The Village of Voiceless Men

Something About the Strangest Industry in Canad

Robson Black March 1 1917

The Village of Voiceless Men

Something About the Strangest Industry in Canad

Robson Black March 1 1917

The Village of Voiceless Men

Something About the Strangest Industry in Canad

Robson Black

KI I TOR’S the arrompan i/ing article u as written, fire has risit ríl the-La Trappe Monastery and destroyed part of the old building u here the Fathers heed. The work of the institution is going on as hefori. hnu ever, and the tire has created hut small change in the daily routine of the men of silence.

COME with me to the uncommonest habitation within the bounds of Canada, the Village of Voiceless Men. There is that other marvellous product of faith, the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre, but the Monastery at La Trappe has for most of us a significance a good deal cheerier, a good deal less ethereal, taken in its everyday dress. The pilgrim town beyond Quebec with its dolorous prayer-making, its terrible concourse of crippled bodies and crying souls is never cheery. It may be majestic, but there cannot be a sadder acre this side of Death and Judgment.

Then, too, the Monastery represents to magazine readers a new phase of religious experience in Canada, an alliance of shrewd business management with selfconsecration. La Trappe, indeed, may be unique in the history of monasteries in that it earns its own living without large endowment or special tax on parishes. The many years of what may be called its administrative and commercial success have not faded the original religious purpose of its founders. A glimpse into the life of La Trappe, such as these lines desire to give, misses the real heart of the institution if it fails to recognize the religious passion which plays incessantly on the lives of its hundred and twenty members.

Into this strange eddy of Canadian life I made my way—a ferry-ride from Como, a waggon-drive through an exquisite land of white-walled homesteads, past thicklyladen orchards confessing already the contagion of the monks’ example in horticulture, and here we swing toward the glistening river between Lombardy poplars and budding plum trees until a newbrick college building comes to sight. This building is the first evidence we have of the handshake between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries, between the religion of personal piety and the idea of public service. The college building has already drawn to itself scores of young FrenchCanadians, there to be instructed in practical agriculture. The expansion of functions, however, does not seem to affect the asceticism which gave the order its birth. Whatever the pressure from outside, there can be no complete modernizing of La Trappe. It is a large estate, 2,000 acres, and however many farm lads troop alongto the new institution, the monastery proper is many yards separate from the clas3 rooms and shrouds itself jealously behind heavy forest and drooping acres of orchard. A few monks must go out daily to demonstrate and to teach, but the greater part continue their routine of self-abnegation and Christ-worship, seemingly unaffected by the influx of unascetic students.

TO THE great talkative, talked-at world that swings by the gates at La Trappe, the rigors of the Trappist vow surpass toleration in one gravely picturesque respect; the members of the order are not permitted to speak. The oath of perpetual dumbness applies to boy ar.d patriarch, whoever, indeed, invites the mantle of the Order. Only a few members whose contact with the public, in schools, commercial transactions, etc., makes the voice necessary, are permitted to enjoy speech. For the others, one sentence alone: “Remember, Brother, the time cometh when all of us must die.”

And with that admonition of the nearness of eternity, the Trappist satisfies himself.

One must believe it, to see the Trappists about their business, that the privilege of speaking is not, after all, an solute requisite to usefulness, or hap ness, or health. The monks form a atr ingly healthy company. Men of sever and seventy-five may be seen climbing hill at midday with such agility awakens a visitor’s amazement. As 1 the younger men, they fill in a brimrai programme from 2 a.m. to 8 p.m. w. hard physical labor, and prayer, and on unfeathered beds without sign of d content or exhaustion. As we shall from the incessant activities at Trappe, one may well believe that disciples of silence have precious lit time to talk even should the Father A bot restore them to their luxuries.

