Trappist Spirituality


I’d be interested in hearing people’s input on contemporary Trappist spirituality.

I’m a big fan of much of Thomas Merton’s writings (I have a vandemecum of quotes from him in my pocket now) but have heard much from others concerning, and can’t myself ignore, the fact much of his later works tended to blend into a sort of universalist/eastern mystic take on spirituality. Is this sort of error (presuming that is the correct word) common amongst contemporary Trappists? at particular Trappist abbeys?

I ask because I feel called to the contemplative life and am looking at visiting a Trappist abbey in my state. I have no reason to believe they’re “bad guys,” so to speak, but I figure a little extra input never hurt anyone.

Gratias et Dominus vobiscum.


I read that Centering Prayer was developed by Trappists, which not legitimate, as we know. I went to one abbey and the novitiate library had a whole book case of New Age books, on the enneagram and dreams, etc, and one by Ekhart Tolle, Oprah Winfrey’s guru. I had a job explaining to the novice master that they were not legitimate spiritualities. I spoke to the previous novice master and he agreed with me, so not all are accepting of this stuff. I think it is just ignorance in some cases.

I don’t know about other Trappist monasteries or other monasteries in general. I am guessing that New Age books have seeped into some.

By the way, I am also looking into a Trappist vocation, but am not letting such things put me off as I feel a call to it. It may be my job to point out some of these things.


The Trappist are Cistercians of the Strict Observance. They follow a strict rule, where prayer, silence, and hard work are their stock and trade.

There origins:

I visit St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer Mass, often. I make my annual retreat there, and an assure you, they are legit.

Most of Thomas Merton’s writings have the approval of the Catholic Church,. the Imprimatur, with the exception of the one that I, know of, “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” which of course is not about Catholicism per se, but the comparison of Zen to Christian Contemplation.

Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating and Fr. Basil Pennington, were asked by the Vatican, to dialog with the religious leaders of the East, which is why they speak of them in their writings, but do so, more in providing a comparison of Eastern Religion to Catholicism. In no way have they brought Eastern Religion into their own prayer or Rule of Life. Their prayer life comes totally out of Catholic Tradition. See the link to their origins above.

We’re not allowed to talk about Centering Prayer, which is good, because its a hot button and most people misunderstand its origins, and I won’t get into it here. PM me if you wish to learn more.

Also, the Trappist are very much in line with Contemplation as St. John of the Cross teaches. Myself, being a Secular Order Discalced Carmelite, there is much in Trappist Spirituality that is the same as Carmelite Spirituality. Contemplation comes from God, not from the religious order, so of course, there are no boundaries in how God brings a soul into contemplation.

Which Monastery are you planing of visiting?



Thank you very much for the input, it has very much reassured me concerning the Trappists. I’m familiar with them in an academic way (i.e., Thomas Merton and Bernard of Clairvaux) but was interested in hearing some from people with mroe 'hands-on" experience of some sort.

I’m looking at visiting an abbey in Northern Virginia in the United States, named Holy Cross Abbey. From the website and the couple of people I’ve talked to who have been then it seems like a lovely place (I actually went there once myself but just perused the bookstore and stepped into one of the buildings long enough to watch a monk sweep the foyer).

As of right now I’ve just been looking at visiting the abbey in general, not as one discerning a vocation, but I think I will go ahead and write a letter to the novice director and let him know of my intentions.

Thank you both for your input. Please pray for me as I try to allow Christ to live in the world through me, God willing.

Dominus vobiscum.


I know Holy Cross well. One of their monks lived with our community in Washington for several years while he went to school. We later visited him when he returned to the abbey. They are a solid group of guys. They work hard, pray hard, and have a wonderful sense of humor.

They are also very tuned in to everything that happens in the world. They don’t miss a beat, just because they’re out there in the woods. They are very real people too.

They love music, theater, good books, sports and good food, even though their diet is rather simple.

We have to be careful what we say about the Trappists and New Age stuff. The Trappists are very scholarly men. They do study a great deal of spirituality. This does not mean that they are on a wrong path. They often find common elements between Catholic and other spirituality. One thing that they do is that they are always trying to find methods that will enhance their life of meditation and prayer. This does not mean that they are less Catholic. A method is just that. It is not a dogma or a belief system.

The Trappist seeks union with God. If staring at a candle all night helps, they may use it. But their search remains the same, union with our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the mission that St. Benedict gave to all his sons. Trappists are part of the great Benedictine family.

I hope you do go visit Holy Cross. You will certainly get a great deal out of it. If nothing else, it will give you a rather interesting perspective on Cistercian life. We often think of these men as living in some bubble. Nothing is further from the truth. They simply don’t want to engage. That’s different. However, they engage through self-sacrifice and prayer.

Best of luck to you.


