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There's nothing like a retreat in a Trappist abbey.

The ringing of the alarm clock cut short a deep sleep. It was 2:45 in the morning. I've often gone to bed later than that.

Was this any way to get away from it all?

Indeed, I was to learn, it was - more than any tropical paradise, more than I had imagined was possible.

Yet, I was only two hours from home, on a retreat at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux in California's Tehamo County, about 100 miles north of - and in some respects about 500 years away from - my Sacramento home.

Home to 30 monks ages 26 to 89, New Clairvaux is one of 17 Trappist facilities (12 monasteries and five convents) in the United States. Like all Trappist facilities, it also is a retreat house because St. Benedict, the sixth century monk whose rule the Trappists follow, said, "A monastery is never lacking in guests," and guests "should be welcomed as Christ."

So why the ungodly hour? The monks' first session, called Vigils, starts at 3:30 a.m., in a church a healthy walk from the guests quarters. Guests are invited, but not required, to join in all prayer sessions. When not participating in the prayer sessions, guests are pretty much on their own.

Time can be passed by meditating in a well-kept garden or a meditating room; reading; walking (jogging is discouraged) the extensive grounds; praying on your own in the St. Cecilia Chapel; resting in your room; or, if you request, being counseled by a monk.

Rooms - six singles and two doubles (for married couples) - are bright and airy, each with its own bath. Named Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Patience, Peace, Joy and Love, they're like motel rooms, save for a blessed lack of television and telephone.

"We get many guests who aren't Catholic," said Bro. Laurin, the guest master. "Quite a few aren't even Christian. We welcome everyone."

During my stay, there were two nuns from San Francisco on a weeklong retreat and a layman, Bob Briggs, who was temporarily working as a gardener on the grounds and living at the monastery.

When I arrived at the church, Briggs already was there. We listened as the monks changed hymns and scripture passages. An organ played softly. Sheet music was set up on stands in front of the pews. Since the Second Vatican Council the chants are in English; they used to be in Latin.

"I hate to get up so early," Briggs told me over lunch later that day. "But I wouldn't miss Vigils for anything. These guys are praying for the rest of us not only all day long but in the middle of the night."

The place is a 600-acre farm along the Sacramento River. The church, a very plain structure, looks more Quaker than Catholic. On the farm the monks raise plums, walnuts and various field crops to support themselves.

Formerly a winery and a dairy, the grounds have been a monastery since 1955 when monks from Gethsemani, Ky., (the first Trappist facility in America) bought the land.

Officially known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the Trappist date from a reform of their order begun in 1664 in La Trappe, France. They lead a life with little TV, radio or telephones, and do so on a strict vegetarian diet. They read lots of books but few magazines or newspapers (among the exceptions at New Clairvaux are the Manchester Guardian and U.S. News and World Report).

If physically able, monks daily do four to six hours of physical labor and pray seven times. Besides the 3:30 a.m. Vigils, their prayer schedule is Lauds (followed by Mass) at 6 a.m., Terce at 8:55 a.m., Sext at 12:15 p.m., None at 1:55 p.m., Vespers at 5:45 p.m. and Compline at 7:30 p.m. Following Compline, a "grand silence" is observed until morning.

"Contrary to popular belief, we never took a vow of silence," Fr. Paul Mark, one of New Clairvaux's nine priests (the rest are brothers), told me. "At one time we used sign language. American sign language for the deaf was adapted from our system. But we found that more distracting than just speaking. We still regard silence highly, though, so we try to speak only when necessary."

Ordinarily, once a monk enters a monastery, he never leaves the grounds, save for medical or work-related reasons. After talking with me, Fr. Mark was going to a seminar on primes (New Clairvaux's plums become Sunsweet prunes).

The three days in New Clairvaux provided me with more peace - of mind, body and soul - than three weeks do on most vacations. But as the late Thomas Merton, perhaps the best-known Trappist of the 20th century, said, it is "not the peace of mere relaxation but the peace of inner clarity and love based on ascetic renunciation."

Most New Clairvaux retreats are only three days, Tuesday through Thursday or Friday through Sunday, although longer ones can be arranged. There is no set fee for accommodations but a donation is requested. "We suggest a minimum of $20 a day," said Bro. Laurin, the guestmaster. "That pays for the upkeep of the guest quarters and the food. But we'll never turn anybody away for lack of funds."

Reservations are required. They can be made by calling Bro. Laurin at (916) 839-2434.

Bob Masullo is a newspaper journalist and broadcaster in Sacramento, Calif.
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Author:Masullo, Bob
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 24, 1993
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