Harbor of Silence

A glimpse of one of the strangest communities in Canada—Oka, a refuge where friars make cheese and no man speaks to his neighbor

SIDNEY M. KATZ February 1 1938

Harbor of Silence

A glimpse of one of the strangest communities in Canada—Oka, a refuge where friars make cheese and no man speaks to his neighbor

SIDNEY M. KATZ February 1 1938

Harbor of Silence

A glimpse of one of the strangest communities in Canada-Oka, a refuge where friars make cheese and no man speaks to his neighbor



IT WAS evening. The old cab rumbled over the last mile of the hilly Quebec road, passed through an aisle of tall, stately Lombardy poplars, and came to an abrupt halt in front of the black iron gates of the

Trappist monastery at Oka.

To the minds of most people, the name Oka suggests a famous cheese. But the days and nights that I was to spend there, taught me that Oka stands for much more than a famous cheese; it stands for a philosophy of life and a way of living utterly foreign to the normal Canadian scene.

Even as I entered the monastic grounds, I sensed that I was passing from one world to another—into a world where dwelt strange men with strange ways. A self-contained little world less than fifty miles from the largest city in Canada, which is without newspapers, radios, motion pictures, or any other mundane diversions; where men live their lives without talking. A harbor of silence, where the days are filled with solitude and prayer.

I walked toward the lighted room on the ground floor of a grey stone building. No sooner had I entered than a brownrobed monk appeared. When he saw that I was an outsider, he nodded, and left to summon the guest master.

Father Bernard was a saintly figure, clad in white and black. I followed him to his little office. His duties make it impossible for him to adhere to his vow of silence, so he has been released from it by the abbot. Talking softly and slowly, he asked me numerous questions. I explained that I had come to spend a few days at the monastery; whereupon he carefully recorded my name and the exact hour of my arrival in a large book, and showed me to my room in the section of the building reserved for visitors. It was simply but comfortably furnished. The guest master bade me good-night, and left me alone.

A few minutes later, while out in the corridor in search of a washroom, a fellow visitor, a white-garbed, middleaged priest, approached me. “I overheard that you came here to study the life,” he whispered. “Keep your eyes open. You are about to see something beautiful. This place is heaven on earth.” It was with these words running through my mind that I went to bed.

Silent Devotion

THE strangeness of the surroundings played havoc with my sleep. I tossed for several hours, but could not doze off. Suddenly the quietness of the night was shattered by the pealing of bells. My watch showed that it was shortly after two o’clock, and from the noise of shuffling feet that came through my open door, I gathered that the day was beginning for the Trappist fathers.

Soon the cloister at the end of the hall was alive with prayer. The low, steady recital of the matins and lauds produced a weird effect in the dark setting of those early hours. In perfect unison, the monks sang out their fourteenhundred-year-old chant. Every word, every intonation, every breath—together. It seemed that only one voice, not many, was invoking the Deity. The chanting reverberated from the dim heights of the chapel, and charged the proceedings with a mystic atmosphere. A half hour of breathless silence followed, during which the worshippers indulged in silent prayer. Then the chanting continued, hour after hour, while outside-, night turned into day.

At length, at seven o’clock, came breakfast. Noiselessly the monks trooped into a long room and seated themselves at wooden tables, at the head of which sat the abbot. During the meal only the breaking of bread and the clatter of dishes were audible. Pointed fingers took the place of the usual, “Will you please pass me?” The bells brought the breakfast to an end, and the religious returned to the chapel for High Mass. By eight o’clock, theTrappists were ready to go out into the fields to work.

I have watched them on their way out to the orchards, or to the poultry farm, or to the apiary, their lips moving in prayer as they walked. They work diligently and tirelessly at their appointed tasks, which may be anything from weeding the melon patch to driving a team of horses. Silence pervades all. If two brethren find it necessary to communicate with one another, they will motion with their fingers, and by some sort of sign language they will make themselves understood.

The midday meal at eleven, and the evening meal at five

forty-five, are preceded and followed by prayer. During the afternoon, the members of the community are engaged in their different manual pursuits.

Night comes. Only a flickering candle lights up the long, lofty chapel. The “Salve Regina” is sung by barely visible figures. To the chimes of the steeple bell, the cenobites leave the chapel and go to the dormitory, which they all share in common. Once in his alcove, the Trappist’s undressing consists merely of removing his shoes, for he sleeps fully clothed. His cot is made of flat wooden planks, and he is protected from its hardness only by a thin quilted straw mattress.

