A monk’s life

Inside the cloistered world of the Abbey of New Clairvaux

Two brothers stroll through the abbey’s vineyards.

Two brothers stroll through the abbey’s vineyards.

About the author:
Jerry Olenyn is the director of development at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a position that gave him unusual access in writing this story about the monks who live there. A frequent contributor to the CN&R, he is also a part-time reporter for KRCR Channel 7 in Redding. Tune in to the 5:30 news tonight (May 10) to watch his TV report on the monks of New Clairvaux.

The 45-minute tour of the Abbey of New Clairvaux was winding down. A woman in her mid-40s asked the tour guide a question:

“Can we see one of the monks?”

“Well, sometimes they come out from behind the cloister,” the tour guide replied. “But they must be busy doing something else right now—I’m sorry.”

The woman got a bit agitated and somewhat demanding. “Well, can you go get one so we can see what they look like?”

The tour guide thought to himself, “This isn’t a zoo, and they’re not trained animals.” Instead, he politely said he couldn’t do that.

That tour guide was me.

The Abbey of New Clairvaux is one of only 17 Trappist-Cistercian monasteries in the United States. As the director of development at the monastery, I’ve come to know many of the brothers closely. Without exception they are the most interesting, intelligent and kind men I’ve ever known.

Many guests to the monastery—a 580-acre spiritual oasis in Vina, 20 miles north of Chico—envision it as a slice of heaven and the 21 monks who live there as angels walking among us.

But the brothers don’t seek such effusive praise. Some even bristle when such words are heaped upon them. Or they greet the accolades with a shrug of the shoulders.

Abbot Paul Mark Schwan.

“Believe me, we are very human,” said Father Paul Mark Schwan, the fourth and current abbot at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. “We have the same foibles and temptations that everyone else has.”

But their lives are so different from ours.

The monks live under the Rule of St. Benedict, a 15-centuries-old order rooted in Roman Catholicism that includes living lives of humility, poverty, chastity and obedience.

“We have no personal income, no private bank accounts, not a penny to our names,” said Schwan.

In their possession instead are a religious habit, two sets of outdoor work clothes, shoes, sandals and ordinary attire for traveling to town for supplies and doctor visits.

They have basic toiletry items that need to be replenished, which is why at times you will see the monks outside the abbey grounds purchasing supplies at North State stores.

The monks reside in simple, individual living quarters, the size of a college dorm room. Each has a bed, desk, drawers, closet and bathroom.

What’s most noticeable, however, is what’s missing. There are no televisions or radios. Only a few monks have computers, and those are used only for business purposes.

For a sports fan like Brother Jose Luis Cortez, giving up box scores and nightly highlights of the day’s action is a sacrifice, but one he willingly took when he entered New Clairvaux two years ago.

In 2009 the 29-year-old monk was working at an assisted-living center in Pittsburgh, Penn., providing companionship and spiritual comfort for the elderly.

Brother Christopher Cheney says at first his family didn’t approve of his becoming a monk, but now they see that it’s made him happy.

“I was doing good work,” he said. “But I was still unsure what I wanted to do with my life.”

By happenstance, Cortez came across a pamphlet on the Rule of St. Benedict. This quote caught his attention: “Never swerving from his instruction … but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.”

“That quote crystallized my scattered desires and gave me the courage to commit to leaving everything to be a monk,” said Cortez.

That included leaving his family and friends. “They were disappointed by my decision to enter the monastery, but they were not surprised,” he said.

Relatives of a monk can feel rejected.

“Of course, they’re not [rejected],” said Brother John Cullen, who’s been at New Clairvaux since 1962. “They’re just not happy about the decision, but gradually get accustomed to it.”

Brother Christopher Cheney was toiling at a Safeway in Petaluma before coming to Vina. “I wasn’t really happy,” said Cheney, who is now 39 years old. “I turned to God, and I found his love and support.”

That support didn’t come from his family. “At first, my parents absolutely hated it,” said Cheney. “They were really upset.”

But time passed, and so did the reservations of Cheney’s mother and father. “As they came to see that I’m happy here, they realized that this is a good place for me.”

Brother Cortez says perseverance is the most challenging aspect of being a monk. “No single day will break you, but staying faithful to the monastic way of life day after day and year after year is hard.”

The brothers reading before taking a meal.

The monastery landscape is covered in beauty—trees, vineyards and animals (turkeys, squirrels and jackrabbits) grace the grounds. But it’s the solitude that brings people to New Clairvaux.

