Nature-lit Trappist House of Worship a Spiritual Refuge of the Church
January 28, 2008
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LAFAYETTE — As the monk proclaimed Scripture, his back to a soaring window, a flock of sparrows banked behind him.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, which serves as a spiritual sanctuary for thousands of Northwesterners, has a new church, illuminated by nature. Those who will come here over the years will encounter creation as they seek union with the Creator.
“The monks have given the people of the archdiocese an opportunity to pray in a structure that will shape minds and hearts over generations,” says Father Rick Sirianni, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Gresham. Father Sirianni, who has regularly visited this remote, quiet monastery since he was in college, marvels at the church’s light, its simplicity, the native material and the respect for the land.
The footprint of the 10,000-square-foot church is diamond-shaped, a tribute to the oldest known Cistercian house of prayer, from the 12th century. The entryway goes to the roots of the monastic tradition. The doors have been gently carved with images of St. Benedict, the father of monasticism, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard led a monastic reform 900 years ago and gave rise to the Cistercians, who were further reformed in the 17th century and became called Trappists, after the French abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe.
A main window juts out gracefully toward rolling hills, giving the impression of a ship riding waves. The church is built of timber the monks felled in their own sustainable forest.
Inside, the cruciform worship space is bathed in outdoor rays from a glass and wood cupola and many windows. When it is dark — like it is at 4 a.m. when the monks first gather for prayer — electric lighting is down low where it is needed, not glaring high overhead.
The beams, rough-hewn on site, angle heavenward in groups of two and three. The floor is of earthy tile; it gives resonance as the monks stride to their choir stalls and then sing ancient words of praise and supplication.
The art is spare. A carved crucifix stands near the altar, it’s Christ forlorn and majestic. Subtle iron crosses are affixed to posts. The dominant image is a 10-foot-high tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She looks down on the monks tenderly.
Mostly, there is outdoor light, with windows framing fir trees and oaks as well as the antics of squirrels and birds.
Part of the Cistercians’ character is to be lovers of the place and of nature. The monks have vowed to remain here for every moment for the rest of their lives.
Trappist Father Casey Bailey, a youthful smile on his 56-year-old bearded face, says he was not sure at first that the monks should build a new church. But the structure has won him over. “It is so simple, so Cistercian, so western Oregon,” the former Evangelical explains. He finds holiness in the local timber used for construction, calling it “an offering from the land.”
Like watching a child grow, the Trappists surveyed the construction over the past few years. Some will miss the intimate and dark former church where they have spent so much time, but they say the new house of prayer is quickly becoming cherished.
“It’s just overwhelming,” says Brother Dick, who became a monk after raising five children. “It’s the simplicity of it, the natural beauty.”
Brother Paul says the marvels of the church are still unfolding for him. In some cases that’s literal. He appreciates the ideal angle of the simple wooden boards in the choir stalls that fold down as seats when needed.
“When you walk into the space, it just seems like prayer,” says Brother Todd, the youngest monk at age 31. Tall and wiry, he helped fell the trees used for construction. “There is a silence about the place. It’s really a sign of hope and a beacon of beauty.”
Summing up the church, its patroness and what will happen in it, Abbot Peter McCarthy calls it “a house of tender, compassionate love.”
The monks invited men and women who lead Trappist and Trappistine monasteries all over the nation for a recent Mass of thanksgiving. “It will be the heart of a sacred place,” says Abbot Thomas Davis, spiritual leader of New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, Calif.
More than 350 supporters gathered at the new abbey church last month to dedicate it. “This is a special day of rejoicing not only for the monks but for all of us who have come to know and admire them and their life of prayer and sacrifice,” said Archbishop John Vlazny. The archbishop compared the monks to Mary, who said yes to an unlikely proposition from God and in that way changed the world. He reminded the monks, and the guests, that after the heady first years of answering God’s call, we are left with trying to be faithful disciples amid everyday life, even in mundane or dark moments.
