It’s early. Like 3:15 in the morning early. Someone pulls a rope and a bell tolls.
Inside an old building, Boniface, 87, the cook, rises from his bed. He’s a short, slight man who grew up around Chicago and will smile through a missing front tooth if you can get him to tell an Al Capone story.
Down the hall, Thomas, the mechanic, stirs. He’s 85 and spent his youth on a Wisconsin dairy farm. He still rides a bike.
Robert, 88, an Irishman from Minnesota, is up on the hill in a cabin no bigger than a shed. He probably hears the bell, but it doesn’t wake him. He’s been up since 1. He’s always up at 1.
These men came here a half-century ago, or longer, and never left. They and the other Trappist monks at Assumption Abbey chucked their early lives like shirts that no longer fit and gave themselves to God.
They pray, work, meditate, chant and make fruitcakes. Fun? Of course they have fun.
According to abbey literature, for entertainment “there is the change of seasons, the song and flight of birds, the romping with the dogs in fresh fallen snow.”
Resumes aren’t exactly rolling in. Thus the problem.
These monks arrived here as young men, and now, though mostly spry in step and spirit, they are old. With meals still to fix, equipment to repair, grounds to tend and cakes to bake.
And no young Trappists have come to help.
For a while, it looked like Assumption Abbey, established in 1950 in these woods about four hours southeast of Kansas City, would have to close.
But help is now coming from the other side of the world.
By the end of the year, four young monks from Vietnam will have arrived at this Ozarks abbey. Four more will come in 2014. Over time, perhaps a decade, Assumption will change from Trappist to Cistercian order. The two share roots — Trappist is a reform of Cistercian.
Still, there are mixed emotions, said Father Cyprian, 83.
“On one hand is the failure that we can’t continue what we began,” he said. “On the other, we have this place to pass along for others to carry on.”
It would be 10 years before young Trappists could come and save the day.
“We don’t have 10 years,” Cyprian said.
But don’t worry, fruitcake lovers. The plan for the newcomers is to carry on the world-famous Assumption Abbey tradition, even though Father Peter, the first Vietnamese to arrive, had never tasted fruitcake.
He has now, and he said they may start sending some home to Asia — with some tweaking of the recipe.
Beneath a wrinkled brow, he said slowly: “Americans like very heavy food.”
Under the question “What is a monk?” on the Assumption Abbey website, the answer begins: “A monk is a man who practices dying as a way of life.”
Boniface comes across as someone who missed that memo.
He wears a red hat and bounces between stoves in the kitchen. On some days, he bakes 40 loaves of bread.
“You know the difference between a chef and a cook?” he asked as he boiled squash and eggplant. “A cook has to do his own pots and pans.
“I came here in 1954 and had no idea what I was doing when they made me cook. Singed my eyebrows the very first day. Sometimes I make mustgo soup. I go through the refrigerator and say, ‘This must go.’ ”
Then: “When I was a kid, we had to sneak off to Chicago to see ‘The Song of Bernadette’ because there were too many Protestants in Oak Park.”
And: “Try an oatmeal cookie. They’re my job security.”
Folks, he’s here all week. And has been for six decades.
“Be hard to bury old Bonny and keep him down,” Cyprian said with a smile.
The rest of the answer to the question “What is a monk?” goes on to say that a monk dies to his egoism and his illusions about who he is and what life is about.
“At the same time that he is dying, he discovers an exhilarating freedom for life and for love.”
They live celibate lives and give up all possessions. They own nothing. If one receives cookies from a family member, he shares with the others.
Like most of the monks at Assumption Abbey, Cyprian came from the New Melleray “mother house” outside Dubuque, Iowa. Again like the others, he speaks fondly of his youth. He didn’t choose a monastic lifestyle because of problems or despair. He grew up in La Porte, Ind., riding his bike and playing ball. His father ran a gas station.
