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Five leadership secrets of the Trappist monk

Stephen Martin
Stephen Martin, who explores leadership as a speechwriter and as a business columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, has written for America, Commonweal and U.S. News & World Report.

Trappist monks live apart from the world. But their rich and ancient traditions also offer vital lessons on leadership for those of us living in it. The Roman Catholic order, founded in Citeaux, France, has practiced prayer nonstop for nearly a thousand years. Responsible for supporting themselves, they have been entrepreneurs for just as long.

As times and market conditions have changed, Trappists have kept up by reinventing their businesses continually. Since the founding of Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S.C., in 1949, for example, the monks there have sold cinnamon buns, ventured into logging, run a large egg farm and, most recently, started selling native plants. How have Trappists thrived through the centuries? Here are five of their secrets:

1. Get (really) disciplined. As in waking up at 3 a.m. every day for the rest of your life. That's when Trappists rise for Vigils, their first community prayer of the day. They will gather for worship five more times before turning in at 8 p.m. In between, they work, study and pray some more. Their schedule almost never varies. Their meals rarely change. They talk as little as possible. Everything about their lives is ordered toward their mission of praising God.

On the surface, this routine seems like a soul-killing exercise in boredom. But tremendous focus paves their path to salvation. "The monk has a feel for the stark and the spare," writes Michael Downey in his book, Trappist. "Fasting, abstinence, and keeping vigil are disciplines embraced so as to stay alert, awake for the coming of God."

2. Throw away the key . At Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., where I recently made a weekend retreat, the doors to the guest rooms lock only from the inside. When you go out, there's no way to secure your laptop or Blackberry or car keys. It's a rather discomfiting reminder of what makes the Trappist world go round: trust, in God and your brothers. Spiritual growth doesn't happen when we're holding back or playing defense. It takes openness.

"Anytime you get put together with 15 or 20 people you don't know, you'll find things about them that are objectionable, and they'll find them about you," said Daniel DeVoe, the guest master at Holy Cross Abbey who is seriously thinking of becoming a Trappist himself. The trick is learning to appreciate the strengths of others, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to acknowledge your own shortcomings and work to fix them. It's all about building trust, the ancient glue that, against all odds, holds together monastic organizations to this day.

3. Know your customer. During a retreat several years ago at Mepkin Abbey, I found myself alone in the gift shop with Brother Stephen, an elderly, startlingly fit, lifelong monk. He rang up a few items, swiped my credit card and asked how I was doing. I asked customers the same thing all the time when I clerked at a grocery store in high school. Unlike me, however, he actually cared about the answer.

I confessed, frankly, to being tired with a busy job, grad school, a young son and another child on the way. There wasn't a lot of time for prayer, which was what I probably needed most. He nodded and remarked that perhaps helping raise my family was a form of prayer in itself. We talked for another 10 minutes. More insights, tailored just for me, followed -- and I shouldn't have been surprised.

As Michael Downey explains, the work of monks "is not to be understood primarily as a product for consumers in a marketplace. ...The fruits of the monk's labor are sold as a means of livelihood, but they are sold to persons, real people with deep needs, not bottom-line consumers."

4. Shut up. A monk's life is a study in humility. It's about setting aside personal plans and ambitions for the good of the community, saying goodbye to worldly pleasures and doing highly repetitive work with few tangible rewards. It's a daily exercise in probing your flaws and coming to terms with your own insignificance. This adds up to a perpetual assault on pride, and it starts with quieting down and listening to what your brothers have to say.

"We're all so impressed by what we know," said DeVoe, the Holy Cross guest master. But rather than overestimating our own abilities, he said, real knowledge comes from paying attention to those around us. Monks have a longstanding tradition of turning to spiritual directors for guidance in the contemplative life. The feedback they get gives them a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses and serves as a spark for change. "You learn things about yourself that you wouldn't know otherwise," DeVoe said.

5. Live in the margins. In his book Leaders Make the Future, futurist Bob Johansen notes that "true innovations are likely to come from the margins that are stretched, rather than from the mainstream."

