Past Lives: The Trappist Monks – Beer, Silence & So Much More

trappist-monks-la-trappe (Image: Ludovic Péron)

Known officially as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the Trappists remain active today, but their rich history is a long one that admittedly, many know little about. The order is perhaps best known for its vow of silence and monastic beer, but there’s far more to it than a quiet life dedicated to God and brewing. Through ten short sections, this latest installment of our Past Lives series journeys through the fascinating and, at times, turbulent history of the Trappists, uncovering just what it means to be a Trappist monk or Trappistines today and throughout the centuries.

10. La Trappe

About 85 miles outside Paris sits La Trappe, the abbey where the Trappist monks were first established. The original building was little more than a chapel, built in 1122 in memory of an 1120 shipwreck that claimed the life of 300 members of the English nobility, including Mathilda, one of the daughters of Henry I. Her husband built the chapel to the Virgin Mary in her honour, and eventually, he invited the first monks to take up residence at the site.

la-trappe-abbey (Image: Stucki)

The monastery was constructed only slightly later in 1140. By 1147, it was folded into the Order of Citeaux and became a Cistercian abbey, where the monks lived in relative obscurity for some time.

Through the 15th and 16th centuries, though, the monastery was at the centre of the conflict between English and the French troops. The abbey was all but destroyed, and it wasn’t until 1815 that its remains, then the property of France, was sold. It was purchased by Dom Augustin, and the Trappists returned to what was their ancestral home. Little more than ruins, they rebuilt the monastery and, in 1880, were cast from the land yet again.

trappist-cheese (Image: Jon Sullivan)

The order as it is today exists in a monastery that has been completely rebuilt and consecrated in 1895 under the Order of Reformed Cistercians – otherwise known as the Trappists. Nowadays the monks are best known for the goods they produce to support their abbey and their work within the community. Along with beer, they’re also well-known for producing fruit candies and cheese.

9. The Vow of Silence

One of the most commonly repeated beliefs about the Trappist monks is that they take a vow of silence, and at a glance, the idea that you can never, ever say anything to anyone again for the rest of your life can be pretty terrifying. But that’s not what the vow they take actually is.

trappist-monks-vow-of-silence (Image: Daniel Tibi)

The Trappist monks take three vows when they officially join the order. There’s a vow of Stability, which means they’ll spend the rest of their life within the monastic community, the vow of Obedience, which mean they’ll listen to the bidding of their abbot, and the vow of Conversion of Manners.

That basically means that they vow to live their lives in accordance with the doctrine set down by the Rule of St. Benedict. It includes celibacy, manual labour, a separation from the secular world, fasting, and silence – but that doesn’t mean that they can’t talk.

Speaking is reserved for occasions other than what it’s used for in the secular world. For the Trappist monks, speaking needs to have a purpose. It’s used to work out the finer points of work, of discussing the spiritual with a confessor or with other monks, or to speak in a community environment. Speaking is done in specific rooms or outside, and the general atmosphere within the monastery is one of silence. But it’s not always silent, and they are allowed to speak.

8. The Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven

By the end of the 1800s, the Trappist monks were well aware that none of their positions or their claim to their monasteries was guaranteed – especially in France. The religious landscape of Europe was a turbulent one, as the Reformation tipped the balance from Catholicism to Protestantism in many places.

abbey-of-our-lady-of-Koningshoeven (Image: Bernt Rostad)

The Trappists began looking for a back-up plan and established a monastery in Koningshoven. The Netherlands was known for offering refuge to religious communities that couldn’t settle elsewhere, and the monastery was consecrated in 1881 – the first Cistercian settlement since the Protestant Reformation several hundred years before.

The monks began working the land, but it was quickly, painfully obvious that the poor soil wasn’t going to allow them to support themselves, much less give aid to their community. Needing another source of income, the monks began running a brewery out of the monastery grounds. The monks that had been living in temporary housing moved into their permanent abbey in 1893, and in 1936, accommodations for women were added in the form of Our Lady of Koningsoord.

The aging population at the abbey, along with the decline in the number of men joining the monastery, necessitated a 1997 move of many members to the Nursing Home for the Religious in Vught. Currently, there are only a handful of Trappist monks left at the abbey, but those that do remain are determined to not only hold onto their religious traditions, but their historical ones as well.

7. Trappist Beer

It’s probably the reason that Trappist monks are famous today, so there’s no way we couldn’t talk about their beer.

trappist-beer (Image: Philip Rowlands)

While Abbey beers are any of those that are brewed in an abbey, in order to be considered a Trappist beer, there’s a set of guidelines that must be met – and only a few places are allowed to call their beer Trappist beer (Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle, Stift Engelszell, Zundert, Spencer, and Tre Fontane).

