This story was originally published in The Chico News & Review May 10, 2013
The 45-minute tour of the Abbey of New Clairvaux was winding down. A woman in her mid-40s asked the tour guide a question:
“Can we see one of the monks?”
“Well, sometimes they come out from behind the cloister,” the tour guide replied. “But they must be busy doing something else right now—I’m sorry.”
The woman got a bit agitated and somewhat demanding. “Well, can you go get one so we can see what they look like?”
The tour guide thought to himself, “This isn’t a zoo, and they’re not trained animals.” Instead, he politely said he couldn’t do that.
That tour guide was me.
The Abbey of New Clairvaux is one of only 17 Trappist-Cistercian monasteries in the United States. As the director of development at the monastery, I’ve come to know many of the brothers closely. Without exception they are the most interesting, intelligent and kind men I’ve ever known.
Many guests to the monastery—a 580-acre spiritual oasis in Vina, 20 miles north of Chico—envision it as a slice of heaven and the 21 monks who live there as angels walking among us.
But the brothers don’t seek such effusive praise. Some even bristle when such words are heaped upon them. Or they greet the accolades with a shrug of the shoulders.
“Believe me, we are very human,” said Father Paul Mark Schwan, the fourth and current abbot at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. “We have the same foibles and temptations that everyone else has.”
But their lives are so different from ours.
The monks live under the Rule of St. Benedict, a 15-centuries-old order rooted in Roman Catholicism that includes living lives of humility, poverty, chastity and obedience.
“We have no personal income, no private bank accounts, not a penny to our names,” said Schwan.
In their possession instead are a religious habit, two sets of outdoor work clothes, shoes, sandals and ordinary attire for traveling to town for supplies and doctor visits.
They have basic toiletry items that need to be replenished, which is why at times you will see the monks outside the abbey grounds purchasing supplies at North State stores.
The monks reside in simple, individual living quarters, the size of a college dorm room. Each has a bed, desk, drawers, closet and bathroom.
What’s most noticeable, however, is what’s missing. There are no televisions or radios. Only a few monks have computers, and those are used only for business purposes.
For a sports fan like Brother Jose Luis Cortez, giving up box scores and nightly highlights of the day’s action is a sacrifice, but one he willingly took when he entered New Clairvaux two years ago.
In 2009 the 29-year-old monk was working at an assisted-living center in Pittsburgh, Penn., providing companionship and spiritual comfort for the elderly.
“I was doing good work,” he said. “But I was still unsure what I wanted to do with my life.”
By happenstance, Cortez came across a pamphlet on the Rule of St. Benedict. This quote caught his attention: “Never swerving from his instruction … but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.”
“That quote crystallized my scattered desires and gave me the courage to commit to leaving everything to be a monk,” said Cortez.
That included leaving his family and friends. “They were disappointed by my decision to enter the monastery, but they were not surprised,” he said.
Relatives of a monk can feel rejected.
“Of course, they’re not [rejected],” said Brother John Cullen, who’s been at New Clairvaux since 1962. “They’re just not happy about the decision, but gradually get accustomed to it.”
Brother Christopher Cheney was toiling at a Safeway in Petaluma before coming to Vina. “I wasn’t really happy,” said Cheney, who is now 39 years old. “I turned to God, and I found his love and support.”
That support didn’t come from his family. “At first, my parents absolutely hated it,” said Cheney. “They were really upset.”
But time passed, and so did the reservations of Cheney’s mother and father. “As they came to see that I’m happy here, they realized that this is a good place for me.”
Brother Cortez says perseverance is the most challenging aspect of being a monk. “No single day will break you, but staying faithful to the monastic way of life day after day and year after year is hard.”
The monastery landscape is covered in beauty—trees, vineyards and animals (turkeys, squirrels and jackrabbits) grace the grounds. But it’s the solitude that brings people to New Clairvaux.
Visitors—retreatants, they’re called—spend the night in one of the eight guest rooms near the front of the abbey entrance. There is almost always a waiting list.
Some retreatants seek merely rest and spiritual refreshment. Some are couples looking to reconnect. Others have experienced a loss and come to find answers for their grief.
While on a visit to the monastery, a gentleman whose wife had recently died broke down inside the church. A brother made himself available, spending nearly two hours consoling him.
Stories like this are commonplace at New Clairvaux, where seven of the monks are ordained priests and are trained to deal with a person’s spiritual needs.
Visitors to the abbey have preconceived notions, but they’re usually wrong. The monks do not walk forlornly, hands folded and heads bowed, adorned in robes and hoods.
A common but mistaken belief is that the monks take vows of silence.
Yes, there was a time when the brothers of New Clairvaux were silent. While it wasn’t a formal vow, the silence was a discipline of the order. In order to communicate with each other, the brothers used sign language similar to that used by the deaf.
“It was easy to be misunderstood,” said Brother John Cullen, who is in his 50th year at New Clairvaux. “We would occasionally whisper to augment our sign language.”
In the mid-1960s, the increasing dependence on modern technology—even inside a monastery—forced the monks to change their policy on silence.