Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Click to enlarge

Trappists, the common name by which the Cistercians who follow the reform inaugurated by the Abbot de Rance (b. 1626; d. 1700) in the Abbey of La Trappe, were known; and often now applied to the entire Order of Reformed Cistercians. Thus it cannot be said that there is an Order of Trappists; though if one were to speak of Trappist monks, he would be understood to refer to monks of the Order of Reformed Cistercians, as distinguished from the Order of Cistercians of the Common Observance (see Cistercians and La Trappe). The primitive austerities of the Cistercians had fallen into desuetude in practically the entire order principally through the introduction of commendatory abbots, political disturbances, and human inconstancy; and though many and very praiseworthy attempts at their restoration had been made in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugual, etc., yet these were but local, or at most, national in extent. That of de Rance, however, was destined by Divine Providence to be more enduring and of wider scope than any other. Although the Abbey of La Trappe flourished exceedingly, even after the death of its venerated reformer, as evidenced by more than 300 professions between the years 1714 and 1790, yet the spirit of materialism and sensualism rampant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, did not permit the rapid extension of the reform outside its walls; it did not even allow the entire severity of ancient Meaux to be introduced at La Trappe, though this reform was the most thorough and perfect of the many attempts that had then been made. Consequently it founded but a small number of monasteries; these were: Buon-Solazzo, near Florence (1705), and St. Vito at Rome (1709); Casamari, in the Papal States, was obliged to adopt the Constitutions of de Rance (1717), but for nearly a century there was no further expansion. It was from the time of these earliest foundations that they who embraced de Rance’s reform were called Trappists. Too much credit cannot be given to these noble bands of monks, who by their lives demonstrated to a corrupt world that man could have a higher ambition than the gratification of the mere natural instincts of this ephemeral life.

At the time of the Revolution, when the monastery of La Trappe, in common with all others, was ordered to be confiscated by the Government, the people of the neighborhood petitioned that an exception be made in their favor, and the Trappists themselves, encouraged by this, addressed a memorial to the National Assembly and the king considered the matter for nearly a year, but finally decided that they should be despoiled like the others. Dom Augustine de Lestrange (b. 1754; d. 1827, see ), vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Vienna, had entered La Trappe (1780) in order to escape the burden of the episcopate. He it was whom God had raised up to preserve the Trappists when so direly threatened with extinction; he resolved, therefore, to expatriate himself for the welfare of his order. Having been elected superior of those who were of the same mind, and with the permission of his higher superiors, he left La Trappe April 26, 1791, with twenty-four religious, and established a monastery at Val-Sainte Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. Here they had much to suffer besides the rigour of their rule, for their monastery (which had formerly belonged to the Carthusians) was an unroofed ruin; they were in want of the very necessities of life, not even having the meager requirements they were accustomed to.

In France the Revolution was taking its course. On June 3, 1792, the commissioners of the Government arrived at La Trappe, took the sacred vessels and vestments, as well as everything moveable, and obliged the eighty-nine religious yet remaining to abandon their abbey and find a home as best they could; some in other monasteries, and others in charitable families of the neighborhood. At Val-Sainte, whilst celebrating the feast of St. Stephen, the religious resolved to put into practice the exact and literal observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, and three days afterwards, July 19, they began the new reform; establishing the order of exercises prescribed by the holy patriarch, as well as all the primitive fasts, together with the first usages of Citeaux; even making their rule still more severe in many points. They entered upon their new mode of life with a fervor that exceeded discretion and had soon to be moderated. Even in their exile many subjects were attracted to them, so that they were enabled to send religious to found several new monasteries: one in Spain (1793), a second in England at Lulworth the same year, a third at Westmalle, Belgium (1794), and a fourth at Mont-Brae, in Piedmont (1794). On July 31, 1794, Pius VI encouraged these religious by a special Brief, and authorized the erection of Val-Sainte into an abbey and mother-house of the Congregation of Trappists. Dom Augustine was elected abbot, November 27 of this year, and given supreme authority over the abbey and congregation. This state of quiet and prosperity lasted but six years. When the French invaded Switzerland (1798) they compelled the Trappists to find a refuge elsewhere; thus they were obliged to roam from country to country, even Russia and America being visited by the indomitable abbot and some of his companions, with the hope of finding a permanent home, until after almost incredible sufferings the fall of Napoleon permitted them to return to France. The monasteries of La Trappe and Aiguebelle came into the possession of Dom Augustine, who divided the community of Val-Sainte between them. Other monasteries were reestablished from time to time, as the number of religious increased and as they were able to purchase the buildings.