JR :slight_smile:


I feel I ought to add some things to my previous post. I didn’t mean to say that the Cistercian abbey I visited was overtaken by New Age thinking. It is a very peaceful and holy place, as testified to by the many guests and visitors it receives. It was just one bookcase among many in the novitiate library; the others being filled with works from the Cistercian Fathers and the Saints. The monks I met were very welcoming and seemed happy with their life. I had a good experience there otherwise I wouldn’t be going back. I just thought I’d mention this as my previous post sounded a bit condemnatory.


the best way to answer these questions is to ask the abbey you are considering to invite you to a vocations discernment retreat, most have them at least annually, or at least to spend at least a week there sharing in monastic life, most allow this throughout the year. expect to pay something reasonable for room and board.


The Trappist have a process for those considering a vocation. Remember, you’re seeking to join them, they’re not joining you.

So, the first step, is to write to the novice master. You will be invited to come and stay a week-end. If things look good from both your prospective and theirs, they’ll invite you back for a longer stay.

Eventually, you’ll be asked to become an aspirant. Here you pray and work, as the monks do. You’ll even sit in choir with them, during the Divine Office and Mass.

I believe after a year of this, you can apply for entrance as a novice.

Either way, write to them, and they’ll give you the information.

If I was discerning a monastic vocation, the Trappist would be the order I’d join.



You might be interested in reading through the Monastic Interreligous Dialogue website. You might also browse the Cistercian Studies Quartly.

The Cistercians of Strict Observance is a beautiful order.
I pray all goes well for you at Holy Cross. It is a small but truly peaceful and community. The friends and lay people that help out in the retreat house are wonderful. They genuinely care.
What more can I say? Go for it Sanctus3 - I would if I could.


One has to be very careful how one says things on CAF, because there are many people here who are only too eager to jump all over religious communities and diocese at any sign of something that they disapprove, without givng time to think if any of these things serve a purpose in the life of that community or that diocese.

Having been in the field of spirituality for almost 38 years, I can see whay those who are scholars in that field would want to read about every kind of spirituality. That’s their life and work, especially in a Benedictine community. The Benedictine family has a long tradition of scholarship.

We’re speaking of Trappists, one of the most faithful to the ancient Benedictine observances and Benedictine academia.

JR :slight_smile:


They read** and **dialogue and are always…

in explicit communion with the universal Church. The General Secretariat ensures contact with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.


The long tradition of scholarship has always included dialogue.


Without understanding you cannot have fruitful dialogue. You are right.

JR :slight_smile:


Dear 3Sanctus,

I have been making retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardsrown, Ky (home of Thomas Merton) for 12 years and I can attest that Thomas Merton’s views are certainly not those of the community as whole.

I would encourage you to visit the community in your state as I am confident you will find a spirituality, hospitality and peace like no other experience, however, I would suggest you also visit the home of Thomas Merton The Abbey of Gethsemani to discover first hand the spirituality of the monks who knew and lived with Fr. Louis,. You can find information regarding their community and retreat schedule at

A quote from Thomas Merton that I like may help you see him in a different light:

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimension of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.
If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying.
I do not live in a hermitage— I live in a house, what I wear is pants, what I do is live, How I pray is breathe.”

God bless you,.You are certainly on a journey of great spiritual enlightenment as well as abiding peace.


Thank you all for your posts. Faith Builder, I really appreciate your input - especially that quote from Merton. Not only has it helped improve my view of him (as in making it more full, I never thought of him as a bad influence really) but it has made me realize maybe I’m not giving God enough credit for just how much He has managed to do with my flimsy, mortal spirit and my husk of a body. :slight_smile:

I’ve read through Merton’s Life and Holiness a few times in the past month or two and I’d have to say that quote of his really sums up what God’s helped me to gain from his writings. One’s vocation is not about what you do or how you do it as sort of Church-related “job,” it’s about simply living in Him and allowing Him to live through you. While this is of course very elementary, it’s amazing how God in His love reveals this to us again and again, it’s been truly humbling for me, not to mention that warm and fuzzy feeling it occassionally offers when you finally get it right and let go long enough to let Him take control. :slight_smile:

Peace and Blessings.



Dear Sanctus 3,

Thank you for your comments, it sounds to me like you are on an in depth spiritual journey and are making great strides. The quote I provided spoke to me of the simplicity of Thomas Merton, the man.

I am wondering if you happened to catch the documentatry on Thomas Merton that was shown on PBS a week or so ago. I found it to be very comprehensive and informative of Merton the person. If you did not see it, the DVD SOUL SEARCHING,: The Journey of Thomas Merton (Item No. SSTM401)
can be purchased on line from
I thought it might be of interest to you to also know that Brother Patrick Hart (Merton’s Secretary) still resides at the Abbey of Gehsemani as does Fr. Matthew Kelty his confessor. It seems to me it would be beneficial for you to make a retreat at the Abbey and talk to these men (as well as other monks who knew him so well) to glean an even better understanding of Fr. Louis. The Abbey also has a vast library of his writings as well as his teaching tapes as Novice Master which I’m sure would be of great interest to you.


I saw this special, and still have it on my DVD-R. It was well done.



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