It is eight o’clock, and he lays his weary body down to rest until two hours past midnight, when the matin bells shall once more beckon him to another day of prayer and work.

Why Men Recome Monks

WHO are these monks, and where did they come from? And why have they turned their backs to the comforts and pleasures of ordinary life, to lead a monastic existence of silence, seclusion and privation?

In a province where there is such widespread religious fervor, we can expect to find a number of ascetics—men whose faith in the supernatural has eclipsed their interest in worldly things. It is chiefly from the ranks of these zealots, that the Cistercian community, as the Trappists are called, enlist their recruits.

These zealots are nearly always youthful; boys in their middle teens. During the second day of my stay at Oka a prospective entrant arrived, and was lodged in the visitors’ quarters until the abbot was prepared to interview him. I have never seen anyone, at so early an age, so sombre and serious. All his free time— and he had a great deal of it during those few days—was spent apart from the rest of the

visitors, walking to and fro along a narrow avenue of imposing poplars, mumbling prayers from a" book which he held close to his face. His background was typical. He was a distinctly rural type, he had no worldly interests, he came from an extremely religious home, and he chose to pass his entire life in the monastery.

And then there is another type of individual who enters

the monastery—-he who seeks to shut the door on reality. To him, the monastery is a sanctuary from the outside world. Failure, repeated reversal, sudden disaster, very often leave a painful impress on one’s memory that time fails to erase. It becomes an impossible strain to continue along the accustomed way of life. There must be a complete

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break with the past, and all the things associated with it that recall unendurable memories.

Such a case was Brother Leon’s. He was formerly a successful banker. At the height of his career, his beloved wife passed away. The shock was too much for him, so he gave up everything he had and turned to a monastic existence for consolation. A few years ago, when it was necessary to arrange a financial plan to subsidize new buildings, Brother Leon applied himself to the task, making good use of his former banking experience, and saved La Trappe d’Oka several thousand dollars.

Such, too, was the case of another monk, old and grey, whose name I could not learn. In the midst of an active career, the doctors told him that he had contracted a pulmonary disease and could expect to live only a few more years. Always a religious man, he sought comfort for his dying years in the monastery. Evidently the simple life and fresh air agreed with him. for the two years that the doctors allowed him have already stretched out to more than forty!

An Arduous Life

WHAT manner of life is it that satisfies the recluse who is content to spend his days apart from society? And what is the philosophy underlying it?

Two brief explanations will suffice. First, he leads a life of penance, by doing things which are naturally burdensome and unpleasant to human nature. Secondly, he regards his existence on this earth as entirely unimportant, and he lives only for the incalculable reward when “life’s pain shall cease.”

To make his life “burdensome and unpleasant” the monk takes four principal vows -silence, poverty, obedience, and celibacy.

Perpetual silence is the rule in the monastery, except when the monks raise their voices in prayer. Permitted to talk himself at all times, the abbot can grant this privilege to others in special cases. For instance, the guest master must converse with visitors; the monks that teach at the agricultural school affiliated with the monastery, must lecture their students. But even in these instances, no excess talking is indulged in. Foolishness, levity, or pointlessness are not allowed to creep into the conversation of the recluse.

Abstinence from speech over long periods has left unmistakable traces. I have exchanged words with Trappists who talk very softly, falteringly, and with a singsong suggestive of the oft-repeated Gregorian chant.

Various reasons are given for the maintenance of silence. In stillness, the members of the community can devote more time to reflection. They can also perform their work more capably; for the aphorism

“the more talk, the less work,” is taken as a guiding truth.

Besides the reasons stated above, centuries of monastic experience have revealed that silence makes for greater peace among the monks. Long continued association may result in friction, and in a community of individuals who differ in intellect and temperament, living in such close contact might easily result in discontentment and disunion.

By the vow of poverty, the entrant to the monastery renounces all material things. Once a member of the community, all monks are equal, regardless of their previous station in society. When they refer to “rich” or “richer,” it is in terms of spiritual achievement. They possess nothing except the clothes on their backs. Thus, with all ambition to acquire property gone, the human trait of avarice cannot gain a foothold in the monastery.

All monks are pledged to obey the abbot. The word of the slender, distinguished Dorn Pacome Gaboury is final on all matters. It is he who conducts the business of the abbey, and for that purpose, he alone is permitted to leave the grounds. And by allowing one superior to concern himself with all the temporal cares of the community, the remaining brethren are able to contemplate spiritual matters with carefree minds.