From 1813 N.—D. de l’Eternite, near Darfeld, Westphalia (founded October 16, 1795, from the Abbey of Val-Sainte), which had been exempted some years previous from the authority of Dom Augustine, followed the Regulations of de Rance, which differed from those of Dom Augustine principally in the hour for dinner, and the length of time devoted to manual labor; their order of exercises was naturally followed by the houses founded by them, thus instituting a new observance and the nucleus of a congregation. In 1834 the Holy See erected all the monasteries of France into the “Congregation of the Cistercian Monks of Notre-Dame de la Trappe”. The Abbot of La Trappe was by right the vicar-general of the congregation as soon as his election was confirmed by the president-general of the Order of Citeaux. They were to hold a general chapter each year; were to follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitutions of de Rance, except for a few points, and retain the liturgical books of the Cistercian Order. Divergences of opinion on several matters concerning regular observance induced the abbots of the various monasteries to believe that this union could not be productive of that peace so much desired, and so at their solicitation the Holy See issued a new Decree, deciding that “All the monasteries of Trappists in France shall form two congregations, of which the former will be termed `The Ancient Reform of Our Lady of La Trappe‘, and the second the `New Reform of Our Lady of La Trappe‘. Each shall be a congregation of the Cistercian Monks. The Ancient Reform is to follow the Constitutions of de Rance, whilst the New Reform is not to follow the Constitutions of the Abbot de Lestrange, which it abandoned in 1834, but the Rule of St. Benedict, with the ancient Constitutions of Citeaux, as approved by the Holy See, excepting the prescriptions contained in this Decree. The Moderator General of the Cistercian Order shall be at the head of both congregations, and will confirm the election of all abbots. In France each congregation shall have its vicar-general, with full authority for its administration” (Apostolic Decree, February 25, 1847).

After this the congregations began to flourish. The Ancient Reform made fourteen foundations, some of them in China and Natal; the New Reform was even more fruitful, establishing twenty monasteries as far as the United States, Canada, Syria, etc. The Belgian congregation of Westmalle also prospered, forming five new filiations. As the combined strength of the three congregations thus became greater than the old Cistercian Order, the earnest desire soon developed amongst all to establish a permanent bond of union between them, with one head and a uniform observance; this was effected in 1892. Dom Sebastian Wyart (b. 1839; d. 1904), Abbot of Sept-Fons and Vicar-General of the Ancient Reform, was elected first abbot-general. After twelve years of zealous labor, the most worthy monument of which was the purchase of the cradle of the order, Citeaux, and making it again the mother-house, he passed to his reward, and was succeeded as abbot-general by Msgr. Augustin Marre, then Abbot of Igny (a monastery which he had governed since 1881), titular Bishop of Constance and auxiliary to Cardinal Langenieux of Reims; he is still ruling the order (1911), with the greatest zeal and prudence.

The name under which the order was reorganized is “Order of Reformed Cistercians” and while its members no longer bear the name of “Trappists”, yet they are heirs to the old traditions, and even the name will continue to be connected with them in the popular mind. The present Constitutions (approved August 13, 1894) under which the order is governed and upon which all the usages and regulations are based, is derived from the Rule of St. Benedict, the “Charta Charitatis” and ancient usages and definitions of the general chapters of Citeaux, and the Apostolic Letters and Constitutions. It is divided into three parts. The first part regards the government of the order; the supreme power residing in the general chapter, which is composed of all the abbots (actually in office), titular priors and superiors of houses, and meets each year under the presidency of the abbot-general, who is elected by themselves for life. During the time the general chapter is not in session the order is directed, in urgent cases, by the abbot-general with the assistance of a council composed of five definitors, also elected by the general chapter, but for a term of five years. The abbot-general is titular Abbot of Citeaux, and must reside at Rome. The order is not divided into provinces, nor is there an officer similar to a provincial. Each monastery is autonomous and maintains its own novitiate; its abbot or titular prior appointing all local subordinate superiors, and having full administration in both spiritual and temporal affairs. Nevertheless each monastery has the duty of visiting all the houses it has founded, either once each year, or once every two years, according to distance, and then rendering a report of its material and spiritual well-being to the next subsequent general-chapter. The abbot of such a monastery is called the father-immediate, and the houses thus subject are termed “daughter-houses” or filiations. It is especially prescribed that all houses be dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

