[For some more images of these Abbeys, please see the gallery here]
The pretence for this trip is that I’m turning 50 in about a month.
I have long been an admirer of the witness of traditional monastic communities – and, well, a lover of Trappist beer. With this, what better plan than to visit five Trappist communities - four in Belgium and one in the Netherlands - who are known for their brewing.
It’s a bit of a long and winding story – these Trappists. But, put simply Trappists are a reform movement with the Benedictine family of Roman Catholic monks and sisters. The Trappists wanted to live Benedict’s Rule in a more applied way in the 17th century – ‘Trappist’ being the name of their first community space ‘La Trappe’ and shorthand for the less memorable ‘Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance!”
Some folks are familiar with either Thomas Merton or Thomas Keating, who were both well-known Trappists and contemplative writers. St. Benedict (5th-6th century) himself wrote his famous document, his ‘Rule’ which has been the foundation for many intentional and monastic communities since.
One of St. Benedict’s ‘encouragements’ is for the communities to survive by the work of their hands – hence the cheese, bread, jams or other products. Hence the beer.
In order to be an official Trappist product, there are fairly strict rules; the products have to be made at the abbey and, at very least, overseen by the monks, the profit must go to support the community and/or works of solidarity or charity. I also learn that most of the brewing operation have strong ecological projects; innovative water saving techinques and solar power, to name a few.
I can’t visit every single one of the eight Trappist breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands (16 across the world, by the way) – so I choose five along a circular route and plan about two days at each.
The first abbey that I visit, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Abbey at Westmalle in Belgium, has a beautifully sparse and modern chapel and a guesthouse, which I eventually find after accidentally parking at the large brewery at the opposite end of the abbey.
The older nun who is tending the guest house speaks only Flemish, so she summons the librarian, a younger man with a degree in philosophy to help translate for my check in and we talk about global warming before he guides me to my room, overlooking the courtyard toward the church.
After my immersion in prayer, I head to evening meal. Most meals on this journey are eaten in complete silence, and most often with a brother or assigned person to open and close in prayer. This discipline of slowness and intentionality around food feels connected to the overall Trappist way of being and helpful for me – usually a rushed eater. It’s all a bit awkward, trying to negotiate the passing of the food, knowing where to look, trying to figure out foreign table etiquette (are they really eating fries with a fork?) – but, again, it feels right.
Did I mention the beer. The lightest version of the famous Westmalle beer is served at lunch or dinner with an option to have a stronger one or two at evening snack, and is left in the fridge for me by the front-desk sister. Many Trappist beers are categorized as “Dubbel” or “Tripel” or even “Quad” – that quad is the strongest. The beer served at the table is known a single, or Pattersbier, Father’s beer – which is a light, usually blonde ale.
There is a group of well-kept men here, many of them wearing crosses from the ecumenical Taize community. A few priests. I wonder what has brought them here.
On our second day we all celebrate Sacramentstag (in English, the feast of Corpus Christi – the body of Christ), and are given a rare walk through the restricted cloisters as we process with the sacrament.
I attend the night watch (vigils) at 4 AM for the first time of many on this trip. As I will experience in all of the abbeys, Trappist prayer is a mix of beautiful chant, silences and readings, although the length of the silences seems to be what varies most. Vigils is a more substantial office than I remember from past visits to monasteries - with extended psalms and silences.
The liturgy is in Flemish at the first three monasteries that I visit, and in French at the last two which are in the south of Belgium along the border with France.
I eventually figure out how to use a combination of my own iPhone psalter and Google Translate to understand some of the liturgies - and it is certainly helpful to already know the basic rhythm of these prayer offices, some of which I pray daily back at home.
One morning at Westmalle, I take a guided walk around the edges of the Monastery, which highlights the bakery, the cheese, the cow farm and, of course, the beer. A recent article in the Guardian has noted that this particular brand of beer could be in peril, given a decline in locations to monastic life. However, I note that a good number of the dozen or so monks here - and the youngest ones, at that - are from African countries, perhaps giving new life to vocations at the monastery.
