Work and prayer
Trappist monks become entrepreneurs. Brothers at a monastery in Missouri run a business enterprise while also dedicating their lives to God.
July 7, 2009 | A bell rings at 3:30 a.m., summoning the Trappist monks to begin their day. They gather, dressed in long white robes, to pray in a brick chapel nestled in the Ozark Mountains.
Behind the chapel, in a stand-alone, 5,000-square-foot bakery, the day’s work awaits. In between their seven prayer sessions, the Assumption Abbey monks bake and ship 25,000 rum-soaked fruitcakes each year.
As they pray, the fruitcake batter is ready to be mixed and baked. Cakes baked the day before sit on racks, ready to be decorated, packaged and stored.
The 10 monks are called to a life of prayer in one of the country’s most secluded monasteries. But they could not live out their calling without work.
It’s a tension the Assumption Abbey monks face daily. Like many who work in Christian organizations, they must bring in income while staying focused on their spiritual mission. The contrast is clear and stark here, where the monks live by the work of their hands. For nearly 60 years, keeping enough money coming in has been a struggle that has required creativity and discernment.
One example: They recently hired a business manager who analyzes customer demographics to market their product. Yet they’ve refused opportunities that would have offered too much business. Such decisions make their business venture more vulnerable, but it is their choice.
Prayer takes precedence over baking.
“The question is: What kind of work should monks do to find enough money to keep body and soul together?’’ said Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham, who edited the writings of one of the most famous Trappist monks, Thomas Merton. “What they don’t want to do is make a living working 10-, 12-hour days.’’
Questions to consider:
- How does the phrase, “they could not live out their calling without work” help you think about the intersection of your daily work and spiritual life?
- What are the creative gifts that have surfaced within your organization amidst the struggle of keeping enough money coming in?
What kind of “friend-raising” could your religious organization think about in this economic climate?
Aprons and albs
By 6 a.m., the monks walk a dirt path to the bakery. Inside, a note by the light switch reads, “Please observe the monastic silence in the bakery at all times.’’
They slip aprons over their albs inside the commercial-style kitchen, which has one large oven, a walk-in freezer and a storage room. A crucifix hangs high on one wall.
One recent morning, the assigned chief baker for the day, Brother Lazarus, a former highway patrolman, filled 125 pans with batter from a large mixer. A long blue apron covered his clothing and a hair net surrounded his long black beard.
When he finished, lay employee Michael Hampton smoothed the tops of the pans, which were brimming with the chunky, fruit-laced batter.
On the other side of the kitchen, Father Juston, a short friendly man with a knack for growing roses, brushed a syrupy glaze atop cooled cakes after infusing them with rum. By afternoon, a handful of monks had decorated each cake with four red and green cherries and four pecan pieces. A hermit monk, who lives by himself on the abbey’s property, inspects each pecan piece for imperfections.
The monks work slowly, with precision and focus. Although they don’t take a formal vow, they are mostly silent. They bake between four and five hours a day, five days a week, every month of the year except January, to prepare for the busy Christmas season.
They work in shifts around prayer, usually in groups of three or four. Each monk in the bakery has a task each day, whether it be mixing batter or marinating fruit in wine. They pack finished cakes in white tin cans and then in plain white cardboard boxes with a simple line drawing of a monk. Finally, before they are shipped, the monks pray over pallets of packaged cakes.
They earn more than $700,000 a year, largely from fruitcake sales. They also make money selling timber and from donations from guest house visitors. The monks’ goal is to break even, giving 10 percent to charity and saving to renovate their aging guest house and chapel.
“We’re not in this business to make money,’’ said Brother Francis, the monastery’s vocation director. “We do fruitcake work to support ourselves, which allows us to live the life of a monk.’’
Monks as entrepreneurs
The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, which guides their life, encourages manual labor. It proclaims idleness as an enemy to the soul. That hasn’t been a problem for the Assumption Abbey monks -- circumstances have repeatedly pushed them to be entrepreneurs.