Trappist breweries operate under specific guidelines. In order to keep their designation, the brewery must be within the walls of a Trappist monastery, and operated by the monks themselves, or by people supervised directly by the monks. Lesser known guidelines include the idea that the brewery must not be the most important thing on the monastery grounds, and it must not be designated a profit-making enterprise. Whatever money is made from the sale of beer goes toward the living expenses of the monks and the upkeep of their facilities – whatever is left must be donated to charity.

The tradition of brewing Trappist beers isn’t just one that’s rooted in self-sufficiency. Monasteries were often safe havens for travelers across Europe, and having beer on hand was just another facet of the service they provided to those in need. The practice of monastic breweries dates back to at least AD 820, with the Saint Gall monastery’s system of brewing three different types of beer: one for the monks themselves, one for travellers and paying customers, and one for charity. Gradually, Jesuit brewers began running batches through the mash more than once, giving the finest quality, first run beer to their guests and saving the later batches for themselves.

6. The Founding of the Monastic Lifestyle

The idea of the monastic community is an ancient one, dating back to St. Pachomius. Originally living as a monk, it’s said that the saint eventually felt the calling to live not as a hermit dedicating his life to the spiritual, but as a part of a community working and praying together.

christian-monasticism-st-paul-the-hermit (Image: Dayton Art Institute; St. Paul the Hermit)

It’s St. Pachomius who’s credited with creating the idea of a physical enclosure as a separation between the spiritual and the secular, and the creation of an exclusive community within its walls. And even the earliest monasteries – dated to his lifetime between 286 and 346 – were complex communities, many of them home to several hundred people. Early monasteries were often divided into houses organized by trade, with one gate and gatekeeper to ensure the sanctity of the community.

This was also where the basis for the Trappist doctrine was formed. It’s the idea of not answering to one authority figure, per se, but the development of a communal responsibility where each member is working for the benefit of the entire group. The holy koinonia, or the unity of all within the Body of Christ, was of the utmost importance to the group, and with that acceptance into the enclosure came the knowledge that leaving wasn’t an option.

Early monks entered the enclosure and knew they would never again leave it, not even to visit their families in the most tragic of circumstances – at least, not without special permission and a guide appointed by the abbot. With that, too, came a responsibility not to speak of the outside world once they returned, keeping the secular and the spiritual separate.

5. Cistercians vs. Trappists

‘Trappist’ is something of an unofficial name for the group that’s more formally called the Cistercians. Why the name?

Veruela-Abbey (Image: Josep Renalias; the Cistercian Royal Monastery of Santa María de Veruela)

The order has always had something of a tormented history, with long periods of prosperity punctuated by struggles and a decline in their influence. Throughout the 13th century, the order struggled to balance their power with their vows, and the next several hundred years were difficult ones. The order split along international borders – France and Germany – and different practices developed within the orders. In 1637, a reformer came to power in the unlikely form of an 11-year-old boy.

Jean de Rance came into an inheritance and the title of Abbot of La Trappe. The well-educated boy grew into an eloquent, impassioned man, and by the time he was in his 30s, he had decided to give up his wealth and lead by example, turning the monastery back to the vows they had taken. Instead of focusing on details that had driven sections of the order apart – like how often meat should be a part of their diet – he turned the focus back to silence, internal reflection, and living a holy life. Jean died in 1700, having transformed the monastery and revitalized its membership; from then on, the monks of the order were known as Trappists, and the nuns Trappistines.

4. The Trappists vs. the Benedictines

Part of understanding the Trappist monks and their lifestyle involves separating them from other monastic orders within the church. One of the most well-known orders is the Benedictines, but there are some significant differences.

st-benedict (Image: via Wikipedia; the Rule of St. Benedict)

Many Trappist or Cistercian abbeys were founded by Benedictines who were looking for what they deemed a more pure, Godly lifestyle (as represented by the majestic Fountains Abbey). The Benedictines were far more lavish in their worship; they’re the ones responsible for exquisitely illuminated manuscripts and extensive, beautifully decorated abbeys, churches and cathedrals. L’Abbaye de Cluny is one of the best examples of Bendictine architecture, and while only about ten percent of the original structure still stands, the feelings it inspires are no less powerful.