I visit the café – complete with a large playground and childrens’ menu, by the way. I have strongest, darkest Westmalle beer variety; delightfully served on tap - and head back to the guest house.
My contact here with the other guests is minimal.
The various memorable smells of liturgical incense, cow dung and beer wort permeate the air throughout my days. I prepare to check out. All of these guesthouse are between 30-50 euros a night (45-60 Canadian dollars) which includes meals (and usually 1-2 beer a day).
2) La Trappe
My next stop is Our Lady of Koningshoeven Abbey near the bustling city of Tilburg in the Netherlands, which is also the place where La Trappe beer is brewed – as well a cheese and even imported Fair Trade “La Trappe” coffee.
This is a grand 19th-century abbey building; a contrast to the more modern feel of Westmalle. Brother Jacobus is a warm and welcoming presence and speaks good English, as many Dutch do, I learn. We learn he has been a brother for 8 years and he explains the Trappist way of prayer, which is helpful; why the bowing, why the order or procession.
In some ways, the place feels Narnia-esque with giant carved wardrobes (each topped with an ornate cross!), walled winding woods, tall ceilings, unending rooms and manicured gardens.
Though there is a grand church, funded as a memorial by a Baroness whose son became a monk and later died. These days the monks pray the prayer offices in a smaller space which used to be the dining hall.
Brother Jacobus tells us that it is typical for the monks to be read to in the mealtime silence and that they are currently being read a book at mealtimes on Vladimir Putin, as they are trying to understand why he would invade Ukraine.
I read on one of the historical plaques of the Lob brothers, Jewish converts to Catholicism, monks of the Abbey who were arrested and sent to the concentration camps to eventually die at the hands of the Nazis.
Just metres from the dazzling silences and grounds of the abbey is a bustling gift shop and modern high end foodie pub, also owned by the brothers and situated along a popular cycling route.
Though, again, here, most of the meals are in silence within the bbey walls, I do meet some of my co-retreatants and we are given a final meal together as a talking meal.
After experiencing two abbeys, I’ve learned that the Dutch and French abbeys are not for those who are trying to avoid carbs. The morning and evening meal mostly consist of bread, cheese and spreads. Sometimes supplemented with a salad or vegetable. The midday meal Is the most elaborate with bread, soup and a number of warm dishes. The evening meal is back to bread, cheese and maybe a salad. Most of the meals are vegetarian. One would not thrive as a vegan or gluten-free, though I do see some of the guest houses making some concessions.
Two young men from an evangelical Church plant in Rotterdam have come to both experience the way of the monks and perhaps to hear a word from God, they tell me. Two women, biological sisters, are seeking solace and healing. A self-described “not religious” professional from Amsterdam has come seeking peace and discernment around his work is here. He and I slip out to the pub midday and he buys me a beer.
We all join together for many of the prayer offices; making the long journey through the strikingly beautiful corridors decorated with ancient icons and modern art alike.
There is a 74-year-old priest, who is exploring a call to become a Benedictine monk in South Africa and waiting for his travel papers. He’s drawn to African and Caribbean expressions of Christian faith. Over the evening beer on the last night we break silence, the young man asks him what has been hardest to surrender in his journey. He tells them that he is gay, but he finds some elements of gay culture too narcissistic for his tastes and how he walked away into a different life. I am left both deeply troubled and challenged by his story, which has elements of beauty, reactivity and pain - I think I see it all in his eyes.
As we depart invites me to give the pilgrims a blessing.
Many of the monks here are from other abbeys in Uganda, Kenya, parts of Asia. Over 20 gather each day, six times a day for prayer and daily eucharist, as is the norm in Trappist abbeys.
When the municipality called the brothers to take in Ukrainian refugees, the Abbott agreed to taking one refugee per monk; 16 in total at that time; though there are more monks here now with the inflow from around the world. There are a few refugees that are still living here.
On the last day I check out of my room, and I head over to have a guided tour of the brewery, which feels light years away from the silences within. People are buying La Trappe hoodies and bike shirts and exclusive oak barrel aged bottles of beer.
I journey several hours south - back into Belgium - to Saint Sixtus abbey located in the beautiful West Flanders countryside.
