- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

CINCINNATI Wanted: Men who don't mind getting up at 3 a.m., working with their hands, praying hourly and spending the rest of the day in silence.

The Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky., is, for the first time, offering that kind of experience to men interested in becoming a monk or deepening their spiritual life.

The program, unlike the lay retreats regularly hosted by the Trappist monastery in Nelson County, allows participants to live, eat, pray, work and sing with the abbey's monks for four days.

"We're trying, as much as we can, to give them a full taste of what it's like to live the monastic life," said Brother Gerlac, vocations director for the monastery.

The monastery, about two hours south of Cincinnati, sponsored its first live-in retreats in November and January and has scheduled three more for March, May and August. The first retreats were attended by nine men each, and several are planning to return.

"They were all very favorable in their comments afterwards," Brother Gerlac said.

The experience at Gethsemani Abbey is part of a larger program of "vocational awareness retreats" at Trappist monasteries across the country, said Natalie Smith, who books the retreats. To date, about 200 men have participated in 25 retreats.

"Not only are they getting men; they're getting serious candidates," said Miss Smith, a Third Order Trappist who lives in Coral Springs, Fla. "Seventy percent of them are seriously discerning a vocation."

She originated the concept and decided to use her marketing background to pitch the idea to Trappist monasteries in Conyers, Ga.; Huntsville, Utah; Spencer, Mass.; and Kentucky.

Ads for the retreat program have run in diocesan newspapers, on Catholic college campuses, in parish bulletins and on Catholic radio, she said. The response has been steadily growing since the first retreat was held last April.

Spending time at a monastery is a normal part of the formation process for new monks, but this is the first time the Trappists have offered that opportunity on such a widespread scale.

Miss Smith believes that handling all the retreat booking from a central location will get the monasteries to work closer together and improve the recruitment process.

"A lot of people don't realize how exciting it is to be a Trappist monk. It's not for the faint of heart," she said.

Trappist monks belong to the Cistercian Order of Catholic brothers and priests, who trace their origins to the fifth-century rule of St. Benedict.

Gethsemani Abbey, established in 1848, is the oldest Trappist monastery in the United States. The famous Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton lived there from 1941 until his death in 1968.

The Trappists are not the first to have a live-in program geared toward new vocations, said Sister Charlene Herinckx, coordinator of programs and projects for the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

"Most religious communities would want to provide several opportunities for the person to be associated with the community … to see if there's a true calling there," Sister Herinckx said.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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