“Contemplation,” Cardinal Sarah once wrote, “is the heart of Christianity.” Cardinal Sarah is emphatic that the practice — and necessity — of contemplation is best realized in monasteries. “Here,” the cardinal from Guinea believes, contemplation “is proclaimed for all eternity and will never be repealed.”
How have these remote pillars of the faith fared during the pandemic of 2020? We know that the spread of COVID-19 is particularly rampant in spaces of close proximity, such as nursing homes. But what about the professed religious whose life commitment is devoted to serving and honoring God away from the world in one locale shared in a communal setting?
California is home to a number of monastery abbeys, where monks quietly maintain the continuous flow of daily commune with the divine, all while the world around these bucolic structures dart from one priority to the next. In the monastery, the priority is always God… and His people. Orange County Catholic spoke with two members from these spiritual compounds.
Fr. Paul Mark Schwan is the abbot of New Clairvaux Abbey, a Trappist-Cistercian monastery on the outskirts of a tiny town called Vina, located about 100 miles north of Sacramento in Tehama County. The population, as of the 2010 census, is 237. And while Tehama County has reported one death from COVID-19, New Clairvaux was subject to the same restrictions that have affected the entire state.
“Many people find themselves living ‘as monks’ in this time of shelter in place,” Fr. Paul Mark told Orange County Catholic. “For us monks, this is, of course, our vocation.”
“We have closed the monastery to the public,” Fr. Paul Mark continued. “Our guest house and bookstore are closed through June 1. The church doors are locked and we are not able to allow the public to participate in the liturgy.” Presently, “no people come to the monastery for spiritual direction/confession,” the abbot said.
Fr. Ambrose Criste, O. Praem. from St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado remarked, “The fact that none of the faithful can come here to participate in our liturgical life with us or to receive the Sacraments from us has been a tremendous sadness.”
The relationship between the public and monastery is critical not only for the spiritual component beneficial to both monk and lay person, but to the economic sustenance of the monastery itself. Consider, for instance, the fourteen monasteries around the world that produce Trappist beer, or Carmelite monks in Wyoming who roast Mystic Monk Coffee. At New Clairvaux, the monks partner with a winemaking family growing 12 different grape varietals on two estate blocks, Poor Souls and St. James. A wine was produced in honor of Father Paul Mark, the 2015 Abbot’s Reserve.
“Our tasting room is ‘open’ because it is considered ‘essential’ according to State directives,” Fr. Paul Mark explained, noting the actual room is closed but orders are available for curbside pickup.
While adhering to health guidelines for the well-being of the monks at New Clairvaux, “the most important thing we do is to pray daily for our world and for a solution to the pandemic,” Fr. Paul Mark said. “Daily at the General Intercessions at Mass we offer a special prayer to God through the Blessed Mother’s intercession.”
Fr. Ambrose explained, “We [Norbertines] make a procession around the abbey grounds every day, carrying the relics of the Saints and singing the ancient Roman Litany against the plague, begging God to drive back this threat and to restore the Sacraments to God’s people.”
“As monks we live in trust, we have no control of the situation, only prudent decisions to discern and make. The rest remains in the hands of Divine Providence,” Fr. Paul Mark said.
“It feels like our whole monastic community is on a several-month-long community retreat,” Fr. Ambrose said. “We are so very blessed to be able to stand in the breach for so very many people who cannot even step into a Catholic church right now!”
“We pray to be open to the lesson to be learned from the pandemic,” Father Paul Mark said. “Good always comes forth out of even evil and sinful events if we but listen to the work of God’s grace through these contradictory events. So we live in hope, and hope is the grace of this Paschal season of celebration. The Good News of Jesus Christ is hope and joy, whether in season or out of season.”
“The faithful can unite themselves and all their intentions to our prayer here in our abbey, and they can thereby tap into the fountain of lifegiving water that flows upon the whole world from this holy place,” Fr. Ambrose suggested.
This mature calmness characterizes the timeless wisdom of the monastic life. “The renewal [of the faith] will come from the monasteries,” Cardinal Sarah declared.