Category Archives: Benedictines

Vietnamese monks live Cistercian life, San Bernardino, CA

By David Olson

Cist1.jpgLong before dawn in the remote desert south of Barstow, the only light for miles around is a faint glow from a triple-wide trailer.


Inside, several monks chant in Vietnamese. Then there is silence.


The trailer is home to the first cloistered Catholic monastery in the Inland area. The white-robed monks pray and chant together seven times a day and silently meditate twice. Here in Lucerne Valley, off a dirt road and at the foot of barren mountains, there is little to disturb them.


“There is God in this deserted place,” said Brother Matthew Nguyen. “There are not many people here, but God is here.”


San Bernardino Diocese Bishop Gerald Barnes celebrated the opening of St. Joseph Monastery on Aug. 17, but for now, the two cream-colored trailers, a water pump and solar panels are all that sit on the 80-acre site.


The monks hope to one day erect permanent buildings to house a chapel, retreat center and living quarters.


Peter Pham, a Cistercian monk, delivers food at sunrise outside the St. Joseph Monastery in the Lucerne Valley south of Barstow. Six Vietnamese members of the Cistercians devote their lives to contemplation there. It will also serve as a Catholic retreat.


St. Joseph is the second U.S. outpost of a Vietnamese congregation of Cistercian-order monks, who seclude themselves in monasteries to devote their lives to contemplation. The other opened in June near Sacramento.


There are nearly 7,000 Cistercian monks and nuns worldwide. Most sites are open to the Catholic faithful for retreats, as St. Joseph’s visitors trailer will be in a few months.


The monks and nuns in Cistercian monasteries typically spend little time outside them, except for shopping for groceries and other necessities, and for special events such as ordinations.

Although the number of monks and nuns in U.S. monasteries has declined over the past few decades, experts say the drop has not been as steep as the fall in non-monastic priests and nuns.

Proportionately more people choose a monastic life than before as a reaction to secularism and an increasingly fast-paced U.S. lifestyle, said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


There are about 200 Catholic monasteries in the United States, but there is no reliable count of how many people live inside them.

Cist2.jpgLike the parish priests who minister to their congregants and the nuns who serve the poor and sick, Cistercians and their devotion to intensely contemplative lives form a vital part of the Catholic church, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.


“It’s a special vocation,” Rausch said. “The church needs people who energize it from within with their prayer.”


The monks of St. Joseph rise each morning at precisely 3:55 a.m.


Twenty minutes later, they gather in the dim light of the trailer’s chapel to chant for a half-hour. Then comes 30 minutes of meditation broken by the ringing of a bell announcing daily Mass.

The rest of the day is dedicated to prayer, meditation, singing, Bible-reading, study and work. They speak to each other as little as possible, said the Rev. Anthony Pham, the monastery’s superior.


“Most of our time is for God,” Pham said, as he ate a breakfast of fried eggs topped with soy sauce.


Pham said that, while he is meditating, he reflects upon God’s love and the meaning of his calling as a monk. Work is an integral part of monastic life. As much of it as possible is manual labor, to leave the monks’ minds free for contemplation.


The monks are now clearing brush, digging trenches for pipes, grading land and performing other tasks to build and adorn their monastery.


Like other monasteries, St. Joseph must be self-supporting, so the monks are discussing possible business ventures.


Other monasteries make products such as beer, fruitcake or cheese, and one in Wisconsin sells toner cartridges under the name Lasermonks.


The St. Joseph monks are thinking of opening an on-site gift shop featuring Vietnamese religious articles that they would also sell online. Or perhaps they’ll make tofu for Vietnamese markets.

The 12-bed retreat center that will open in several months is why the monastery exists. A Vietnamese priest from Santa Ana, who attended a Cistercian boarding school as a boy, contacted the Cistercian order to convey the need for a retreat house geared toward Vietnamese immigrants, Pham said.


Many older Vietnamese Catholics do not speak English and would not feel at home or get the spiritual nourishment they seek if they were to attend a retreat at an English-speaking monastery, he said.


They and many other Catholics yearn for a place to recharge, to take a break from their busy lives to focus on their relationship with God, Pham said.