TT HE “business side” of La Trappe phrase Which, I fear, the good abl would not countenance. Yet the has its business side. Two thousand bí reis of apples have been taken in a sinj season from the orchards and sold to highest advantage in Montreal for hoi consumption and export. A chee» fi tory in which experts spend their da without a dollar's pay transforms tons of milk into a cheese that flicks appetite of fancy hotels all over Thousands of pounds of honey go to ket in the fall months fetching prices make an ordinary apiarist groan. T Monastery has its own bookkeepers, own system of cost accounting. Billa rendered promptly and paid prompt On this great farm of two thousand aci where only the occasional auxilia laborer is paid wages it is not difficult see that the average net income runs ir a very large total. Much of this mor goes into improvements, new buildini more up-to-date machinery, the develt ment of the agricultural colleges. Tax of course, do not afflict this or any oti religious institution, but it will be boi in mind that the developments at Trappe have^nferred inestimable co pensations oil the county and proveí through serving as a demonstration fai Who compri this strange compan What secret accompanies the tireless successful recruiting of the ranks? French is the official language of place, so one soon realizes the unmi able French-Canadian characteristic face and manner. Quebec supplies of the members, and there are a few gians. They come becau» of the su religious impulse that leads a woman nun’s veil or a hermit to forsake house for a cave. Here is Brother About twenty-four years old, I would In a family of four sons he was en marked for Holy Orders. It is the prs of many Quebec Catholic families i one son or daughter at least may wear mantle of religious service. Brot “X” found his education and inclina; synonymous. From college he passet an office with the Trappists, which responds roughly to that of an acolyti junior. Upon such youths, no doubt* compulsion of silence must fall sever But, generation after generation, the\ measure Tip to these standards of cipline, and, the apprenticeship of the young French-Canadian successfully terminated. “X” became a Brother. With the consent of the Father Abbot, this may be a stepping stone in after years to the “Upper House” of Fathers. The division is one largely o f spiritual a d -vancement. for many of the Fathers are younger in years than some Brothers.

AÆORE striking, however, than the young recruit who evolves into the Order by family encouragement and careful coaching is. the considerable group who become Trappists near middle life. The personal records of the monastery are obviously matters of leaden secrecy. When a man assumes the robe, his previous identity as a citizen ceases. This is not an imaginary dividing line; it becomes through mental and spiritual concentration as real as if the first thirty or forty years of life in the world were just an unhappy fancy. The old name is taken away. No longer are there Misters or Doctors or Barristers. One is called André or Albert and accepts instructions with the docility of a trooper and the enthusiasm of a disciple. Here are men who at middle life have sickened of the world and what they have known of its aimless strivings and paltry successes. They hun* ger for a life of meditation and spiritual reconstruction. The passion becomes overpowering, all-absorbing. To many such, the gates of La Trappe have opened wide. Whatever their previous social class, they are received on one democratic footing. Each must subscribe to all the long and searching formulae of initiation. At the conclusion, the members of the Order with their Father Abbot accept the new brother, invest his shoulders with the dour brown garments, and from that moment the last link with his previous civil existence is looked upon as broken. I believe there is not an instance on record of rebellion, or recanting of vows.

I have watched the voiceless band to whom the wondrous renunciation of speech must fasten all the days of their lives, working at earliest dawn and latest dusk. Here is an old man in the fields, his heavy robes the color of walnut, following the endless rows of corn hour after hour. His shaven crown is bare to the sun and sweat rises from his forehead and cheeks. His hands are large, as becomes a tiller, and the bending back seldom straightens for a rest What thoughts pass through his brain? What backward looks, what sudden sharp checking of vagrant fancies inhabit that greyed head?

Who shall say? And who shall not surmise? We do know for sure he is a dynamo of industry, that he seeks and finds no earthly reward, that his life is harshly masculine, wholly uncommunicative. and stripped, as we outsiders view it, of every tethering pin but work.

F LA TRAPPE is built upon the idea of religious reclusiveness its chief corner stone is diligence. Where laziness could find a hiding place within those walla, I cannot guess. The astonishing results from poultry yard and stables and orchards are one continuous testimony to the power of human patience and energy in wringing profits from thirdrate land. It is not so much intensive farming as intelligent farming. If a piece of pasture will not pay for itself, what reason? Well, the Holstein and Jersey cattle will not flourish on the particular vegetation. Then away with the Holsteins and Jerseys and bring along the common French-Canadian milker. That is an instance of what the Trappists did. Strongly forsworn to pure-bred stock as they are, the pasture land on their domain gave back more money from un pedigreed “reds,” and the high-brow connoisseurs were sold. “Is our present way the best way?” rises like a sign board in every department of their labor. If you saw the farming structure built across those two thousand acres to-day, you might envy the Order their original inheritance. Actually, it was about the poorest stretch of land in Quebec, stony, gravelly soil for the greater part, better adapted to bush than to field crops. But the stones built them their towering monastery; the trees pass through their sawmill and are employed as lumber.' In such a neighborhood, stock raising and dairying flourish best, so the Order pinned its chariot to three l. ..ndred cows, and wonderful barns were built to house them, with mechanical milkers. When you see the name of Oka cheese, you will recognize it as the workmanship of the monks of La Trappe. As much as 20,000 pounds of milk go into a day’s production. One hundred horses and hundreds of pigs, a hundred hives of bees and myriads flocks of poultry, tended, fed, according to searching modern standards, many of which standards, by the way, have their origin with the devoted monks, occupy the attention of the bands of Brothers who in the course of time have become specialists. F a t h e r Leopold, for instance, has gained a wide reputation as a horticulturist and is a welcome guest at many conventions of fruit growers where his tested knowledge and perfect command of languages are of value. I have walkte d through the apple orchards with Father Leopold where magnificent acres of laden trees stretch beyond sight of the eye and have listened to his sparkling comments as one tree after another brought fresh points to his mind.

