Huntsville • Inside the chapel of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a 30-foot stained-glass window depicts Mary cuddling the Christ child, glowing with red, blue and white light.
Sunbeams caress wooden stalls once filled by dozens of Trappist monks chanting prayers and praise; the colored glass illuminating worn, but recently polished linoleum flooring with hints of a fractured rainbow.
The now-silent chapel, fashioned more than half a century ago from a cavernous, military surplus Quonset hut, seems defiant, awaiting the slow death that has claimed the rest of the monastery. Outside, buildings that once bustled with more than 80 monks combining contemplation and supplication with farming, ranching and the making and selling of coveted breads and creamed honey, are now empty, sagging in on themselves as layers of white paint fade and peel away.
By the end of this month, the last of the monastery’s eight monks will have left for their new home at St. Joseph Villa Catholic nursing home in Salt Lake City. The abbey, its future use still in limbo, will be shuttered.
But on a late August day, 89-year-old Rev. Patrick Boyle still keeps vigil in the abbey’s gift shop, a bottle of holy water at hand to bless well-wishers’ purchases from the remnant of die-cast religious medals, rosary beads, crucifix necklaces, a few devotional tomes and prayer cards left on nearly empty shelves.
“Yes, I’ve been here 67 years, and I’m still working on it,” he quips, adding that the monastery denouement will not end his ministry as a monk — not yet.
“I’m not threatened by the change,” Boyle says. “It’s divine providence. I believe that. I leave yesterday to God’s mercy and let him take what we call the ‘sacrament of the now moment.’”
It is a philosophy with roots in the 300-year-old Catholic classic, “The Sacrament of the Present Moment,” penned by Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Each day, he wrote, is sacred; each moment an opportunity to hear the voice of the Almighty.
The Rev. Brendan Freeman — called out of his retirement as abbot of Iowa’s New Melleray Abbey four years ago to shepherd Our Lady of the Holy Trinity and its remaining monks through the monastery’s closure — shares that attitude of abandonment to the divine.
Still, the abbot confesses, there is something of the bittersweet to this “present,” this “now” — not just at the abbey’s end, but the decline of monastic callings in the Catholic Church in general.
“It is very sad,” Freeman says. “But I have to say this is not my monastery; if it was, I’d be really distraught, and these men have been here, many of them, most of their lives.”
Closure of the Huntsville abbey will leave the Trappist order, also known as Cistercians, with 16 monasteries — 11 for men, five for women. More abbeys likely will become history in the years ahead as a paucity of those seeking spiritual vocations continues.
The irony, Freeman believes, is that the world needs the redemptive intercession of “contemplatives” and their prayers now more than ever.
“It’s the prayer. We pray for the good of the whole world, not just for ourselves,” he explains. “We are doing what we’re doing, and it does influence people in a hidden way. It’s not the quantity [of monks] but their quality.”
The Huntsville abbey was born in 1947 with the arrival of 32 monks. The 1,820-acre monastery, nestled at roughly 5,000 feet elevation in the picturesque Ogden Valley, had grown to 84 robed men by 1960.
In the decades since, however, a lack of new recruits and the merciless advance of old age gradually left a relative handful of the contemplative clerics to shuffle daily into the all-but-empty chapel to meditate and pray.
In 2013, Freeman arrived, his assignment, in effect, to give last rites to the monastery. His charge was to sell the property, help the remaining brothers accept the end of their monastic mission, and ensure their care in their twilight years.
But “there is goodness,” even in mourning, the abbot insists. Decades of honey and bread sales generated a small fortune, money that the monks regularly have passed on. Recently, they gifted $400,000 to Ogden’s Lantern House homeless shelter; a like amount has gone to various parish school programs and other monasteries.
“In all their years, these monks never spent a penny on themselves, and they saved every penny they made, from their blood, sweat and tears,” Freeman says.
“The goodness in all this comes in the fact that we have no lasting homeland on this Earth,” he adds. “If it’s not [at the abbey], then the will of God is expressed by our aging and inability to continue ... and that isn’t happening for no reason.”
Back in the bookstore, “Father Patrick” painfully bends to touch the face of a young boy and to hug his little sister. They came with their family to buy a trinket or two — and to say goodbye.
“You know the difference between a monk and a monkey?” he asks the girl. “The monkey has a tail!” An old joke, but the child giggles.
He says he happily accepts the next, likely final, chapter of his life, joining his brothers in retirement.
“I’m ‘secure’ here, or wherever I go to. I know that wherever I go, Christ will be waiting for me there,” Father Patrick rasps.
The ancient monk slowly turns around, pointing at a crucifix on the wall. “It works,” he smiles.
Outside, the still-snowcapped Monte Cristo Mountains remain, eternal. Rolling fields of alfalfa embrace the abbey, and a breeze stirs the leaves in a nearby circular grove of trees adorned with faded white markers representing the Stations of the Cross — nature’s amen to the monastery’s benediction.