The retreat guests — visitors who are not Vietnamese will be welcome as well — will participate in the same prayers, singing, meditation and other devotions as the monks, Pham said.

If asked, the monks will guide them, suggesting which Biblical verses to read. But much of the benefit of a retreat will be the example the monks set, Pham said.

Founders of Citeaux.jpg“The way we live has a special effect and impact on other people, in the way that we get closer to God,” Pham said. “When we are closer to God, we love God more.”


Even more than parish priests, the monks forgo worldly goods. Because they rarely leave the monastery, they have few material needs. They do not eat meat, as a way of sacrificing for God.

“If we put too many things in ourselves, we cannot serve other people,” Pham said. “If you’re willing to throw things like the good car, like status in the community away, you come back to only being a human being, nothing more. We try to empty ourselves, so God can pour his graces into us.”


When a permanent monastery is complete, Pham will spend almost all his time there.


Until then, Pham is busier than he would sometimes like. He regularly interrupts the contemplative life of Lucerne Valley to drive to Victorville. There, he fills out forms, applies for permits and talks with county bureaucrats. Even monks can’t avoid San Bernardino County land-use and building codes.


He has a studded ring on his right hand that he rubs while driving, so he can pray the Rosary while on the road.

Thumbnail image for Cist3.jpgAll six monks who live at the monastery spent at least six months at a Benedictine monastery in Pennsylvania to improve their English and acculturate themselves, Pham said. Two more monks are now in Pennsylvania, preparing to move to St. Joseph. The goal is to have 13 monks by the end of 2009.


The monks receive several-thousand dollars a month to support themselves and the monastery. Most money comes from Vietnamese immigrants in Orange County. Further donations, along with revenue from the monks’ forthcoming business, will fund the construction of the permanent monastery.


The trailer chapel where the monks now spend much of their time is spare. The monks sit on white plastic chairs or kneel on a blue-and-white carpet before a crucifix and a wooden altar carved in Orange County by a Vietnamese craftsman. Statues of St. Joseph and Our Lady of La Vang — an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 18th century Vietnam — stand near a plaque commemorating Bishop Barnes’ visit.


Outside, there is little but sand and desert brush. Lucerne Valley was chosen for the monastery because it is remote enough to foster contemplation but within driving distance of the huge Vietnamese community in Orange County.


The land cost $80,000. Pham started paying for it with his $200 monthly stipend, along with donations from Vietnamese families.It was a risk. Pham knew the money wasn’t enough to pay the entire cost of the land. But he trusted in God.


Then a Vietnamese family took him to Florida with them on vacation. By chance, he met a wealthy Vietnamese Catholic there. Pham mentioned the monastery he was building. He didn’t ask the man for money. But by the time he left Florida, the man offered to pay the remaining cost of the land.


“I didn’t know this person, and I didn’t have the money to pay for the land,” Pham said.

“But everything comes together with God.”




Cistercian arms.jpgThe Cistercian order to which the monks at St. Joseph Monastery in Lucerne Valley belong dates from 1098, when it was founded in Citeaux, France, by St. Robert of Molesme. The English word “Cisterican” comes from “Citeaux.”


Their creed is “Ora et Labora,” or “Prayer and work.” Most of a Cistercian monk’s day is spent in contemplation.


The monks at St. Joseph are called Common Observance Cistercians. Perhaps better known is the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. The Trappists initially had a stricter interpretation of monastic rules, but today differences between the Common and Strict Observance Cistercians are negligible and there are discussions to unite the two orders.


There are nearly 7,000 Cistercian monks and nuns worldwide.


The mother abbey for St. Joseph Monastery, Phuoc Son Abbey, is outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


SOURCES: The (Common Observance) Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Break, Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia

Thomas Merton: 40 years after he died

Fr M Louis.jpgToday is the 40th anniversary of the death of Father Mary Louis, a monk and priest of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (aka the Trappists). In history he was known as Thomas Merton.

When I was in high school (more than 20 years ago now) I discovered Thomas Merton but I don’t remember who put his writings into my hands. I read his significant works; I marveled at him, with him, in him. Merton made it possible for me to understand God and being a Christian better. His writings gave voice to the interior life for which I am grateful. Now we are remembering him 40 years after his died. My how time flies.


