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Maybe the Trappist Option Can Revive the Church

We are about to republish a very old book, and I thought a much abbreviated history of this effort might be of interest.

One day, a little more than three years ago I — not realizing into what a project I was about to launch myself — did a Google search on Armand Jean de Rancé, 17th-century abbot of the Cistercian abbey, La Grande Trappe, near Montagne in France. My interest in de Rancé derives from the fact that I was a novice with the Trappists at New Melleray from August 2 to Nov 13, 1965.

Merton, novice master for a time at Gethsemane, speaks of novices who get thinner and thinner and finally go home forever, and to this cohort I belonged. My recollection of the novitiate library — comprising a few shelves — was that it had quite a lot of high mystical literature, including the works of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, and what I would call the contemplative tradition of the Cistercians, but nothing of Rancé.

There was, naturally, classroom instruction in the constitutions and history of the order in that fall of 1965, especially revolving around St. Robert of Molesme, St. Alberic, St. Stephen Harding, and of course St. Bernard of Clairvaux. However, it grew on me in retrospect that there was never a word about Rancé, the de facto founder of the Trappists and, as I discovered recently, sole restorer and conservator in 17th-century France of the Cistercian charism as it unfolded at Citeaux and perdured down the years. Of course, it may have been that I was not there long enough to hear anything about him, but I am quite certain he had no presence in the novitiate library, nor in the guesthouse library, for that matter — nothing by him or about him. He seemed to be the disgraceful ancestor about whom the less said, the better.

It occurred to me that fateful day three years ago that with the internet, it would easily be possible to solve for myself finally the mystery of de Rancé. This came through my wife and me discovering Ailbe Luddy’s Life of St. Bernard, another book that should have been in the novitiate library but was not. From there we quickly discovered Luddy’s The Real de Rancé, and with that came the beginning of dawn.

Shortly I was looking for works by de Rancé in English, and, lo, on Bookfinder were two copies of The Sanctity and Duties of the Monastic State, one for $130 and another for $600. Despite having been in the order, having read quite a lot of Merton, and having repeatedly made retreats at New Melleray, this was my first awareness of the existence of any such book, a book that clearly should have been the bible of anyone attempting monastic life of any sort, especially Trappist.

Yet one would have to say that keeping it out of the hands of both monks and prospective monks was the decided policy of the order, for it was last published in English in 1830. Moreover, of all his many works in French, it was the only work to be translated into English for the benefit of his anglophone sons in the order or for the many devout Catholics who would likely have been interested in them, as were their French counterparts of the 17th century.  It seemed a species of damnatio memoriae.

Nor was I surprised when my $130 copy of The Sanctity and Duties of the Monastic State arrived with markings of Gethsemane Abbey, for I had previously acquired two Cistercian breviaries from the same abbey in the same manner. One wonders if they were tossed on the used book market in the same years that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was tearing through China, for a thoroughgoing cultural revolution was obviously intended and undoubtedly swept a great deal more of the Trappist and Cistercian lore out of that abbey than made its way into my library. All this reminds me of a conversation I had with Abbot Edward McCorkle at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia in the mid-’70s when he lamented that we, the Church, were jettisoning our patrimony. From this madness the Cistercians were clearly not exempt.

Both volumes were intact, but very beat up, likely having been the spiritual reading of many Trappist monks over the better part of 150 years, and probably of Thomas Merton, too, for that matter. In any case, my wife and I read these volumes aloud, and it was quickly apparent that we were in possession of a spiritual masterpiece, and just as apparent why it had been discarded.

Rancé had a pre-Vatican II spirituality, you could say. What Cistercian abbot, post-1970, would want his novices to encounter such a pentitential spirituality? No, it was antediluvian, Pelagian, and dangerous to the peace of the abbey. Out it went. “Cast out the slave girl and her son!” (Gen. 4:30). Sarah would have no rival, and the Spirit of Vatican II feels the same way.

What to do with this treasure? Honestly, it never occurred to me not to republish it, yet I had no idea what that would involve, nor have I yet, since there are a few hoops through which still to jump. This book has involved me in innumerable difficulties, mostly related to sourcing de Rancé’s citations, which were often incorrect or difficult to decipher. Also, for the good of the Church, I wanted to exploit its possibilities, making it more accessible to laymen, and that involved updating the language and the punctuation. The Cistercian ethos and usages are hostile to images, but since our edition is addressed to the faithful primarily and not to monks, what would be standing in the way of illustrating it? Nothing whatever, and so it has 96 images.

Such free treatment of a spiritual classic may seem cavalier, but it so happens that David N. Bell, de Rancé scholar, is working on a fresh translation of Rancé’s work and has been since 2005, so with such a scholarly translation appearing in the relatively near future, I felt all the more at liberty to do what I could to make it accessible.

So for the past three years I have been immersed in this book and have been to each of its 700 pages innumerable times, scanning, correcting the scan, re-typesetting, formatting, correcting, re-formatting, checking for errors, hunting images, editing, inserting images, designing the book, replacing images, designing the cover, etc., etc. The conveniences of modern technology notwithstanding, I am convinced that I have spent far more time in the production of this book than Rancé and his translator, Dom Vincent Ryan, combined. Actually, it is precisely the conveniences of modern technology that have made this process so lengthy.  But I am not complaining! Not at all. I am practically pickled in this book at this point, and it has done me a world of good.

Over at the blog New Liturgical Movement some time back, Peter Kwasniewski lamented what he termed spiritual illiteracy among so many Catholics. Who can argue? I think most Catholics, myself included, feel they have an inadequate knowledge of the Faith. After 19 years of Catholic schooling, I have only recently discovered some of the totally amazing facts about St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Vincent Ferrer, yet at least I knew something about them. Yet there are other great saints such as St. Colette, St. Basil, and St. John Climachus who until very recently were totally unknown to me. Thanks to de Rancé’s introduction to him, for my seventy-fourth birthday, I asked for St. John Climachus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent — a bracing book if ever there was one — so that I will not arrive in Heaven a total ignoramus about the desert fathers or their view of the spiritual life. One doesn’t want to come clodhopping into eternity a total ignoramus on Who’s Who in Heaven.

But beyond that, both de Rancé and St. John Climachus have introduced me to aspects of the spiritual life that have been completely life-changing and, incredibly, previously completely unknown — unknown for a lifetime. Have I not read Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse, Eugene Boylan, and Tanquerey? And yet…

Although I did not touch the essentials, it seemed clear that so much updating demanded a new title, but what? Enter Pope Francis. “Others are Pelagians: they want to go back to asceticism, do penance,” said he. Back to Asceticism! Thank you, Holy Father. It’s perfect!

In the foreword to Volume 2, I explain how de Rancé’s book points us in the direction of the Trappist Option, which is far more realistic and do-able than Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. So the great hope at the present moment is that shortly we will be able republish Rancé’s magnum opus, On the Sanctity and Duties of the Monastic State, under the title of Back to Asceticism: the Trappist Option. If the Church takes it to heart, it may well be an instrument through which the Immaculate Heart triumphs, for this never would have come to fruition without her. There is no doubt about it: de Rancé’s approach is demanding; radical; and, if adopted, revolutionary for both home and cloister. It could change everything.

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