After Mass on Palm Sunday, sunlight streaming through the windows of the sacristy at St. Joseph’s Abbey catches the lingering smoke of incense, while a monk prepares for Holy Week services to come.Photo Credit : The Brother's of St. Joseph's Abbey
It begins in silence—a silence so deep it hums in your ears. Then, footsteps. The monks file in, saying nothing. If this were summer, sunlight would be streaming through the rose window at the rear of the church, bathing the sanctuary in glittering blues and reds. But tonight, at the dawn of winter, there is darkness; only a hint of moonlight filters in from the hallway. No one ascends the altar. The monks take their places in two facing pews, while the abbot and cantor stand in the space between them. A few lights above cast a puddle of illumination around the men, bestowing a passing brilliance on their white robes.
And then they pray. Many of their voices are old and harsh, but there is beauty in the singing—the kind you might see in a father calming an infant. It’s the beauty of a task done lovingly.
Vespers is an ancient tradition, one that has remained essentially un–changed since the 6th century. Every night across the world, Catholic monks gather for evening prayer—a chain of faith unbroken over 1,500 years. It almost seems out of place here. Just miles away, the town of Spencer, Massa-chusetts, goes about its business. On Main Street, families grab a bite to eat at the local pizzeria, and teens gather listlessly in the parking lot of the Cumberland Farms. From the crest of the hill where the abbey sits, the lights of Worcester can be seen burning low on the horizon. The world these monks have left behind is ever at their doorstep.
It doesn’t tempt them much, but none deny its influence. The world outside has changed drastically in the past 50 years, and the monks are changing with it. Slowly, deliberately, they are defining what it means to be a monk in the 21st century, searching for new voices to take up the song when theirs fade away.
Father Dominic remembers the day he first entered St. Joseph’s Abbey to begin his life as a monk. As he followed his mentor up the path to the monastery, they passed before the statue of St. Benedict in the courtyard, his stone fingers pressed to his lips in an eternal “Hush.” When they reached the door, the older monk stopped and said, “This is the entrance.” Then he pointed to the ceme-tery beside them. “And that’s the exit.”
“And then he didn’t say another word to me. He took me to my cell and left me.” Dominic chuckles as he tells the story. That was 33 years ago. Since that day, he has called St. Joseph’s home, and he is now the abbey’s prior, or second-in-command. The monks here belong to the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (commonly known as the Trappists). They live cloistered lives, which means that they never leave the abbey grounds except in cases of emergency or absolute necessity. When they join the order, they offer their whole lives to the abbey. It demands no less.
If you were going to pick any place to spend the rest of your life, you could do much worse than St. Joseph’s. The monks built the monastery in the 1950s from stones they picked from the surrounding fields. It’s a handsome building, but not opulent, with a long, low-pitched roof that affects a humble appearance, as though the abbey itself were bowed in prayer. Old dairy fields spill down the hill for acres in every direction. To the north you can see the mountains of New Hampshire; to the south, the rolling expanse of Connecticut. At night, the stars are breathtaking.
The wind is cold as I follow Dominic through the abbey grounds. The leaves are off the trees, and a lone monk can be seen in the distance raking them into piles. Dominic wears an L.L. Bean jacket over his white robes to keep out the chill. Years of back trouble have left him with the hint of a stoop, but it doesn’t slow him down much. His voice barely rises above a whisper even when we’re alone.
As we walk through the abbey, Dominic notes all the things that have changed since he arrived. He points out the solarium where the monks keep their newspapers. In the old days, the abbot would remove all the interior pages, leaving just the front and back, so that the brothers wouldn’t waste too much time with it. In the library, Dominic confesses that he still feels guilty sitting in the room’s cushioned chairs; when he arrived, monks sat only on stools. He laughs as he remembers the day they installed a multiline phone system: “The phone would ring and everyone would run because no one knew how to answer it.”
The core of the lifestyle remains the same, however. Trappists follow the Rule of St. Benedict, a 6th-century code of conduct. They are celibate and have no money of their own. They observe nine prayer services every day, the first of which begins promptly at 3:30 a.m. And despite some protestations, they remain vegetarian owing to the Rule’s commandment to “consume not the flesh of four-footed animals.” “We keep trying to remind the abbot that chickens have two feet,” Dominic jokes.
