About two miles east of New Haven is the Trappist monastery. The institution of monasteries is far less prominent now than it was in medieval centuries when monasteries were the anchor of education and scholarship. The abbey of Gethsemane is one of the few monasteries remaining in the United States. Gethsemane was made famous in Catholic circles in the fifties when Thomas Merton, celebrated author of the best selling “The Seven Story Mountain” and other books was there.
The monastery is a small community of Catholic men who have “left the world” and consecrated
their lives to a simple living focused on worship, meditation and prayer. They support themselves through agricultural labor. Up to date agricultural methods, tractors and automated equipment are employed, unlike the Amish who shun technology. Each day is begun long before daybreak with mass and chanting in the large chapel. Daily work on the farm is ended with the evening meal and vespers. The monks take a vow of silence and do not speak, except for the purpose of prayer and preaching. They use sign language and wear long flowing but plain cassocks.
The monks would come to New Haven frequently for business. We occasionally bought some of
the cheese and bread that they made and sold at the monastery.
The monastery hosted retreats for lay men who might be interested in spending a few days of
concentrated solitude, prayer, worship and lectures for spiritual rejuvenation. By my last year of
college, I had become frustrated with the emptiness of life and decided out of desperation to
make such a retreat, even though I was agnostic in my spiritual outlook. I stayed in a small,
sparsely furnished room with only a cot and ate the meatless meals of cheese , bread and
vegetables at the long narrow table with a bench on only one side because talking was forbidden. We listened to lectures and attended both morning and evening services.
While at the retreat one of the monks challenged my “logical” view of life. As a result of this I took a critical look at my beliefs and in time, was studying the bible for answers to life. Though I was not converted at the monastery, it was a key turning point in my spiritual odyssey.