The Cistercians, on the other hand, took their inspiration from the ‘desert fathers’ that wandered Egypt, and the hermits who turned their backs on worldly pursuits, separating themselves from the secular, and using the austerity of their surroundings as a way to ensure a simpler, more direct relationship with God. There are no stained glass windows in a Trappist church, and the liturgy is much more direct. One problem the Cistercians had with the Benedictine way of life was its focus on the trappings of religion, and not enough on service to God and their community. They’re also far more enclosed and withdrawn from the affairs of the outside world.

The Cistercian ideals were something of a reform of the Benedictine orders, by those who wanted to focus less on the material worship of God and more on the spiritual connection.

3. The Trappists and the French Revolution

When we hear stories about the French Revolution, we typically hear about the consequences for the French government, for the nobility, and for the rising every-person. But the religious communities of France were also targets for the Revolutionary Government, and by 1790, the country’s monasteries were under the thumb of the new government.

french-revolution (Image: Jean Duplessis-Bertaux)

Monasteries fell to the control of the Revolutionary Government, property and assets were seized, and religious leaders – along with the monks – were sent to the guillotine. The fortunate ones were exiled, and some managed to escape. The handful of Trappist monks that did escape the guillotine fled France, scattering from Switzerland to Russia. The novice master of La Trappe made it to Switzerland with only 24 monks and a handful of Cistercian nuns. Those nuns became the first Trappistines, and even though they found temporary refuge in Switzerland, they were forced to flee again ahead of Napoleon.

The persecution ultimately led to the order diaspora, with that novice leader, Dom Augustine de Lestrange, spearheading the scattering of the devout to ensure their survival. Groups were sent not only to Russia but west as well, seeking safety in Canada and the Americas.

Over the course of the next century, the group – and their teachings – spread. It was only well after the Revolution that the monks returned to France in the 1890s, rebuilding La Trappe and establishing the abbey near Anger, called Our Lady of the Prairies.

2. Orval Abbey, Belgium

At the Trappist abbey at Orval, a 20th century monastery sits alongside the ruins of an ancient one. The rebuilt structure was completed in 1948, and while it’s off-limits to visitors, those that do visit can tour the older ruins.

orval-abbey-belgium (Image: LimoWreck)

The ruins are built with a stone called ‘pierre de France’, which has a distinct yellow ochre hue. The stone, the monks say, was formed 165 million years ago, in the area that was first settled in 1070. Like many other Trappist settlements, occupation was sporadic; the ruins as they stand now were built mostly between the arrival of seven monks from the monastery at Trois-Fontaines in 1132 and 1200.

It was also during this time that the legend of the founding of the monastery was born. Folklore holds that the widow Matilde of Tuscany was visiting the lord and manor. Her treasured wedding ring accidentally fell into the fountain, and she prayed for its safe return. As she sat by the edge of the fountain, a trout surfaced, the ring in its mouth. In her gratitude, she established the monastery in gratitude to God for answering her prayers.

Orval was one of the monasteries that fell during the French Revolution. It was burned in 1793, and it wasn’t until the lands were given back to the monks – in 1926 – that they were able to return. Today, the monastery’s brewery is making history in another way. In 2013, the retiring brewmaster handed the reins to Anne-Francoise Pypaert, the first woman ever to run a Trappist brewery.

1. Studley Royal Park and the Ruins of Fountains Abbey

Located in North Yorkshire, England, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruined Fountains Abbey is one of the few surviving Cistercian homes from the 12th century. It is also Britain’s largest monastic ruin.

fountains-abbey (Image: Petr Kratochvil)

Founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks, Fountains Abbey was established by men seeking a life even simpler and more remote than the one they had been living in St. Mary’s Abbey, York. It took its name from the freshwater springs that dot the area, and was supported in large part by the area’s secular inhabitants and their success in the wool industry.

The last abbot, William Thirsk, was executed in 1536 for plotting against the king. And by 1539, the abbey, like others in Britain, was officially dissolved by a decree from Henry VIII. The lands passed to secular hands, and in 1611, new owners decided to build part of their home with stones taken from the ruins of the abbey.

As the grounds stand now, they’re a strange mix of secular and spiritual. Now the home of Studley Hall (which was used as a country retreat for evacuees during World War Two), lodges, water gardens and follies, the owners of the property throughout the 18th century built their own vision around the ruins. Rather than tearing them down or re-purposing the materials, the water gardens, canals, statues and garden buildings were developed as a part of the historic site.

Administered by the National Trust since 1983, Studley Royal Park and the Ruins of Fountains Abbey offer an incredibly glimpse into the group that would become Cistercian, and includes the still-standing kitchens, infirmary, mortuary chamber and storeroom, along with the malt house, bakery and the mill.

Keep Reading – Browse More from Our Past Lives Series


About the author: Debra Kelly



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