He does this constantly. It’s a trait I found in all the monks I met. They are committed to the lifestyle, but they are not zealots. They understand how funny their lifestyle seems to the world outside, and they’re keenly aware of what they’ve given up to live it. Dominic doesn’t regret his choices. He says that the deprivation is part of the process. “The boundaries help us know ourselves better,” he says. By removing themselves from the distractions of society, they gain the freedom to concentrate on the deeper questions of existence. They spend much of their time looking inward, searching for a deeper understanding of their faith and listening for the voice of God to speak to them in the darkness.
Shortly after Dominic joined the order, his mentor gave him an exercise: He told Dominic to repeat a single psalm in his mind all day. Dominic obeyed. Through his work hours and prayer services he examined those words from every angle. By the evening he was exhausted and asked his mentor how long he had to keep repeating that psalm. “Until you become it,” he replied.
This level of religious devotion isn’t for everyone, Dominic admits. Monasticism is a rare calling, and one that is being heard by fewer and fewer young people. Trappists aspire to a life that is “ordinary, obscure, and laborious”; that’s a hard sell to the Millennial generation.Brother Thomas leads a procession of priests through the Reading Cloister and into the church.
When we reach the cemetery, Dominic guides me toward the rear. The rows of white crosses have gotten longer since he arrived, and the number of monks living within the walls has shrunk. The brothers built the abbey when they were flush with recruits following World War II, but now those men are reaching the ends of their lives. Only 61 monks remain here. Their median age is 70.
We stop at a large rock at the edge of the burial ground. The brothers moved to Spencer after their previous abbey had burned down. When they did, they exhumed the bodies that had been buried there; they rest here now. A small plaque on the stone reads: “Separated neither in life nor in death.”
Trappists are not hermits. The trials of their shared life form a bond that spans generations. They cherish their brothers—the ones they live with, the ones who came before, and the ones they pray will come after. When they plan, they do so with the next 100 years in mind so that others may enjoy the life they have. For St. Joseph’s that means preparing for a time when more brothers are finding the exit than the entrance.
Hidden on the far side of the hill, Spencer Brewery sprawls like a beached leviathan—a great, hulking rectangle of industry. The building is state-of-the-art. Inside it’s all white walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, and stainless- steel fixtures. Father Isaac looks terribly out of place.
Wearing his white-and-black habit, he sits behind a huge wooden desk that might have been salvaged from a Scottish castle. He hadn’t aspired to this. Before he became the director of the most ballyhooed craft brewery to open in the past 10 years, he’d never had his own bank account or tasted a beer more exotic than Coors. He explains that he was originally brought into the project because he “understood craftsmanship.” He was a potter. “I don’t do much pottery work anymore,” he quips.
Like Dominic, he laughs easily and often. The absurdity of his situation isn’t lost on him, but this is what he was asked to do, so he obeys to the best of his ability.
Trappists believe that monasteries should be self-sufficient. The days when an abbey could scratch out a living from the fields is long gone, so most have turned to industry. They try to keep most brothers working at manual labor, but as their businesses have become more complex, inevitably some get sucked into white-collar work. One monk packs boxes; the next negotiates liability insurance and wrangles with distributors.
Isaac says that it can be challenging: “Doing business at the level I do it, an awful lot of it is about managing conflict motivated at least by desire, sometimes by greed.” He says there’s an inherent “conflictual element” between the business world and the monastic one, but it’s their responsibility to balance the two.
Trappists are taught that what they do in the workplace is as important as what they do in church. It’s almost like a proving ground. It’s one thing to be pious and peaceful in the silence of your cell; maintaining that peace when the monk next to you breaks the label machine and slows down production is something else entirely. “There’s always one more slammer coming down the road at you,” Isaac says. “So you just have to decide whether you’re going to be responsible for your thoughts or not.”
The brewery is a new venture for St. Joseph’s (it opened in 2014), but not for the order. Trappist monks in Belgium and Holland have been brewing for centuries, and their beer is celebrated as some of the best in the world. When St. Joseph’s announced that it would start producing Spencer, the first Trappist beer ever brewed in North America, the media swooned. A brewery couldn’t have asked for a better head start.
