In the early summer of 2018, I set out to investigate a number of Trappist monasteries (and a convent) in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Initially, my aim was simply to see the remnants of monastic life in its twilight moment. I expected to find monasteries closed down or vegetating with skeleton-crews of a handful elderly monks. These and other tell-tale signs of decline I certainly did find: the romantic appeal of hollowed cloisters and crumbling plaster can hardly be resisted, and there is a peculiar dignity to religious service upheld impassively in the echoing naves, its rhythm unaltered and unabashed.
But then, there are the practicalities of life. However precipitous the fall, a congregation of monks or nuns, or indeed an entire religious order and a walk of life, are not gone in a blink of the eye. There is the arithmetic of dwindling and ageing communities: the medical bills and the leaking roofs. Many an abbot has had to face the choice either to manage downsizing, or manage insolvency. Not all are taking the pressure in their stride. The dialectics of seclusion and engagement with the world, of contemplation and of work, of orthodoxy and of reform, ever present in the long history of Western monasticism, are reawoken in this, the last of so many, moment of crisis.
The Trappist order, which has a reputation for rigour second only to the Carthusians, is itself the outcome and subject to centuries of reform, renewal and volatilities of discipline, from Benedict’s day to the abandonment of the austere Trappist Usages in the late nineteen-sixties. It is to these archaic mores, know as the ‘Montecistello Usus’, and the latin mass, that Mariawald, the only surviving Trappist monastery in Germany, reverted during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. This was meant as an escape out of a decades-long crisis of vocations back into the past. The experiment ended in disaster. Rather than attract postulants, the move brought about a bitter split within the tiny community of mostly elderly monks. The monastery, set prettily on a slope overlooking the Eifel national park, is put up for sale.
(Sion, a large Trappist monastery in the Netherlands, has meanwhile been sold to a ecumenical group somewhat akin to Chemin Neuf, though of visibly Protestant leaning.)
The closure of arch-conservative Mariawald, which came to pass under the pontificate of Benedict’s successor, pope Francis, sparked uproar and conspiracy theories in the more sinister, clearly putinesque areas of the rightwing internet.
[some of the comments read: ‘pretty spot, just the fit for a little mosque and a hotel for migrants’; ‘(…) the Vatican punishes those who keep faith in God’]