Visitors—retreatants, they’re called—spend the night in one of the eight guest rooms near the front of the abbey entrance. There is almost always a waiting list.

Some retreatants seek merely rest and spiritual refreshment. Some are couples looking to reconnect. Others have experienced a loss and come to find answers for their grief.

While on a visit to the monastery, a gentleman whose wife had recently died broke down inside the church. A brother made himself available, spending nearly two hours consoling him.

Stories like this are commonplace at New Clairvaux, where seven of the monks are ordained priests and are trained to deal with a person’s spiritual needs.

Visitors to the abbey have preconceived notions, but they’re usually wrong. The monks do not walk forlornly, hands folded and heads bowed, adorned in robes and hoods.

A common but mistaken belief is that the monks take vows of silence.

Yes, there was a time when the brothers of New Clairvaux were silent. While it wasn’t a formal vow, the silence was a discipline of the order. In order to communicate with each other, the brothers used sign language similar to that used by the deaf.

“It was easy to be misunderstood,” said Brother John Cullen, who is in his 50th year at New Clairvaux. “We would occasionally whisper to augment our sign language.”

In the mid-1960s, the increasing dependence on modern technology—even inside a monastery—forced the monks to change their policy on silence.

Father Anthony Bellesorte in the kitchen.

Conversations with the brothers are unlike any others. You won’t hear one of them say “Hey, how are you?” and walk past.

A brother will stop, make eye contact and ask with all sincerity “How are you?” And then he will listen.

And when he speaks, no matter to whom, he speaks as though speaking to Christ.

This is because of the scripture in Matthew 25:40 where Christ says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

While the monks live very similar lives, they all have distinct personalities. Like the rest of us, they come from various backgrounds and cultures—from countries as scattered and different as Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Ecuador, Chile, China, Singapore, Brunei and the United States.

One brother, a Chico State graduate, was an accomplished jazz pianist in the Bay Area. After three years in the monastery, he left to become a practicing priest.

Usually one in eight monks take life vows to remain monks. The others, like the former jazz pianist, return to the outside world.

A prospective monk begins as an observer. Within a three-month period, he decides whether to become a postulant, committing himself for one year. During postulancy the monk is responsible for covering his own medical needs.

The order takes on those expenses once the monk moves to the next level, novice, and later to the commitment of what’s called simple profession.

At some point, monks must make a decision on whether to make life vows and commit to the monastery until death.

Blessing the Grapes ceremonial procession.

Much like a marriage vow, a life vow is a solemn profession. But even monks who’ve taken life vows can have a change of mind—or heart—if, for example, they choose to marry and start a family. In these cases, they must seek dispensation of their vows from the Church.

Monks call it “the rhythm of the day.” It begins at 3:30 a.m. with the first of seven worship services inside the abbey’s church.

The sanctuary is filled with the sweet aroma of incense, which the building’s pine walls have absorbed since it was built on the abbey grounds in 1960.

Like most of the other services, this one includes scripture readings and the beautiful rhythmic chants of the monks.

The day ends with a similar 7:30 p.m. service before the monks retire for the night.

In between those bookend services the monks engage in a series of three disciplines—prayer, manual labor and spiritual reading. “The prayer grounds us,” said Brother Cullen.

Each monk has an occupation. Brother Gerard Arsenault, for example, is the primary cook. Virtually everything he prepares is made from scratch. Their three meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—are held in silence except for a book reading by one of the monks.

Other monks work in the vineyard, library or guest services office.

During the Tim Tebow mania that captured endless news cycles, I asked Father Anthony Bellesorte about God’s role in our lives—that is, does God care who wins a football game? I rather naively asked him if the brothers ever share discussions like this among themselves.

“Well, Jerry,” Father Anthony gently said. “That’s kind of Theology 101 for us.”

The monks gathered on May 5 to celebrate completion of the trans-vaulted ceiling of the historic charter house, which they plan to use as the abbey church.

What seems deep and philosophical to the average believer can be routine for a monk, who spends a third of his waking hours studying scripture and religious writings.

Lectio Divina (Latin for spiritual reading) is the third discipline of a monk. A vehicle for contemplation, the reading and study of Holy Scripture is the primary focus of Lectio Divina.

For these Benedictine monks, the Bible has “the pride of place,” but other books inside the monastery’s 40,000-book library deal with theology, philosophy and ancient monastic writings from the early fathers of the Church.

“It’s not so much that we learn something new,” said Bellesorte. “We’re listening to God.”

Listening and meditating.

“But for how long [do you listen and meditate]?” I ask.

