I was looking forward to mass at Holy Trinity Monastery. How often do you encounter a random Benedictine monastery on the back roads of southern Arizona? With a 75-foot cross in its front yard, the monastery is hard to miss.
I pulled into a space in front of the bookstore, and two things happened: I discovered that I had missed mass because of a dated message, but I also met Brother Jim. That was fortunate, because otherwise I might have driven away in disappointment. As it was, I ended up staying for lunch (the Benedictines are all about hospitality) and learning a lot about this Olivetan congregation.
The Benedictines are an ancient monastic order founded in the early sixth century. According to the Rule (way of life) of St. Benedict, their lives are centered around prayer, work, and communal living. St. Benedict’s Rule is so clear, simple, and wise that, not only have the Benedictines been around for millenia, but other organizations, lay and religious, still consult his rule for guidance about how to get along.
Olivetan Benedictines are a separate group (“congregation”) that follows the Benedictine tradition. The first difference is obvious: they wear white habits instead of black; thus, they are known as “the white monks.” Their history is convoluted, but the Olivetans began with a couple of zealous Italians in 1319, who went up a mountain to live as hermits. Eventually, they were brought under the Benedictine banner and built a monastery on their mountain, which they named “Olivet.”
This Olivetan monastery in St. David, Arizona, is also different because it welcomes lay couples and women into its community as “oblates,” some of whom actually live in separate houses at the monastery. Some oblates are retired now, and others work in the area. All join in the life of the community, which includes work, daily mass, and chanting the Divine Hours—communal prayer at set times throughout the day.
Wander around the monastery grounds, and you encounter surprises at every turn–a bookstore and thrift shop, a pecan orchard and a bakery that features delicacies from its harvest, a bird sanctuary, ponds and gardens. The monks run a trailer park (wish I’d know about it) that brings together a community of transient helpers who call themselves the “Holy Hoboes.” The Stations of the Cross wind through the cemetery, which is peculiarly fitting for a meditation on the death of Christ. The church, Our Lady of Guadelupe, which was built of local materials by local people, is testament to the care and reverence which permeate the place.
As with many religious communities, the group is growing older, and some of the more ambitious undertakings, like raising livestock, have been scaled back. But the overall sense is of a group of lay and religious who are doing their best to live according to a higher calling and to do good in the world.
Good news flash: Next year, according to a San Antonio news source, the border at Big Bend will open once again. (See this post for background.) This may breathe new life into the tiny Mexican villages that depended on tourist traffic for survival, and it offers a delightful afternoon diversion to visitors at Big Bend. It’s heartening to witness the victory of reason in this case. Thanks, Valerie, for passing along the news.