Here under a canvas canopy rattled and roared a mechanical apple-sorter, the second of its kind in Canada, which automatically receives the apples in a hopper and separates them according to sizes and values. Beside* the machine stood two boyish-looking brothers and some hired laborers packing the beauties into paper-lined boxes for shipment overseas. A few words to them, a cheery instruction, and he was again striding with vibrant step across the browned grass to where lay a pile of culls beneath a glorious roof of reddening Spies. It was a joy to hear his exclamations as, plucking a handy apple, he surveyed its flawless coat with the sense of a master. Before we finished with that orchard I verily believed that Father Leopold could have taken a contract to produce heliotrope apples with pink sashes had I but expressed such a wish.

Five hundred dollars was paid for a solitary cockerel a while ago as an aid to improving the laying strain. That payment was but a picturesque emphasis of the policy of the institution as a whole.

T N THESE varied occupations of a * mixed farm, almost the entire personnel of the Order finds employment. You may see the oddly-dre9sed figures passing and repassing about the fields and yards, the brothers in solid brown, the fathers relieved with white. It is a cumbersome-looking uniform, the heavy loose robe reaching to the feet and caught up by cords at the sides, the wooden-soled unlaced shoes, the bared head above the woolen cowl. These robes are worn day and night, at work and in chapel, and fresh supplies are distributed once a week. With slight variation it serves for winter and summer alike.

Coarse clothes, exhausting labor, without a penny of remuneration, a pledge to life-long silence—and yet I have yet to see a miserable looking Trappist. Work has given him physical health, he knows nothing of nervous waste; constant prayer and obedience render him immune to the petty worries that harass worldlings. Earth seems good, and serves well its main function as an ante-room to Paradise.

Whatever the exact philosophy of the Trappist, he does not oppress his fellows with groans and grumblings. He js modest and kind, and if he is one of those permitted to speak to visitors, his conversation will not likely stray beyond the daily programme of the Monastery, its breeds of cattle, and prospects of the honey crop. Not that he is personally immersed in these things, but h e knows that most visitors are. Your ear will hear nothing o f w a r s, of battle cruisers, and violated treaties more than would b e current o r. the street» of Heaven.

Meal time comes. The brothers and white fathers file solemnly into the long refectory where on one long board table are laid the few essentials of a meal. The men are provided with a stool, a woodfen fork and spoon and bowl. The menu is austerely frugal—vegetables and bread and milk and butter. In summer, two meals are permitted, in winter but one, with a “snack” of something before going to bed. On this restricted and mostly vegetarian diet, are developed many of the best physical specimens in Canada. When the men are seated, a brother takes his place at a reading desk and until the finish of the meal his voice alone may be heard asserting phrases of prayer and exhortation.

Night is here and from the fields come in the heavy-mantled workmen, with hoe and rake aeros» their shoulders. The milk is pumped in ton» to the cheese vats, the horses are fed. the poultry gathered to their gable-roofed shelters. One day's w’ork has been added to the great impersonal record of the Monastery.

A bell tinkles at a very great distance and its echo runs through the long, plastered halls. It is the signal for chapel service. We follow the guest-master up flight after flight of »tep9 and through a narrow door to a gallery. Before our eyes opens a bewildering picture. The glow of evening penetrates the window panes in shafts of changing light. Flickering candles burn their way to brighter and brighter yellow as the chain of white robes swings up the aisle and separates. link by link, into the boxe» or »tails that line the walls. The fathers commence to read the psalms of the day. The right wall responds to the left with a deeply masculine intonation.

A door swings back and, with a great clattering of wooden shoes, in come the brown brothers. They range themselves before the fathers and take up the first of many Gregorian chants. Then they sing a hymn and the service closes. Now brings out the first stroke of the Angelas; every head is bowed, every tongue repeats a prayer.

The Trappist’s »leep is probably a dreamless one, as befit» his outdoor life, but even in his sleeping the rigor of his sacrifice is not relaxed. His bed i» a hard» thin mattress thrust into a doorless cubicle. Even when that day comes when, as portended in hi» frequent saying, “all of us must die,” his comrades lower his body into the deep earth,rlad only in the simple working clothe», with not so much as the box casket accorded a village pauper.