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The quiet life of the monks of Assumption Abbey

by ARMANDO RIOS
Bulletin Staff Writer
The Baxter Bulletin

Continuing a centuries-old tradition, the religious community of Trappist monks gathered for its first prayer of the day, chanting Psalms accompanied by a guitar or zither at Assumption Abbey, just outside Ava, Mo. The abbey is known for its fruitcakes.

"We monks, what we do is we pray and work. Our schedule is geared around prayer. We only work five hours a day," Brother Francis told The Bulletin recently, as he prepared a meal for the other monks.

The community of monks starts the day at 3:30 a.m. for prayer and ends the day with prayer at 7:30 p.m. In between, they gather four more times daily to pray. After the first prayer, the monks go either to a community room or their own rooms for Lectio Divina to read the Bible and contemplate.


Bulletin Photo by Kevin Pieper
Father Mark, the Abbot at Assumption
Abbey, plays a zither during a 3:30 a.m. service. The only light
illuminating the service is the one shining on the music.

"Getting up at 3:15 in the morning is not a sacrifice; we are living out the value of prayer," Brother Francis added.

He has been at this abbey for three years. Before that, he was at a California monastery for 33 years and was a teaching brother for 11 years.

Brother Francis decided to become a priest and entered the Augustinian order following a visit to Japan in the 1950s, where he saw the destruction from World War II. Later he joined the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance — popularly known as Trappists — which was founded in 1098 by a group of Benedictine monks. The community came to Ava in 1950 from New Melleray Abbey in Iowa.

The monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict — guidelines for monastic life written by St. Benedict in the sixth century. It is a small community with less than 10 members. At its peak, there were 30 monks, each with varied backgrounds.

"Every monk has a different story," Brother Francis said.

For instance, Father Paul says he was a 1960s hippie, and Brother Lazarus formerly was a Mississippi state trooper who became a monk just three years from retirement. One monk, Father Donald, arrived at the Abbey in 1951, one year after it was started.

"I am from Appalachia and worked in the steel mills and knew there had to be a better way of life than that hard work," Father Paul said. "So I went to college, the first one that ever went to college in my family."

Father Paul said he was preparing to become a doctor when he concluded it would not do much good to heal a body if the soul was still wounded. He went to Yale and studied philosophy before studying theology. He taught at Yale and Princeton.

An ordained United Methodist minister, Father Paul taught at a Protestant seminary. While there, he became interested in social justice issues and moved his family into the inner city of Kansas City and became involved with the Black Panther Party.


Bulletin Photo by Kevin Pieper
Monks at Assumption Abbey near Ava, Mo., pray recently during one of their many
daily services. The monks dedicate their lives to the centuries-old
tradition of prayer and quiet contemplation. Father Donald (above,
right) has been at the monastery for 55 years.

He also became a hippie, yet felt something was still missing in his life. Either by accident or providence, Father Paul spent a weekend at a Trappist monastery high in the mountains of Colorado, where he discovered the silence, community and Eucharist were what he was missing.

He converted to Catholicism and became interested in Assumption Abbey because it was closer to where he had been teaching and working. He is still able to teach and perform social justice work with this community of men. He spends most of his time at the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center on Lake Pomme de Terre near Pittsburg, Mo., and about one week a month at the abbey.

Brother Lazarus, a novice, has been at the abbey a little more than two years. The first time he met Trappist monks was at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1999.

"I went to see what it was all about, and I loved it," Brother Lazarus said. "But I had to go leave, go back and dig a little more. I was a state trooper in Mississippi for 16 years. It was a different life. I knew there was peace when I first visited Gethsemani, but I was not ready to let go of it, I guess.


Bulletin Photo by Kevin Pieper
Father Donald prays in the early morning hours, before the sun rises. The
84-year-old monk has followed the same routine for 55 years, rising at
3:15 a.m. for the first service of the day.

"I had some stirrings in my heart," he said. "I don't think you can ever get away from God when he calls you. You can hide a little bit. ... I came here and fell in love with it. It is all for the glory of Jesus through Mary."

The Abbott, Father Mark, entered the Trappist Monastery in 1978, when he was 30 years old. In 2000, he arrived at Assumption Abbey.

"When I was a youngster, in the 1950s, religious vocation was part of the climate, that was always an option, especially in Catholic school," Father Mark said. "So that had always seemed to me attractive and worth considering."

When he was 14, he saw a picture of a Trappist monk. "The picture was so evocative, and it touched something very deep in me," he said.

"This image stayed with me ... (and) really planted the seed for me to be a monk."

The Abbey is surrounded by the Ozarks woods with clear streams and a small river.

The property was donated to the Trappist Monks in Iowa by a man named Joe Peterson and his wife.

Peterson was a journalist who covered World War II in Europe. He was impressed by the Trappist monasteries in Europe and moved by the contrast between the chaos of war and the peace of the monasteries.

Father Donald has been at the monastery almost since it was started and recalled the days when the monks lived in a house Peterson built, which had no running water or electricity and there was only a trail leading to the house.

Area residents did not know what to expect of the monks at that time, he recalled. They thought it was strange the men were wearing white robes with hoods, but eventually came to realize that they belonged to a religious organization of monks.

Father Donald was involved in building the original monastery which is downhill from the present monastery.


Bulletin Photo by Kevin Pieper
Father Mark prays between the 3:30 a.m. service and the 7:45 a.m. service.

The monks now live in a monastery built in 1970.

"Every day is a new beginning," Father Donald said. "I find out every day the Lord gives you plenty of surprises, pleasant surprises, too."

When the monks founded the monastery, they tried farming first, because that's what they had done in Iowa, according to Abbott David.

But they had difficulty with farming in the Ozarks and tried other ventures — including an orchard, a vineyard and making cinderblocks — before deciding to turn to baking fruitcakes to support the abbey.

The Assumption Abbey monks, through a benefactor, were given a recipe for fruitcake by a world-class chef, Jean-Pierre Auge, who once served the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The monks do everything —from marinating the fruit, mixing, baking, packaging, aging and mailing — at the monastery in between their periods of prayer.

The Abbey has been baking the fruitcakes for 19 years now.

People also can stay at the guesthouse and join the monks in prayer and Mass, as well as walk the grounds and see what monastic life is like.

For more information or to make a reservation, call the abbey at (417) 683-5110 or write Assumption Abbey, Route 5, Box 1056, Ava, Mo., 65608.

armandor@baxterbulletin.com

Originally published November 11, 2006