When Father Richard Layton struggles to live the 900-year-old Trappist ideal of silence, prayer and obedience, he finds inspiration outside the chapel in 12 graves marked by simple white crosses.
"These are the ones who stuck it out," says Layton, one of 35 monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Monastery secluded in the rolling hills of Oregon's wine country.Still living by the Rule of Benedict, a way of monastic life set in the Middle Ages, the monks rise before 4 a.m., dress in white robes with black scapulars, sing Psalms five times each day, and live a simple life apart from the cares of the outside world.
"If you want to pray, if you want to move into a special kind of sense of the divine," says Brother Patrick Corkrean, "this is it."
They are formally known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a that group split from the Benedictines and founded an abbey in 1098 in Citeaux, France. Their popular name, the Trappists, comes from the abbey in La Trappe, France, where 17th century Abbot Armond-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rance restored rules of silence, prayer, manual labor and seclusion.
For all the staying power of the order, few feel called to this life nowadays, and each monk regularly wrestles with the question of whether this is the life God wants for him.
There are 4,000 monks at 96 monasteries around the world. Unlike other orders, the Trappists also have nuns: 3,000 of them at 66 monasteries.
Times are far different from the boom after World War II when thousands of veterans inspired by Thomas Merton's best-selling autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," began looking for more from life by following him into the monastery.
To make more room, 16 monks left a monastery in Rhode Island and on April 22, 1948, opened Our Lady of Guadalupe on a dude ranch in Pecos, N.M. They had grown to 60 by 1955 when they headed in search of better farmland.
Now there are just 35, with an average age of 70. Some, including a former abbot who married and raised a family, followed their spiritual journeys outside the cloister. Only two novices are working toward final vows, one of them 64 years old.
"They're not committed anymore," says Father Dismass Gannon, who entered just out of high school and has stayed 55 years. "There are too many options out there. They can't make up their mind."
"What is helping me to stay is this interest in contemplative prayer," says Corkrean, who entered the order 17 years ago with a master's degree in economics and now runs the monastery's fruitcake mail-order business. "There's a rhythm that agrees with me. The abbot said to me, `It is not why you came that counts. It is why you are staying.' The life suits us. Jesus has got to be the focus."
Fewer veterans entered the order after the Korean War, and fewer yet after Vietnam.
"There are bells instead of whistles, but it is still very much, `Fall in, keep your mouth shut, soldier, peel the potatoes,' " says Brother Mark Filut, an Army veteran who joined the Maryknolls before the Trappists.
The monks need $370,000 a year to keep everyone fed, so they had to give up farming. They now bake fruitcake, warehouse wine for neighboring nearby vintners, manage 900 acres of forest and bind periodicals for colleges, law schools and the Oregon Supreme Court.
Sitting at a computer in the bindery, Father Casey Bailey recalls an admonishment from the novice director when he left the Jesuits to join the Trappists.
"I told him I liked philosophy," he says, a beatific smile lighting his blond beard. "He said, `There is more here than sitting and saying prayers. There is work to be done.' "
Turning work into prayer is a challenge in the noise of the bindery.
"I know I've lost the contemplative thing when I get angry at people for not producing enough," says Layton. "We have to get so many books out a week. How to make that contemplative is a real chore."
The outside world also intrudes with visitors who stay in simple guest rooms to relax, escape and pray.
In the old days, monks communicated in sign language to maintain silence for contemplation. Now they speak, though silence is still highly valued.