “Childhood sexual abuse is not specific to one institution or to the Catholic Church. The spotlight is on the Catholic Church, but this abuse is indicative of what has happened in other institutions. We want to shine a light on what has happened.

“[The dioceses] demonstrated their commitment to acknowledging past abuse by priests and moving forward with honesty and accountability.”

The independent file review will be handled by Robert Toyer, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado. His final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2019 and will include a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors, along with a review of the dioceses’ handling of the allegations. The report will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures, something that was not included in other states’ reviews, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

“We in Colorado have found our own way in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report,” said Weiser. “We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, alongside Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, speaks during a press conference announcing a comprehensive joint agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 19, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

“This is not a criminal investigation. This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church,” said Weiser.

Since 1991, the Archdiocese of Denver has had a policy of mandatory reporting of all allegations to local authorities. The procedures were further strengthened by the 2002 Dallas Charter to include comprehensive background checks, zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, and training for children as well.

“This independent file review presents an opportunity for an honest and fair evaluation of the Church in Colorado’s historical handling of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” said Archbishop Aquila.  “We are confident in the steps we have taken to address this issue and that there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.”

The independent reparations program will be run by two nationally recognized claims administration experts, Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who will review individual cases and make financial awards to victims who elect to participate. The victims are free to accept or reject the award, but the Colorado dioceses are bound by what the administrators decide.

The program will have oversight provided by an independent committee chaired by former U.S. Senator Hank Brown. More details will be announced in the coming months, and the program will officially open closer to the release of the final report.

This is similar to a program instituted by former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2006. Archbishop Aquila said it is important for local Catholics to know the program will be funded by archdiocesan reserves, with no money being taken from ministries or charities at parishes, annual diocesan appeals, or Catholic Charities.

“With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families,” Archbishop Aquila said.

And acknowledging how painful this has been for everyone in the Church, Archbishop Aquila said he hopes this is step towards restoring confidence among the faithful.

“Helping people to restore their trust, to live their faith, that is essential,” said Archbishop Aquila. “And to help them have a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ, so that is my goal in all of this. I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ.”

For a copy of the full agreement and a detailed FAQ, visit archden.org/promise.