The Trappists arrived in Oregon in 1955, having decided that the land near Pecos, N.M. was not fit for farming. They brought their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe to Oregon, a place where few had heard of her. Over the years, they have supported themselves with hard work — crafting church pews, farming, logging, making fruitcake and binding books. Their main labor, however, is prayer. “It is in such ordinary things that the will of God is accomplished,” the archbishop said, explaining that the monks show the love of God in how they carry out daily tasks.
After his homily, the archbishop put on a simple apron like the ones the monks wear in their kitchen and bindery. He then carefully anointed every square inch of the new altar, which was hewn from oak harvested at a nearby grove. The archbishop and Abbot Peter later smeared oil on the walls in blessing. Near the end of the dedication, the archbishop carried the Eucharist to the tabernacle. As the Mass closed, the archbishop and the people gave the monks a vigorous round of applause.
This small abbey, manned by 30 monks, plays a vital role in the lives of Oregon Catholics — and plenty of others. The new church emphasizes the Trappists’ stark, deliberate, hospitable spirituality.
“It’s a sign of contemplation, of where our priorities should be, we folks who rush through our lives,” says Providence Sister Jeremy Gallet, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland. “For me, it’s an oasis of peace in an often hysterical world.” The new church is “at once grand and intimate,” says Linda Weigel, director of the Tribunal for the archdiocese.
“The abbey means a lot to the local church, and to me personally,” Weigel explains. “It’s my second home, my spiritual home.” For 22 years, she has come her for the silence, which she calls “the voice of love.”
“It’s a place to pray, it is a place to encounter God, a place to accept the loving gaze of our Mother,” Msgr. Chuck Lienert said in a homily last month at a Mass of thanksgiving. Pastor of St. Andrew Parish in inner Northeast Portland, and a frequent visitor to the abbey, Msgr. Lienert said the new church will be a place where people come to “turn despair into hope, fear into courage and darkness into light.”
Ken and Karen Jansen, who help the monks run the guest operation, say the new church lends a sense of permanency to the abbey. The old church was meant to be used as a stable, not a permanent house of prayer, where monks and guests gather five times daily to chant the psalms. “The monks are getting ready for the future,” says Ken. Karen predicts that many guests will find peace and healing in the new church.
“It is absolutely inspirational,” says Marie Duncan, a nurse from Dayton. “You feel so close to God in there.” "My spiritual life since the mid-1970s has depended upon this place,” says Charlie Gardner, pastoral associate at St. John the Apostle Parish in Reedsport. “I love the new church. The light of the Holy Spirit is there.”
Those who love the Trappists and the abbey gave help from their pocketbooks. It took $2.5 million to build the new church, and more is needed to renovate the abbey living quarters for older and infirm monks.
Abbot Peter gave thanks for the love and support, calling guests the abbey’s “living stones.”
He refers to Dave Richen, the Portland architect who designed the church as his magnum opus, as a “brother of our hearts.” The abbot lauded Richen for working gently with the monastic community over the past four years.
As an architecture student, Richen was taken by Cisterican architecture, citing its “clarity” and “truthfulness.” “The only word that comes to mind is gratitude,” Richen said during the dedication, ceremonially handing the thick roll of building plans to the archbishop, who in turn gave them to Abbot Peter for archiving. Richen, who also built an abbey prayer center and many other chapels and churches, thanked his many collaborators, including The Grant Company general contractors.
During the church dedication, as if to highlight the contrast between the hubbub of the world and the spare monastic dimension, the mobile phones of guests rang out a few times. But the noise was taken in stride here, where distractions are usually kept to a minimum as a way to cultivate the hard grounds of spiritual growth. This was clearly a special day. Several Trappists even lifted digital cameras out of their robes and snapped a few shots during the ceremony.
As always here, the pace of worship was much slower than in a parish church. Liturgy is the master craft of the monks, whose inner springs are not so tightly wound, and they are not about to rush it.
Ed Langlois is a reporter for The Catholic Sentinel, Portland, Oregon. This article was first published in January 4, 2008 issue of The Catholic Sentinel and is reprinted here with permission.
Photos by Gerry Lewin