Closer to the Spirit

Through a life of prayer and confession, the monks at this abbey have seen the stereotypes around masculinity fall away as the years have passed. “Everything does get slow, even the singing slows down. But if you give yourself to it, you realize there’s no rush at all.”

By Edward Burnette

Photos by Ben Bilotti

On NE Abbey Road outside the small town of Lafayette in the western Willamette Valley, a wooden sign is the lone indication there is something beyond the acres of oak and Douglas fir trees. Trappist monks founded Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey as a silent order after their move to Oregon from New Mexico in 1955.

Father Richard Layton, 73, is the junior director and business manager at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Carlton, Oregon. He strolls the corridors of his permanent home with a brisk pace and peaceful confidence belying his small stature, and his bespectacled face gives no indication of the 49 years he has spent there.

Speech is now allowed among the 29 monks in the abbey, but used only as necessary and in hushed tones. “It’s hard to keep up a persona here. You just accept each other. It’s a form of intimacy that’s silent and not a big production,” said Father Richard.

Father Richard said living at the monastery challenges the traditional male identity. “The masculinity here softens. The older men mellow, and that bravado and cockiness is kind of gone.” The decades spent withdrawn from society also alter the monks’ relationships with themselves. “I’m more at peace with myself. You get to a point where you’re content with your own company,” said Father Richard. He compares life in the monastery to a marriage. “Gradually over these 49 years, we’ve been able to talk about anything and especially community issues.”

Father Richard has spent 49 years at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. The experience of the monastic setting is jarring in that a counter-cultural atmosphere dominates. The quiet, the scarcity of noises that surround and inhibit all parts of societal life – car horns, phones ringing, people yelling, etc. – create a place for values and qualities to arise in an altogether new fashion. The promotion of values such as consideration, contemplation, passivity and gentleness are seemingly at odds with the current state of relationships and power dynamics in modern life.

Father Richard

 

 

 

For Father Richard, the journey to the monastery was far from linear. He first planned to join the seminary following grade school, but at his mother’s urging stayed in school. After high school, his plans were again derailed when he received a scholarship from Seattle University, where he completed his degree in just three years. Having finally entered the seminary in 1966 following graduation, Father Richard said he came to realize it wasn’t for him and left shortly before being ordained. However, he didn’t go straight to the abbey. At the request of the Abbot, the voted leader of the monastery, he attended University of California-Berkeley and received a Master’s in Theology. Since then, he has considered the abbey home.

The Bookbindery

Father Francis, 91, has been working in the Abbey’s bindery since 1955 (fc). “You are put where they want you, where you are efficient enough,” says Father Francis with a smile. “This is where I was most efficient.”

Father Martinus, 84, first worked in a bookbindery in Pecos, Mexico when he was 17. “It is a blessing that I work in a job I love,” said Father Martinus. Father Francis, 91, has worked in the bindery since 1955. Focusing on university library books, periodicals and theses, business has been slowing over the years as such works have gone digital. “You are put where they want you, where you are efficient enough,” says Father Francis with a smile. “This is where I was most efficient.”

 

The view out the front windows of the church in the monastery belies the true size and expanse of the area that the abbey’s land covers. Trails appear as corridors into an uninterrupted maze of the natural world. The lake next to the guesthouses is motionless, ignorant of the wind or surrounding commotion, if there is any.

“The first time I went to the seminary, I just thought ‘I’m finally here, I’m finally here. I was so happy,” Father Richard said. “It’s a very contemplative life. We don’t teach, we don’t run hospitals; all we do is pray and live a daily life. I was drawn to the simplicity of the lifestyle. It’s regular, it’s hidden.”

As Father Richard walks toward Bethany House, the prayer room, 29 crosses on the lawn to his left signify the monks that have passed away. The identical crosses are regular in arrangement, two unelaborate rows of white, and Father Richard wonders aloud if there will still be room for his cross when he eventually needs one. Yet he strides calmly forward, unperturbed by his previous thoughts. “You never escape from anything, so you have to deal with it sooner or later. But at least you’re in an environment that allows people to face the things that made them come in the first place,” said Father Richard. “There’s always a growing process, that’s religious life. You continue to work on yourself.”

Amongst Father Richard’s decorated office is a photograph of his father. Father Richard has many photographs of people that are important to him. Including, his mother and Father Bernard.