“Sure, it was a struggle at first,” Cyprian said. “But then it came to me — ‘Yes, this is God’s will; this is the truth.’ ”
Jill Johnson, the abbey’s guest master, who runs the office, said the most difficult thing to adjust to is the quiet.
“Particularly at night when one is dying,” she said. “It can be deafening. But they are prayerful, and this is the life they chose.”
Most were part of a wave to join in the post-World War II era. Boniface was with the Army in the Philippines. In the Assumption Abbey cemetery is Christopher, a paratrooper, and David, who was with Gen. George Patton’s tanks.The appeal of monastic life back then, Cyprian said, was that it was perceived as a “spiritual Marine Corps.” The surge ended 20 years later, though, when the Second Vatican Council — “Vatican II” — brought turmoil and adjustment to parts of the church.
“It was no longer a favorable environment for spiritual life,” Cyprian said.
That is why the young ones never came, Cyprian said, why he and his brothers have lived and toiled so many years alone.
They leave the grounds rarely. No movies, TV or restaurants. They don’t go visit family — family comes to them and stays in the guest house.
Only Brother Francis, on the young end at 72, uses a computer. As vocation director, he must.
“Most of the others don’t even know how to use a computer, or care to learn,” he said.
Francis is from California. He plays a guitar.
Work begins in the bakery shortly after breakfast.
Some Franciscan monks, who live on part of the abbey’s 3,400 acres of hills and hollows, lend needed help. Every day this crew makes 125 fruitcakes. The sale of more than 30,000 cakes annually provides the abbey its revenue stream.
Price: $32.50 for online and mail orders, $23 at the abbey gift shop.
For years before starting fruitcakes in 1990, the monks made concrete blocks.
“We had to change the recipe slightly,” Cyprian joked. “And fruitcakes are easier to stack.”
Each day begins with Joseph Reisch, the baker, breaking about 22 dozen eggs. The fruit mixture — pineapples, cherries, raisins, walnuts — is soaked in wine. By 9 a.m., all 125 cakes are in an oven. The same oven. It came from a St. Louis supermarket.
“This thing is built like a tank,” Reisch said.
At another table, cakes baked the previous day are injected with Castillo Gold rum — at eight strategic points — and the tops are decorated with pecan and cherry halves. The cakes are then brushed with corn syrup.
Finally, the monks bless the 2-pound cakes with a prayer.
“Bless now these creations of our hands, that these cakes may be received as tokens of your love … ”
The cakes then age six weeks before shipping.
Through the work, Elijah, the old abbey dog, sleeps on the sidewalk outside.
For a hermit, Father Robert, 88, sure is happy to see company pull into his rocky drive.
Big smile, bright eyes and a long, white beard that blows in the breeze like a sheet on a clothesline.
“Hello!” he greeted his visitors a recent day.
His cabin on the hill might be 300 square feet. Big enough.
“Just God and myself,” he said.
A cat comes and goes too. Robert never gave it a name.
“Yes, it runs off the roof,” he said.
Heat comes from a wood stove. He sleeps in the loft. Most time he spends at his desk. He’s up every morning at 1 a.m., praying and reading the Psalms until sunup, when he has breakfast. He hasn’t shaved since 1996, when he thought his sister was coming to visit. She didn’t make it.
He’s lived this way since 1968.
“My sister always wanted to know why I wanted to be a Trappist monk — she says I like to talk too much,” he said with a laugh.
He is the oldest of the Trappist monks at Assumption. Donald, 91, is in a nursing home in Ava. When it’s time, he will be brought “home” to die. The abbey has an infirmary wing for that purpose.They will probably all be there someday, a choice made decades ago.
None voices any regrets about their lives. Anything they missed, they chose to miss.
“I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted except to join my brothers in the cemetery,” Cyprian said.
The cemetery is right outside the abbey’s back door. A recent morning, Cyprian walked among the 14 graves.
“I knew them all,” he said.
Then he added, “We were young once.”
— By Donald Bradley, The Kansas City Star (MCT)