O God, Thou did raise Thy servant, Father Mary Louis, to the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ, according to the Order of Melchisedech as a son of Saint Benedict, giving him the sublime power to offer the Eternal Sacrifice, to bring the Body and Blood of Thy Son Jesus Christ down upon the altar, and to absolve the sins of men in Thine own Holy Name. We beseech Thee to reward his faithfulness and to forget his faults, admitting him speedily into Thy Holy Presence, there to enjoy forever the recompense of his labors. This we ask through Jesus Christ Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

An appreciative report on Merton was done by Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

If you are interested in reading some recent essays on Thomas Merton, order Cistercian Studies Quarterly 43.4

Pope Benedict to go to Monte Cassino & calls abbots and abbesses to join him

Monte Cassino.jpgOn May 24, 2009, Ascension Sunday, the Holy Father will go to Monte Cassino. He’ll visit the diocese, the archabbey and the Polish Cemetery. This pastoral visit recalls the anniversary of the bombardment of the abbey and city during the Second World War. The Pope will first celebrate Mass at the foot of the mountain and later in the day visit the monastery to celebrate Vespers. He’s requested Abbot Pietro Vittorelli to call together the world’s abbesses and abbots to pray with him at the tomb of Saint Benedict for the world. This is a particular moment of unity for the Benedictine order.


The Holy Father will make other pastoral engagements while in Cassino. He was last in Cassino in November 2004 and Pope John Paul II was at Monte Cassino 29 years ago.

Saint Mary’s Abbey patronal feast day: Immaculate Conception

All honor to you, Mary! From you arose the sun of justice, Christ our God.

(Communion Antiphon)

Immaculate Conception Murillo.jpg

Today is the patronal feast of the Abbey of Saint Mary, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The abbey honors the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, a solemn feast of the Church begun by Blessed Pope Pius IX on this date in 1854. In 1857, this Benedictine abbey was founded, first in Newark, which moved to Morristown, New Jersey.

This Marian feast acknowledges a dogma believed by Western Christians that states Mary was born without Original Sin. That is, she was free from sin in order to collaborate with God in the work of our redemption by giving birth to Jesus.

A later feast of Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes (February 11) remembers the Virgin appearing to Saint Bernadette Soubirous 18 times between February 11 and July 16, 1858. On March 25th of that year Mary identified herself as “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Today, also marks the end of the anniversary year of this dogma, 150 years!

The Church in many places in the West has observed this feast since the 8th century; likewise there are Churches in the East that have honored Mary under this title, or one similar.

The Abbey’s celebration was connected with Delbarton School. Father Abbot Giles with the members of the monastic community celebrated the Sacrifice of the Mass at 10 am. The full student body was present. Father Abbot spoke about the need to be men of prayer and of the importance of having a true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the monks of old did, and the monks of today, do. He noted that you can see the monks walking the property praying the rosary or sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament doing so.

O Mary, conceived without sin,

pray for us you have recourse to you.

Benedictines center is haven for Israelis, Palestinians

Dormition Abbey3.jpgJERUSALEM (CNS) — Perched atop Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, just outside the walls of the Old City, the Benedictine Dormition Abbey has long been a place of informal encounters among all residents of the city. Through its concert series held monthly in the basilica, the Benedictine monks have brought adherents of various traditions and many tourists to their monastery to be inspired by the beauty of the music and the monastery. They also quietly have hosted other ecumenical meetings, peace dialogues and interreligious gatherings over the years. But following the outbreak of the second intifada, the monks sensed an urgent need for a more formalized format for peace encounters as a response to the suffering in the Holy Land, said Benedictine Father Johannes Oravecz, a monk at the abbey and director of the new Beit Benedict Peace Academy. But with the increasing level of violence and the ever-growing impasse in Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, the monks felt an urgent need to do more. Thus, in 2003 at the height of the intifada when they presented their annual peace award to two young peacemakers — one Israeli and one Palestinian — the monks realized that they were in a unique position to create a peace academy where both Israelis and Palestinians felt safe and comfortable to meet.


About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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