Stopping first at the café for a famous Westvleteren 12 beer - said to be the holy grail of all beers and not available commercially outside of the abbey, although it is in the news that that is about to change due to exorbant resales of this rare beer.
I delight in its rich, sweet malty flavour. Perhaps I’m just thirsty and enamored by the legend - but it’s the finest beer that I’ve ever tasted.
I arrive at the door right as “none”, the mid-afternoon prayer office is about to begin - so am shown inside the walls and taken right to the chapel.
This space is modern and sparse and darker brick.
The old abbey was condemned and thus was rebuilt in the late 1960s and early 2000s – giving this whole place a more modern feel.
After prayer, I ask the guest brother which St. Sixtus the Abbey was named after – wikipedia tells me there are several St Sixtus’ – most of them ancient popes. He explains that the name was here from a previous monastery when the current Trappists arrived when they arrived. Indeed, local legend claims that there have been sisters or brothers on this site since the ninth century.
I’m told here that the Belgian bishops most progressive in Europe, wanting women priests and blessings of same-sex unions. In the Netherlands, a more Protestant and progressive society, the hierarchy of the church is very conservative.
Here, I meet a man, probably about my age, also on retreat. I can tell by how well he knows the chants that he comes here often. He tells me that he was a Roman Catholic priest until his bishop, initially supportive of his sexuality, told him he had to choose between being a priest or not rejecting the church teaching on same gender relationships. Now a high school history teacher, he comes here to write poetry and seek council from the Abbot and brothers about his vocation.
He tells me that he and his husband-to-be sent the brothers a wedding invitation and the Abbot sent a beautiful note of support. He explained to me that they told him that they left the wedding invitation at the front of the chapel and prayed with it for weeks.
We discuss tensions in the churches, and how they affect our lives.
The prayer here is beautiful. In all the Monasteries I’ve visited so far, the way the light plays through the windows has become a thing of beauty and this is especially noticed during prayer. And so it is here. There are longer silences then the previous places here. The guest library is filled with Dutch books from familiar names from contemplative writers, mystics and liberation theologians.
There is beer, again, a rare light version not commercially available, served at lunch and dinner and then in the evening as well.
One morning, I skip mass and I do a 7 km guided walk - past a Marian memorial grotto and into the countryside. There are many reminders of both world wars along the way. There is a plaque about a British deserter who is shot by firing squad against the Monastery wall, to the horror of the brothers of the time. Friendly fire. There are many mentions of the monastery becoming both an orphanage -as well as a bunk for soldiers during the world wars.
The soldiers, the historical plaque notes, appreciated being bunked at a brewery while stationed heer.
Interlude: On The Road
And it’s not all conventional piety for me, either.
Between the guest houses, I’ve also cranked up the European radio stations who play a mix of upbeat techno music and a lot of joy-filled retro 80s music in my rented Citroen. This warms my Gen-X and recovering raver soul. At the end of my trip I’ll even indulge in a visit to “Our House” a museum of the history of electronic dance music in Amsterdam.
Scourmont Abbey, is where the most famous and most commercial of the Trappist beers is brewed - Chimay.
After the now customary beer and cheese tasting at the nearby abbey-owned Café and Museum of the brewing, I head to the guest house.
The time here at Scourmont is peaceful; though it has a bit more of a ‘hostel’ feel than the previous monasteries (staff, not a guest brother check me in for the first time).
Again, quite a number of monks from Africa. It’s lovely to see the diversity and growth of these orders.
As in the other places, exclusive beer and Trappist cheese are offered at the afternoon and evening meals.
The chapel is older but very unornate. Older photos in the museum show that this wasn’t always the case but that the monks made a decision to make it starker and simpler.
As the sun sets, I wander the graveyard of the brothers and many sisters buried there, pondering what it would mean to be buried in community.
At Orval, my final stop, I once again indulge in the customary beer and cheese tasting and then head into the abbey.