The life of the Trappist is an arduous one. His sleep is limited to six hours, and he exists on a strictly vegetable diet. During seven months of every year, he is actually allowed only one meal a day—the noonday repast. Breakfast consists of bread and water, while the evening meal is also very meagre. Yet the monks appear to be healthy and robust, and one is impressed by their manly physique and the straightness of their stature.

Manual labor forms a major part of the day’s activities. Eight hours a day—equal to the length of time spent in prayer—are devoted to work. Everything is done by the monks themselves. Certain monks specialize in different branches of agriculture; others serve as cooks, blacksmiths, mechanics, tailors, carpenters and bookkeepers. In agriculture, they have been remarkably successful. Their cheese, Oka cheese, has earned an international reputation.

Oka Cheese is Famous

THE Oka Trappists are ranked among the most progressive farmers in Canada. On more than one occasion Government officials have made visits to study the methods employed by the friars to obtain such healthy crops on their few thousand acres.

As I walked through the gardens and orchards with Father Bernard, everywhere could I see evidence of their diligence and ingenuity. Practically all the land under cultivation is artificially watered from the artesian well near the abbey gates.

I passed a dozen varieties of vegetables and fruits. The melon patch seemed to be particularly thriving, and I was told that by a process of selection over many years, a new variety of melon was developed. The monk in charge devoted all his time and interest to melon culture.

Over at the poultry farm, the same story was true. Hundreds of white plump hens, named by the monks “Chanteder,” were the results of special breeding at Oka. Or in the orchards, where thousands of apple trees heap abundant reward on those who carefully tend them all year round.

Horses, cattle, pigs—the Trappists breed all these types of livestock with conspicuous success. At no time do they become unmindful of the Supreme Power above. For instance, if you go down to the little valley where the apiaries are situated, you will find a well-worn path up the side

of the overlooking hill, which leads to a shrine named “Notre Dame des Abeilles" (Our Lady of the Bees). To this place come the pious beekeeper and his assistants to seek divine aid in their undertaking.

I asked Father Bernard if he would take me to see the cheese factory. He replied : “They will not let us near the place. Everything there is carried out in secrecy, and no outsiders are ever permitted to enter.”

There are only two living people who know the formula of Oka cheese. Brother James is one, the abbot is the other. When Brother James departs from this earth, the ancient recipe, which was brought over from France, will be passed on to the monk who is at present his assistant.

A group of twenty-five or thirty are always engaged in cheese making, but each worker only knows his part of the process. When any special preparation has to be concocted, Brother James retires to the privacy of his little room to do his work. Most of the cheese goes directly fro'm the monastery to distributors in Montreal, who sell it far and wide.

Not long ago. one of the largest American cheese manufacturers sent a representative to Oka to propose a partnership in the large-scale production of this popular cheese. But the abbot refused the offer, and the little band of monks still guard a precious secret.

Trappist Agricultural School

CENTURIES of tradition lie behind the Order of Cistercians. It was away back in 1098 A.D., that Saint Robert, the abbot of a French monastery, accompanied by a few monks, left their erstwhile home, determined to establish an abbey along more orthodox lines. Their little colony at Dijon, in France, flourished and became the first monastery of the Trappist Order, as the Cistercians later became known.

Today, there are between sixty and seventy Trappist monasteries in the world, more than half of them being distributed among the various European countries. Of the remainder, four are in the United States, five in Canada, and one each in Syria, Palestine, Algiers, Congo, Natal, Brazil, China and Japan.

The monastery at Oka, “La Trappe d’Oka,” is regarded as the most thriving in the entire Order. Over a half century ago, it was founded by a quartet of monks from France. At present, the community numbers over 160, and, under the administration of Dorn Pacome Gaboury, a brilliant executive mind with a flair for architecture, expansion has been rapid along all lines.

The Province of Quebec, recognizing the skill of the Trappists as early as 1907, aided them in the establishment of an agricultural school, which has grown so quickly that it now accommodates over 300 students. It is taught partly by the monks and partly by laymen. Affiliated with the University of Montreal, the school maintains laboratories for plant disease, entomology, to tan y, soils, physics, chemistry, bacteriology, and agronomy. Recently, a Faculty of Veterinary was added.

Nestled at the foot of the mountain lies the monastery cemetery. Even in death the Trappist is not permitted any undue luxury. Rows of plain crosses, bearing only a name and date, mark the last resting place of the deceased. His tody is placed in the earth, dressed in its everyday garb. Caskets are never used.

Thus ends their simple, lonely life.