November 4, 2010

Field Trip: Trappist Monastery

the kids' best shot at looking solemn.  LOL!
The kids have been studying the important role that the Christian monks played during the middle ages.  They were set to present on "Monk Culture" at Culture Club last week, but other presentations ran long, our medicus monk fell asleep, and so we volunteered to save our presentation on monks for next month's gathering. Our schooling has led us on to Vikings now, but to keep our monk knowledge fresh and celebrate our half way point in our study of the Dark Ages, I decided to surprise the kids with a little field trip to a real monastery.  What an AMAZING experience!

I told the kids yesterday morning that if they felt up to it, we'd drop our routine and make a drive to meet real monks.  They were so excited!  On the drive there, I asked Hannah Jane to jot down a few questions she had for the monks, should we meet one that would talk to us.  She mentioned wild questions that led me to realize that the kids thought of monks like they thought of dragons and the moody gods of the Pantheon- that is, monks are a fun invention of fictional history.  She was asking, "What if they don't understand me when I talk?  Do they have their own writing?"  I explained repeatedly that they are regular people who have chosen a sort of irregular life.  Real people who once went to school, college, drove cars and had mortgages just like mom and dad, and then one day decided to give it up for a life spent in service to God.  I wasn't getting though.

We pulled under the arch ahead of schedule, to behold what looked like a very white bunker from some long ago war.  Being early, the monks were still eating lunch and the shop and welcome center were closed.

The kids were dying to see a monk, and annoyed at having to wait 20 minutes to go inside the little shop.  To the right of the front doors was a staircase gonig to an upstairs area of the bunker-looking building that said restrooms, so I figured no one would get mad at us for using the potty.  We quietly went up the stairs and into a small hallway with windows from which we could see into the private, monks- only courtyard.

We went into the ladies room and while the kids were in the stalls, I spotted a monk over in the barn area.  I shouldn't have said anything out loud because they immediately jumped from the toilets, pants around their ankles, and begged to be lifted up to see the monk. By the time they arrived, he was out of sight and the kids seemed to get the idea that monks were in fact a lot like Santa Clause - these ever illusive creatures that adults talk about but children never set eyes upon.  Perhaps one day they would be so lucky as to sit on a monk's lap in the center of the mall!

The church never closes, so we went there next while we waited for the welcome center to open.
The church was beautiful in spite of the army feel of the buildings.  Before I knew what it was, the boys splashed in some holy water.  I caught them, explained why we were not going to touch it, and we moved on as Hannah Jane had a little discussion with herself about how the holy water by the door is like the fountains in the courtyards of traditional mosques.  I liked the connection.

Then we wandered into the balcony, where the kids were kneeling on the prayer benches when Haven yelled, "A Monk!  A Monk!"

We looked down and there he was.  A monk, finally, silently passing through the sanctuary, stopping to do what seemed to be some ritual prayer or acknowledgment.  I suddenly felt weird about being in there while he was having a sort of spiritaul moment, so I quickly ushered the kids back down the stairs, hoping not to be spotted.  But there he was, smiling eyes, waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs.  I half expected him to tell me we weren't supposed to be up there, but instead he put a hand on each of the boys' heads and said, "Future monks, perhaps?" It was Father Patrick.  This is the only picture we took of him, although we would go on to spend the next hour and a half soaking up his gentle presence.  He told us to come meet him in the welcome center so we could chat.

When we arrived, Father Patrick was there waiting for us.  He asked everyone's names and ages, gave me his opinions of home schooling, and then went on to laugh out loud that "Learning about monks already?  I didn't know about monks until I was in the 6th grade!"  I laughed and said I was never taught about them in school!

He offered to let us watch a movie about monk life, and promptly led us to an area marked restricted.  It was the "lecture hall" where speakers were invited to teach the monks on various topics, but was today to be used as a kids movie viewing room.  I mentioned aloud that I'd never been in a rounded building before and he went on to tell us that after World War 2, there was all sorts of Army Surplus to be had and the monks in Kentucky saw it as a great chance to open a monastery in the west.  They purchased these surplus buildings and some land there in Huntsville, UT and intended for it to be a temporary shelter until a more permanent building could be built.  All these years later, there it still stands.

We learned all sorts of thing from the video.  The monks are vegetarians by choice, except on the day when they celebrate the anniversary of the founding of their monastery, on which they send one man to Ogden to buy 100 pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken for their feast!  I can only imagine what KFC would do to a gut accustomed to monk food!  There has never actually been a vow of silence.  I was shocked!  They explained that silence is understood to be important if you're in a constantly prayerful state, but no vow has ever actually been taken.  You must live there for 5 years before they will make you an official monk.  That's a long trial period!  They make their money from the sale of Hay and Honey and run an internet business selling their honey all over the world.  Amazing!