The second part is concerned with monastic observances; which must be uniform in all the monasteries of the order. The Divine Office must be sung or recited in choir according to the directions of the Breviary, Missal, Ritual, and Martyrology, no matter how few may be the number of religious in a particular house; the canonical Office is always preceded (except at Compline, when it is followed) by the Office of the Blessed Virgin; and on all ferial days through-out the year Vespers and Lauds are followed by the Office of the Dead. Mass, and the day Offices are always sung with the Gregorian Chant; Matins and Lauds also are sung on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. Mental prayer, one half-hour in the morning, and fifteen minutes in the evening, is of obligation, but of counsel much more frequently. Confession must be made once each week, and daily Holy Communion is strongly commended. Out of the time of Divine Office, before which nothing is to be preferred, and when not engaged in manual labor, the monks devote themselves to prayer, study, or pious reading, for there is never any time granted for recreation; these exercises always take place in common, never in private rooms. The hour for rising is at 2 A.M. on weekdays, 1:30 on Sundays, and 1 on the more solemn feasts; whilst the hour for retiring is at 7 P.M. in winter, and 8 in summer; in this latter season there is a siesta given after dinner, so that the religious have seven hours’ sleep in the course of the day; about seven hours also are devoted to the Divine Office and Mass, one hour to meals, four hours to study and private prayers and five hours to manual labor; in winter there are only about four hours devoted to manual labor, the extra hour thus deducted being given to study.

The monks are obliged to live by the labor of their hands, so the task appointed for manual labor is seriously undertaken, and is of such a nature as to render them self-supporting; such as cultivation of the land, cattle-raising, etc. Dinner is partaken of at 11 A.M. in summer, at 11:30 in winter, and at 12 on fast days, with supper or collation in the evening. Food consists of bread, vegetables, and fruits; milk and cheese may also be given except in Advent, Lent, and all Fridays out of Paschal time. Flesh-meat, fish, and eggs are forbidden at all times, except to the sick. All sleep in a common dormitory, the beds being divided from each other only by a partition and curtain; the bed to consist of mattress and pillow stuffed with straw, and sufficient covering. The monks are obliged to sleep in their regular clothing; which consists of ordinary underwear, a habit of white, and a scapular of black wool, with a leathern cincture; the cowl, of the same material as the habit, is worn over all. Enclosure, according to canon law, is perpetual in all houses. It is never allowed for the religious to speak amongst themselves, though the one in charge of a work or employment may give necessary directions; and all have the right of conversing with the superiors at any time, except during the night hours, called the “great silence”.

Studies.—Before ordination to the priesthood (and all choir religious are destined for that) the monk must pass a satisfactory examination before the abbot, in the curriculum prescribed by the order and the Decrees of the Holy See; and afterwards all are obliged to participate in conferences on theology and Sacred Scriptures at least once each month. Students preparing for ordination are granted extra time, during the hours of work, for the prosecution of their studies.

The third part deals with the reception of subjects. The greatest care is insisted on to see that the postulants are of good character, honest birth, and without encumbrances of any kind; also that they have pursued the course of studies prescribed by the Holy See; they must have attained at least their fifteenth year. The novitiate is of two years’ duration, during which time the novice is formed to the religious life, but he can leave, or the superior may send him away, if he is unable or unwilling to conform to the spirit of his vocation. The time of probation completed, the subject is voted for, and if accepted, makes simple, but perpetual vows; these are followed by solemn vows at the end of three, or in special cases, five years. Besides choir religious there are lay brothers. These must be at least seventeen years of age when received; they are then postulants for two years, novices for two more, after which they may be admitted to simple, though perpetual, vows, then after six years more they may make solemn vows. They do not recite the Divine Office, but have special prayers appointed to be said at the same hours throughout the day. They are not obliged to follow special studies, but are engaged in manual labor for a somewhat longer time than the choir religious; their habit is nearly the same as that of those in the choir, but brown in color. They are religious in the full sense of the word, and participate in all the graces and privileges of the order, except that they have neither active nor passive voice in the management of the affairs of the order.

It may be well to here deny a few customs that have been attributed, by ignorance, to the order. The monks do not salute one another by the “memento mori”, nor do they dig a part of their grave each day; in meeting each other they salute by an inclination of the head, and graves are dug only after a brother is ready to be placed in it. (For statistics see Cistercians.)


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!