Brief History

Monks or ascetics existed in the Catholic Church from at least the third century. Pachomius (c. 292-346 A.D.) in Upper Egypt had large monasteries of community-type monks called cenobites. Meanwhile, in lower Egypt, near the Nile deta, lived hermits or solitaries, who built cells in the desert, where they lived in loosely structured colonies or by themselves. About the same time, in Syria there arose a monasticism of the solitary type. Hilarion initiated monasticism in Palestine by becoming a hermit around 308 A.D. Colonies of monks sprang up around him. In Asia Minor Basil (329-379) founded monasteries and wrote rules for the monks.

Western visitors and ascetics, attracted by the fame of the Egyptian monks, visited them and wrote their histories, like Palladius' Lausiac History, and the anonymous collection of the sayings of the desert fathers, called the Apophthegmata. Jerome (+419 A.D.) and Rufinus (+410 A.D.) translated some of these works from Greek into Latin for the benefit of the Romans and other Europeans.

John Cassian (+c 433 A.D.) visited the monks in Egypt and later recorded their teaching in his famous Institutes and Conferences, which were written in southern France and had a considerable influence on western monasticism.

In Italy, Benedict, (c 480-550 A.D.) founded the famous monastery of Monte Cassino and wrote his Rule for Monks, a set of prescriptions for monastic living, which we still follow in principle. Even before Benedict, and during the centuries that followed, monks established monasteries throughout western Europe. They established schools and promoted studies and learning during the so-called Dark Ages.

Monasteries have periods of fervor and of decline. In periods of decline there often appear saintly and fervent leaders who effect reforms. One such reform took place in eastern France in 1098 A.D. Robert, abbot of the monastery of Molesme, north of Lyons, took with him twenty monks and founded a monastery at Citeaux, which became the center of the Cistercian Order, to which we belong. The monks of this order came to be known as the "white monks," in contradistinction to the traditional monks, who wore black and who became known as Benedictines.

In the early 17th century a further reform was called for in the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe in northern France, which had fallen into decay. Armand-Jean de Rance (1626-1700 A.D.) became the abbot and reformed the community. It is from this monastery and its foundations that we get the popular term "Trappist."

In 1790 all monasteries and religious houses in France were suppressed, and their property confiscated by the Revolutionary Government. The monks and other religious were either guillotined, escaped into exile, or abandoned their religious status. The novice master of La Trappe, Augustin de Lestrange, escaped from France with twenty-one monks of his monastery and set up his community in a vacant Carthusian monastery in Switzerland.

When Napoleon's armies threatened to invade Switzerland, de Lestrange, together with his monks and nuns, journeyed all the way to Russia. After a year or two, not finding themselves welcome there, they gradually made their way back to France. Many candidates came to fill their ranks, and eventually they established monasteries in France, England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. The first two houses in the U.S.A. were Gethsemani in Kentucky and New Melleray in Iowa. It was from Gethsemani that the monastery of the Holy Trinity was founded at Huntsville, Utah, in 1947.

The Trappist-Cistercian Order

We belong to a world-wide Order of monks and nuns. In 2005 there were 101 monasteries of monks and 70 of nuns on all continents. Of these, 12 of monks and 5 of nuns are in the United States.

The highest authority in the Order is the General Chapter of each branch. Every three years the abbots and abbesses meet under the chairmanship of the Abbot General to make decisions concerning the welfare of the Order. At present time the two chapters, male and female, meet jointly in what is known as the Mixed General Meeting. Between these meetings the Abbot General and his Council, who reside in Rome, are in charge of the Order's affairs. The present Abbot General is Dom Bernardo Olivera of Azul, Argentina.

Cistercian houses are joined together by filiation. Although independent, a monastery of monks is under the supervision of the abbot of the founding monastery, who ordinarily makes a visitation of the daughter house every two years. Thus the Abbey of the Holy Trinity is a filiation of the Abbey of Gethsemani, from which it was founded. A monastery of nuns is related to a monastery of monks in somewhat the same way. The Abbey of the Holy Trinity has the paternity of the nuns' monastery of Santa Rita at Sonoita, Arizona.