We went back and talked to Father Patrick when the movie was over.  Hannah Jane said it had answered all of her questions but one.  The way the one came out sounded a bit odd.  In the car we had discussed how the first  monks did things like copy books and teach people to read as a service to the community, but now we have printing presses and public schools, so we wondered what things had replaced those duties.  When she asked, she simply said, "What to you do to serve the community?"  To which he looked a little taken off guard before his smile returned and he chuckled, "Why we pray for you, my dear.  We are constantly praying for the world."  A nice answer, however less material this service is than in ages past.

The funniest part of our day way by far the most awkward!  Our kids have never been around the crucifix with Jesus hanging with blood dripping from his sides.  That's just not an image they have seen.  So when we approached a wall of them that you could buy and take home, and then a huge one above the welcome desk, Hunter exclaimed, "That man is bleeding!  He going to die!"  Hannah Jane told him it was Jesus, and to relax!  But Haven, now enthralled with the image yelled, quite loudly, "Who killed Jesus?  Did the monks kill Jesus?!?!?"  I could have dies right then and there.  I quickly hushed him and said that we would go into the details in the car, but for now we should just listen to Father Patrick and learn what we could.  Later, at dinner, as I recounted the story, Joe answered Haven's questions and said, "The Romans killed Jesus."  Hannah Jane gasped.  "But I love the Romans!  They're my favorite people to study!  How could they kill Jesus?"  We went on that line of discussion for a while as well, refreshing her memory as to how it all went down.  What a day!

Before we left, Father Patrick asked if he cIould give us a blessing, and I of course said yes.  This sort of blessing isn't our norm, but when someone wants to pray for you, you never dare say no!  I mean, good will is good will, right?  he had been periodically flicking holy water on the kids, on their souvenirs, and on just about everything else over the course of our visit, so it was no surprise when his Tupperware bottle with a Sharpie drawn cross on it reemerged from his habit for the blessing.  He dripped water into his hands and then put his hands on each of our heads in turn, saying a ceremonial, short blessing, and then moving on down the line.  Hunter pushed his hands away and rejected the blessing, Hannah Jane basked in it, I politely closed my eyes in prayer with him, and Haven, sweet boy that he is, closed his eyes tightly and then, when the Father stopped speaking said, "I think I love you so much!" to the dear old man.

Our last discussion was one in which we learned that there are only 15 monks left there.  4 died over the past 2 years.  As we went into the sanctuary to sit in on the afternoon chants, my eyes just poured tears, thinking of these kind, surprisingly funny men, who were down to 15 in number.

Their songs resonated in the large, empty hall and I just imagined how it must feel to see your kind, your family not by blood, but by calling, become something of an endangered species.  I can't explain what an overwhelmingly sad feeling that was.

As we left, we took the wheelchair ramp out of the sanctuary, from which we could see the cemetery over the fence.  Simple white crosses marked each plot, some with rosary beads hanging from their centers.  All 3 kids cried a little when we left.  They said they wanted to stay there forever.  They asked if Father Patrick would be there when we came back in a few years.  I didn't have an answer for that last one.

I was an emotional train wreck for the full 2 hour drive home. Hannah Jane slept and the boys played and sang songs in the back row of the van, so I was free to let the tears pour while I drove home in silence, just soaking in the feeling of the day.

All in all, I'd say it was a splendid field trip.  Each of the kids came away with a new appreciation for a different religion from our own, a firmer understanding of the role that the church played in the Dark Ages and how the role and daily lives of monks has changed over time.  Best of all, they really feel like they have a friend who is a monk, and who they look forward to visiting again some day.  Perfect way to wrap up a unit, wouldn't ya say?


  1. Wow, what a most marvelous field trip. I would have loved to tag-along. Have you read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett? it sets in the 12 Century, I think. that is my only knowledge of monks and what i picture in my mind while reading this. Amazing experience for your kids, too! Good for you.

  2. You and your family are an inspiration to humanity. What an important question Hannah Jane asked. And what a pure gift that sweet Haven offered the monk. But it is true that the time for monastic life has passed. Hannah's question speaks right to the heart of each of us living in this new era: What do you do to serve the commuity?"

  3. Kristalyn, I haven't read a complete work of fiction in a depressingly long time. So no, I haven't read that one yet. But now it is on my when-the-kids-are-independent-enough-for-me-to-finish-an-entire-book list! LOL!

    Darrell, I felt such a draw to that world, as did the kids, but we did talk a lot about how Baha'is don't have monks. After asking why the monks don't know about Baha'u'llah, Hannah Jane suggested that we could just not bring it up so we could join! Haha! We discussed being called to live in the world and work side by side with God's people, but I have to admit that I was secretly lamenting that command because there was a serenity in that place that is unmatched.

  4. My grandpa lives about 1/2 mile from this monastery. I think when I was little there were about 35 monks there. I have to admit that your children know a lot more about Christianity than mine do about Baha'i. I had actually never heard of your faith until I started reading your blog, but I hope to become more aware and informed in the future. Great work!


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