TRAPPIST, Ky. — December 21 will mark 175 years since Trappist monks have been rising before the sun in rural Nelson County, Ky., to work and pray at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
The monks rise at 3 a.m. and pray seven times throughout the day, starting with vigils at 3:15 a.m.
Brother Paul Quenon, who entered the abbey in 1958, said that while he can’t prove it helps to pray for the world, it’s good the monks do so.
“To live a life of prayer is to live at the heart of the church. … The fruit and actions of the church stem from prayer,” he said. “It’s central to the life of priests or anybody active in apostolate. If it’s not motivated by prayer it’s fruitless.”
The Liturgy of the Hours — the framework for the monk’s seven-times-a-day prayer — is based on the Psalms, which Brother Quenon said, are the prayers of the church.
“There’s a lot of heart in Psalms, a whole range of emotions and experiences,” many of which he’s never personally experienced he said. “I’m stretched beyond myself from the Psalms. I enter into the pathos of human experience.”
The Trappists are formally known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Their history in Kentucky began in 1847. According to historical records, two monks from Melleray, France, traveled to Louisville on a scouting expedition to purchase land. They were welcomed by Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, who assigned them a guide to accompany them into Nelson County in search of land. There, the monks purchased 1,500 acres of property — farmland already known as Gethsemani — from the Sisters of Loretto.
These monks returned to their homeland and in October of 1848 a group of 44 men, led by Father Eutropius Proust, set sail for America. When they arrived in Louisville, Bishop Flaget greeted them and provided lodgings at St. Louis Cathedral on South Fifth Street for a few days before making the 50-mile trip to Gethsemani.
They finally arrived on Dec. 21 and moved into the buildings already on the property. There they celebrated their first Christmas in Kentucky.
Forty-three monks, ranging in age from 40 to 100 years old, now live at Gethsemani — the proto-abbey of North America. And people from around the country visit the abbey where they can share in the prayer life of the monks, Brother Quenon noted.
Brother Gregory Escardo, who hails from Lima, Peru, is among those monks. Brother Escardo, who is in his 16th year of religious life, said that monks live a solitary life but also a life of community.
They live by the Rule of St. Benedict, which calls the monks to listen “to God first, to the signs of the times and to others. This implies humility,” said Brother Escardo.
The rule of St. Benedict also calls the monks to offer hospitality to those who visit the abbey as well as to one another, said Brother Escardo. It’s part of learning to “forgive and understand,” he said.
The abbey was home to the late Thomas Merton, the influential monk known for his writings. Brother Quenon was a novice under Merton, who died in 1968. Brother Escardo noted that though more than 50 years have gone by since Merton’s death, people still visit the abbey to learn about him.
In addition to prayer, work is another pillar of monastic life, said Brother Quenon. Each monk has work assigned to him. Accepting that work is part of being obedient, he said. Brother Quenon — a poet, photographer and award-winning author — serves the community as one of its cooks. Brother Escardo said he serves his community as a translator — his native language is Spanish.
Monks also work at making fudge and fruitcakes for the mail-order business that provides their livelihood, said Brother Quenon.
“Work and prayer should complement each other. Manual labor helps your prayer. Praying only can become arid,” he said. “If things are well ordered, you can pray and work at the same time. … It’s a lifting up of the soul.”
The Trappists are marking their anniversary with prayer. Brother Gregory served on the committee that planned the 175th-anniversary celebration — a series of four liturgies. The jubilee year opened with a Mass on Dec. 21, 2022.
A second Mass in the series included the rededication of the abbey to St. Joseph on March 19. Brother Escardo noted that about 20 years after the Trappists founded the abbey, few men were entering the monastery. They prayed to St. Joseph for an increase in vocation and dedicated the abbey to him.
Two other Masses are scheduled, including a rededication of the abbey to the Blessed Virgin Mary on Dec. 8 and a Mass Dec. 21 to close the jubilee year.
The monks have also written a special prayer to mark the occasion, a copy of which is below. To learn more about the Abbey of Gethsemani, visit monks.org.