The Trappist Mission in the Church

The relationship of the monks of this monastery to the Church in Utah is well expressed in the Constitutions of the Order:

"The monastery is an expression of the mystery of the Church, where nothing is preferred to the praise of the Father's glory. Every effort is made to ensure that the common life in its entirety conforms to the Gospel, which is the supreme law. In this way the community will not be lacking in any spiritual gift. The monks strive to remain in harmony with all the people of God and share their active desire for the unity of all Christians. By fidelity to their monastic way of life, which has its own hidden mode of apostolic fruitfulness, monks perform a service for God's people and the whole human race. Each community of the Order and all the monks are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and Symbol of the Church in the order of faith, love and perfect union with Christ."

The Apostolate

The apostolate of the community at Holy Trinity Abbey is that of all Trappist monasteries. It is best expressed by these words of the Order's Constitutions:

"Fidelity to the monastic way of life is closely related to zeal for the Kingdom of God and for the salvation of the whole human race. Monks bear this apostolic concern in their hearts. It is the contemplative life itself that is their way of participating in the mission of Christ and his Church and of being part of the local church. This is why they cannot be called upon to render assistance in the various pastoral ministries or in any external activity, no matter how urgent the needs of the active apostolate."

For this reason one does not normally find Trappists engaged in teaching or ministry outside the monastery. Our role in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is to live the gospel in our particular way for the sake of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. We do this in part by praying for them and by being witnesses to the supremacy of God, a supremacy which all people will hopefully come to recognize in their lives.

How does one become a monk?

Monastic life is a vocation or calling from God. At some point in life a man feels an attraction to this kind of life. That attraction needs to be tested to see if it comes from God or from some other source, to see whether it is only a passing fancy or whether it is a genuine resolve to serve God in this way of life.

A man entering the monastic life is placed under the direction of the novice master, who instructs him in the requirements of the life, helps him to discern his real motivation in coming to the monastery, and tests his resolve.

The candidate spends the first six months as a postulant, participating in all the prayers and work of the community. He observes and tests the community, just as the comunity observes him. If he perseveres for six months, and if he gives indications that he can live the monastic life, he is admitted to the novitiate.

As a novice he is given the monastic garb or habit, with the white scapular. He then spends two years as a novice, learning what is expected of a monk. He participates in the prayers and manual work of the community and attends classes on the Rule of St. Benedict, the spirituality of the Cistercian Fathers, holy Scripture and prayer.

At the end of two years, he may request to bind himself by vows to the monastic life. If the abbot and community approve his application, he takes the vows of obedience, stability and living the monastic life for a period of three years. This period may be extended at his own request or at the will of the abbot.

At the end of this period of temporary vows, he may request to take the vows for his lifetime. If the abbot and community approve, he then takes his perpetual vows and becomes a full-fledged member of the monastic community.

Monastic Vows

By the profession of vows a monk is consecrated to God and joined to the monastic community that receives him. At this time the consecration received in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation is renewed and given vitality.

The monk makes a vow of stability, by which he obliges himself to remain with his community and to make constant use of the means of growing in love for God and neighbor, trusting in the providence of God to assist him.

The second vow is that of fidelity to monastic life. This life involves an earnest following of the Gospel and living according to the Rule of St. Benedict as interpreted by the Constitutions of the Trappist-Cistercian Order.

By the vow of obedience, a brother promises to fulfill all that lawful superiors command in accordance with the Rule and Constitutions, following the example of Christ who was obedient even to death.

Some people still have the mistaken idea that Trappists make a vow of silence. They never have made such a vow. They have rules of silence, which were stricter in the past than are now, but there still remain times and places when they are expected to keep silence. The purpose of silence is to give one space in which to pray, meditate and read and allow others to do the same. Silence is a form of charity to others, but it is not absolute. Charity may sometimes oblige persons, including monks, to speak at the right time and in the right way.

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