But for the monks, it’s not about the beer. Later, Father Dominic laid out the abbey’s financials in simple terms. As the brothers were growing older, their medical expenses were increasing, and there were fewer young men to work to pay them. Their other two companies (The Holy Rood guild, which makes vestments for priests, and Trappist Preserves, a jam company) just couldn’t carry the load. Beer offered a way forward.
Like Isaac, Dominic works primarily in administration, and it wears on him. No one becomes a monk because he’s interested in human resources. He says that when he joined the order, he had envisioned a life spent in the fields and had brought along only his habit, a pair of blue jeans, and his work boots. He’s made peace with his work, though. He knows why he’s doing it.
The infirmary was the last part of the abbey to be built. It’s a simple brick building with large windows that look out on the surrounding fields and the forested hills beyond. “We gave them the million-dollar view,” Dominic says. Inside, the oldest of the monks receive around-the-clock nursing care. Speakers broadcast services from the church so that those who aren’t well enough to walk may still participate in the rituals that have been their life’s work. Dominic explains that the worst thing they could think of would be to send these men to an assisted-living home. If you devote your life to the abbey, you should be able to spend your last days here.
So far, Spencer beer has been well received. If its success continues, the income should be enough to meet their medical needs and to provide future brothers with enough money to keep the abbey going for decades to come. That’s enough for Dominic. “I know God is real and my brothers are real,” he says. “There is something of the vocation enfleshed in my brothers. If I live present to them, if I’m available …” He pauses for a long moment as he searches for the right words, then looks up and says simply, “That works.”
At 34 years old, Brother Charbel stands out from his aging brothers like a rose amongst thistles. He has a dreamer’s eyes—deep blue and fixed on the middle distance—and his speech is punctuated with long pauses as he ponders his thoughts. He grew up in the Internet Age but was never enthralled by it. “I was the only person in my community without a cell phone,” he says. “I just was happier, more joyful, without too many buzzing gadgets and distractions. For me, when [technology] gets overused, everything seems to become fragmented.” He explains that he was drawn to monasticism out of a desire to live “a single-hearted life” where he “could focus on the things that really matter.”
I ask whether he worries about what the abbey will look like 40 years from now. When he’s old, will there be someone to take care of him? “It’s a great incentive to pray,” he says with a smile. Charbel admits that he sometimes tries to run the numbers in his head—how many monks and how much money do you need to run this place?—but he never gets far with it. You just can’t approach this lifestyle from a quantitative angle, he says. It takes “a kind of naked faith and trust to even be called here.”
Ultimately he shrugs and says that the abbey could burn down tomorrow. He has faith that God will find a place for him, no matter what happens. So he puts those thoughts aside and focuses on his prayer. He says he’s comforted by the teachings of the ancient hermit monks who wrote that by leaving the world, you could come to love it better.
“When you go deep into your heart, into the heart of Christ, it’s that very separation that unites you with all,” he says. “Sometimes out of the corner of your eye you get a glimpse of the reality of that. And you know it’s true if it humbles you, if it makes you gasp.”
After Vespers, Father Dominic walks me to my car. He guides me through the darkened church, pausing a moment to bow before the altar. Outside, there are few lights to dim the brilliance of the stars above. He wishes me a safe journey and walks back toward the abbey to join his brothers for the evening meal. In the time we spent together, I was struck both by how tired he looked—how heavy his burdens seemed to weigh on him—and also by how even when speaking of the abbey’s greatest challenges, his voice was tinted with an “awe-shucks” kind of humor, as though life were a comic opera he was thoroughly enjoying.
As Dominic walked away, I was reminded of a story he told me. He once came upon an aging brother who’d spent his life in the order. He was leaning on his rake and staring off across the hills in thought. He turned to Dominic and said, “Father, what a privilege it is to live with someone till the end of their life.”
The monks here don’t see their lifestyle as a burden. They don’t think of what they’ve given up as a sacrifice. They feel as though they’re lucky to have found this place where they can pass their lives among kindred souls. At first, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose this life, but when you strip away the habits and the icons, the history and the religion, you see these monks not as odd. They’re simply brothers, living for one another, here atop a hill.