What is an abbey or monastery, and why would a person join one? First of all a monastery of men is a group of monks who share life together with one binding purpose: union with God. An abbey is simply a monastery under the leadership of an abbot.
St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama is such a place. The 36 monks who make up the monastery community share life in common, and that includes prayer, work, housing, property, meals, recreation, etc. In coming together to seek God they, like all Christians, are merely responding to the love of God who, after all, loved them first (I John 4:19). The monks of St. Bernard Abbey are Benedictines, meaning they live according to the Rule of St. Benedict, written c. 530 A.D.
At St. Bernard Abbey the monks come together in the abbey church at least five times a day for worship in common. Their life of prayer and work also includes a great deal of private prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and of course a variety of labors, such as care of its more than 900 acres of property, operating a college Preparatory school, running a retreat center, and working in several parishes in the state of Alabama. The monastery owns and operates the Ave Maria Grotto, located on the grounds.
As St. Paul recommends (I Cor. 7:32-35), monks do not marry. The monk, like Christ, sacrifices the good things called marriage and personal possessions so that he may give his life totally to God.
A TYPICAL DAY
The life of a Monk of St. Bernard Abbey, begins each day while it is still dark. The community gathers in the Abbey Church to pray the first Office of the day, Matins. Throughout the night, the community has observed “Grand Silence.” This silence in broken by the first words of the office, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Immediately following Matins, the monks pray Lauds. By the time both of these Offices are completed, the sky is light and the day has begun in prayer.
There is a twenty-minute period of private prayer between the conclusion of Lauds and breakfast. Most monks use this time to do Lectio Divina, or Sacred Reading. Breakfast is eaten in silence in the Monastic Refectory. After breakfast, each member of the community begins his assigned tasks. For some, this means teaching in our school, for others it may mean working on the grounds; there are many different jobs that keep a monastery and school running.
Around noon, the monks stop their work and return to the church to pray mid-day prayer, or Sext. Next comes lunch, the only meal at which talking is allowed.
The various work of the monks continues in the afternoon. Around four o’clock, it is time to prepare for Mass. Before Mass, many monks spend time in private prayer in their cells (rooms) or in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
Mass begins at five o’clock, followed by Vespers (evening prayer). Supper is then taken in the Refectory in silence, with table reading. On feast days, there is a more festive meal and talking is allowed. After supper, there is about half an hour of recreation time. Some monks use this time to chat with their confreres, go for a walk, or just relax. The last Office of the day, Compline, is prayed at seven o’clock. After Compline, the abbot blesses each monk with holy water as he leaves the church. With this, the day ends. Many monks spend the time after Compline to read, study, or perhaps prepare for the next day.