Trappists make their home in the margins. They labor in obscurity, their chosen path makes little sense to most people, and they're criticized, sometimes even by fellow Christians, for closeting themselves away when they could be out in the world helping people with urgent problems. They have Web sites and use e-mail judiciously, but they take care not to swamp themselves with information and distraction. They remain, in other words, as counter-cultural as ever, and therein is their strength.

Over the centuries, as Downey writes, monasteries around the world (and not just Trappist ones) have served as "renowned centers of peace and refuge, the focal points of culture and education." That's surely because they have stood beside the mainstream and observed it carefully but never immersed themselves in it. Their perspective is always a bit out of step with the times and refreshingly original as a result.

"The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men," Thomas Merton, America's most renowned Trappist monk, wrote in his landmark autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain.

More than 60 years since its publication, and centuries since their founding, Trappists still go their own way, focused and unhurried, free of the need for the world's approval. By training, they're too modest to say their experience with leadership can teach us anything, but we'd be wise to learn all we can from them anyway.

READ: "The Silent Treatment: A quiet vacation at Virginia's Holy Cross Abbey in the Shenandoah Valley"

WATCH: "Choosing the holy path"

By Stephen Martin

 |  July 14, 2010; 12:41 PM ET |  Category:  Leadership Behavior Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"It's about setting aside personal plans and ambitions for the good of the community, saying goodbye to worldly pleasures and doing highly repetitive work with few tangible rewards."

Oh my God! It's really Communism in disguise!

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 21, 2010 4:12 AM

As a Secular member of the Carmelite Order, which is known for the most authentic Catholic Christian mystical teaching, I would like to point out that Catholicism and Buddhism are far from interchangeable. Authentic Catholic mysticism is fundamentally a unifying love relationship between the soul and the triune God, Who is self-existent Being and Who is Love--the most profound relationship of persons. Zen Buddhist mysticism is basically nontheistic and contemplates a kind of transcendent nothingness "being/nonbeing". Mystics of both these religions affirm that these are genuinely different experiences. The monastic and contemplative practices of various religions indeed have many similarities, unsurprisingly since it's human persons doing these things, and humans of different religions have the same basic nature. Another key difference is the Catholic mystic's attitude of profound sorrow for sin, which becomes an utterly priceless openness of the intellect and will to God's mercy and love, this is not something characteristic of Buddhist or Hindu spirituality. There are other differences, the point is that we make a mistake about what is most essential about these religious traditions, to see outward similarities and then equate them.

Posted by: elizdelphi | July 21, 2010 1:06 AM

posted above "Hardly surprising one of Catholicism's greatest traditions is really Buddhist." Actually,the core of the Trappist and Buddhist monastic traditions is a sense of transcendence shared by both. It "belongs" to neither, as any Buddhist monk or Trappist monk will be pleased to tell you with few words and great humility.

Posted by: garcia2 | July 20, 2010 10:28 PM

Hardly surprising one of Catholicism's greatest traditions is really Buddhist.

Posted by: divi3 | July 20, 2010 5:39 PM

While I have great respect for the Trappists discipline, etc., I don't see anywhere in the gospels where Jesus asked his followers to take such a monastic approach to Christianity. On the contrary, the great commission He gave requires His followers 'to go into all the world and make disciples'. Not isolate oneself from a world that needs to hear the gospel.

Posted by: Sojouner | July 20, 2010 4:02 PM

In eastern traditions, the begging bowls of monks are willingly filled by a grateful community which asks them for the gift of prayer and intercession. Because western society long ago stopped valuing the work of prayer and contemplation, modern monks outwardly sell cheese, fruitcake and native plants to exist. I for one am thankful both for their cheese and their daily reminder of what constitutes a life made sacred for God.

Posted by: cbl55 | July 20, 2010 3:22 PM

To me, this entirely misses the point of what the Trappists are about. I would say the important thing about them is what they decide is worth doing, and it is mistaken to ask whether their methods can be usefully applied to people who make entirely different judgments about what matters in life.

Posted by: markfromark | July 20, 2010 3:20 PM

How do they survive? Have you had any Trappist Ale? It's delicious.

Posted by: apocolypsecow1 | July 20, 2010 2:29 PM

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