“As long as it takes to inspire you,” said Bellesorte.

It took Brother Cortez a year and a half to get used to the rhythm of life at the abbey.

“Obedience and accepting correction are the most difficult disciplines of being a monk,” he said. “Continually joining your will to the will of the community is the deepest and most difficult challenge. In other words, it’s hard not to get your way all the time.”

The monks’ lives are predictable—some might say monotonous. But to the brothers at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, monotony is not a vice.

Brother John Cullen, who has lived at New Clairvaux for 50 years.

“We see boredom not as an enemy,” said Father Paul Mark Schwan. “The temptation is to fill the day with a lot of activity, gossip and idle chatter.”

But it’s a common myth that monks themselves are boring—or that they don’t enjoy their lives. Visitors are surprised by their cheerfulness and senses of humor.

But for Brother Cortez, balancing the sacrifices and challenges with the blessings, especially those that come from living in a cloistered paradise like New Clairvaux, are worth it for a life of peace and spiritual reflection.

“The less complicated you make your life, the more vibrant and enjoyable your life becomes,” he said.

Anthony Bellesorte grew up surrounded by a large Italian family. “Of course, that’s what I expected to have too,” said Bellesorte, now an ordained Catholic priest, who has lived at New Clairvaux for 40 years.

When he was a young man living in Milwaukee, Wis., Bellesorte—now 77—became enamored of a young woman named Mary Jane. “We really clicked,” he said. They fell in love and became engaged.

He’d just graduated from Drexel University with a degree in business and engineering and was preparing to start that large family. “I’d even gotten her a diamond engagement ring,” he said.

But Mary Jane’s career took her to Grand Rapids, Mich. Theirs became a long-distance romance that included a lot of phone calls and letter writing.

After 18 months Bellesorte and his fiancée landed jobs in the same city. But then something happened.

“We found out that the connection didn’t stick when we were close,” he said.

The abbey library contains more than 40,000 books.

She wanted two children. He wanted 12.

For the next few years, Bellesorte dated other women, as the vision of a large family stayed with him.

After moving to San Francisco, however, he felt a calling and joined a community of Dominican friars. As a result, he was moved to become a priest and lead a parish in nearby Benecia.

But the experiences with the Dominican community stayed with him. “It rang a bell with me,” he said.

In 1972 a friend introduced him to the Abbey of New Clairvaux. “I followed my heart,” said Bellesorte.

That path took him to Vina, where he has—after a lifetime of searching—found that large family, though it’s a family made up entirely of brothers.

“I love my life,” said Bellesorte, holding back tears. “I love my God. And I love my family. I’m totally fulfilled.”

While Father Anthony Bellesorte is confident where his spirit will ascend, he also knows that his human remains will stay at New Clairvaux. The monks have their own cemetery inside the cloister. A monk’s funeral is open to the public, offering one of the few times laymen get a glimpse inside the monk’s cloistered grounds.

As a community, the monks are financially successful in their business ventures. Like much of the rest of the residents of the North State, the monks support themselves through agriculture. They grow prunes and walnuts on the land once owned by legendary explorer and trail guide Peter Lassen and later by Leland Stanford, the railroad baron who founded Stanford University. The vineyard also produces and bottles, on site, wine under the monastery’s own label.

The Sacred Stones project, a reconstruction of a 12th-century chapter house using stones from a Spanish monastery, is generating local, regional and national acclaim. (The monks recently announced their decision to use the chapter house as their church.) And the monastery’s collaboration with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., bringing centuries-old monastic brewing traditions to America, was recently featured in The Financial Times and has been well-received by consumers and critics.

All of this has brought enormous attention to the Abbey of New Clairvaux.

With spring now in full swing, the Sacred Stones office will handle more than a dozen group tours per month. And drop-ins account for thousands of visitors annually.

And more will come.

Newspaper and television stories, features by PBS and ABC News and inquiries from the Tehama County Visitors Bureau—add it all up, and suddenly the very private life of a monk is becoming less so.

So is the interest in these men’s lives warranted? It depends on whom you ask.

“Not anymore,” said Brother Cortez. “After two years here, the life is no longer as romantic as it once seemed. I forget that this is not ‘normal’ living.”

But of course a monk’s life is not normal. It runs contrary to the American Dream (see sidebar), which is what leads visitors to ask the monks—sometimes not so subtly—to come out from behind the cloister and visit with them.

As New Clairvaux becomes one of the most significant tourist destinations in the North State, new visitors will come. And they’ll want to know why someone would want to live a monk’s life.