As a guest, I’m allowed to wander the 11th century ruins and sit near countess Mathilde’s spring in the evenings and mornings. The legend goes that Mathilde lost a wedding ring in the well and a trout appeared and recovered it, prompting her, as a countess, to fund the first Abbey here calling this place the valley of gold (Val D’Or). This one has a comprehensive and modern museum both of the abbey and the brewing. It’s a popular tourist attraction but free for guesthouse dwellers.
It’s beautiful to wander through both the middle-age ruins as well as the thoughtful 1930’s art deco rebuild.
Orval has a mini storied history which, for a time came to an abrupt halt when it was destroyed during the French revolution. It was in the 1920s that the Trappists returned to rebuild what had been destroyed some 150 years before.
In spite of the size of the grounds, I have been told that this community is in decline. Indeed, there are about seven monks in total that I see. Most of them are older, and all of them of European descent. I do wonder what it is which creates the distinctions in these orders who seem so close in their liturgical and life of liturgy and work but so different in their demographic makeup.
Most of the Monasteries up to Orval have had about 15 brothers or more. And most of the guest houses have had about that many people staying as well. Here at Orval, there are closer to 40 guests and far fewer brothers.
I’m guessing that the group here is a large group of non-religious meditators; mostly women in their 60s and a few men. One afternoon I’m touched to see the Abbot, who I know from their liturgy to be a fan of poetry and eastern meditation, leading them in meditation in the beautiful Zen gardens outside of my guesthouse window.
I take a walk in the woods past a beautiful chapel which has a Franciscan feel – and past ancient walls in the woods around what they call the Black Lake.
During my time there, I often sit at Mathilde’s well and the nearby giant oak tree.
There is something magical in it all.
...And Peace at the end.
All journeys come to an end.
I’m just back home – and it’s perhaps too early for me to try and summarize the learnings.
But a few brief thoughts:
There’s something in these rhythms and ways of being that’s have become embedded into my being. I hope and pray I don’t lose those.
There are ways of living both hospitality and within the protection of the cloister which speak to me.
There are questions I have about community. About simplicity. Questions about being true to your collective calling. Around boundaries and openness. Questions I didn’t have the time or courage to ask – but somehow feel engaged in just by the very lives in the abbeys.
There is something about the beauty of light, the silences and sounds - and an ethos that is both sparse and minimalist yet filled with the richest things of life: beer, cheese, bread, incense, art and architecture.
These places have been diverse and yet unified in some way that I can hardly describe.
The best of the Catholic imagination.
Contemplative and active. Work and prayer. Hospitable and guarded.
There is something about Saint Benedict’s edict from his Rule to survive by the work of one’s hands which has brought these brothers (and other women’s’ communities as well) to make cheese, roast coffee, run farms, make soap, bake bread and, of course, the beer!
Ah the beer!
There’s something in their values – the localism, the ecological emphases, the personalist connections (even when the industries get larger and staff are brought on the monks insist on knowing all their employees), the joy and pride in the work that feels like an antidote to some of the greatest forms of violence facing the world today.
There is something about the reality that this movement is growing in the global south; in parts of Asia and Africa... there is a future here.
There is something about the holistic life of prayer and work and music and art and healing.
Of medicinal plants and extended silences. Of holy wells and old trails – of the depths of the stories – even legends - that go back decades, centuries or even millennia.
What these wanderings will mean for me, it is too early to tell.
However that all lands, I know that it has been an honour to walk alongside the Trappist fathers and fellow guests. To see the abbey in the simplicity of their prayer and work. To be a witness of their radical way of life. To taste the good things that are the works of their labour. As the marking slogan of La Trappe puts it – to ‘taste the silence.’
And above all, to get to witness to a deeply integrated and intentionally lived life; faithful to God in spite of the changes that surround them through the centuries.
Perhaps that is the deepest learning.
On the last evening I sip the light beer and in the morning, I take not one, but two slices of the Trappist cheese on my bread.
Before I depart Orval, I head to St. Mathilde’s well and dip my hands in the cool clear water and once again remember my own baptism.
It is a few weeks until I turn 50. A half century.
Boarding the plane home, I somehow feel more ready to enter this next stage of life.
It’s more than a sense that elements of that stage have now been set by this pilgrimage, these holy wanderings which have deeply filled my belly and my soul.