The bak­ing monks

Bell tolls chang­ing times at abbey, but the fruit­cake is ever­last­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By DON­ALD BRADLEY

OFF the hilly black­top and down a red dirt drive, fog sits in the Ozark pine for­est. 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”.

Ré­sumés 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 south-east 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 the 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.

Un­der the ques­tion “What is a monk?” on the As­sump­tion Abbey web­site, the an­swer be­gins: “A monk is a man who prac­tises 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, Indiana, 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.”

Work be­gins in the bak­ery shortly af­ter break­fast.

Some Fran­cis­can monks, who live on part of the abbey’s 1,375 hectares 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: US$32.50 (RM106.50) for online and mail or­ders, US$23 (RM75) 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 9am, 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 900g 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 27sq m. Big enough. “Just God and my­self,” he said. 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.” – The Kansas City Star/ McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion

trap­pist monks brother thomas (left) and brother Paul pack­ag­ing fruit­cakes at the as­sump­tion abbey near ava in south­west missouri in Novem­ber.

Fin­ish­ing touch: trap­pist monk Fa­ther cyprian dec­o­rat­ing fruit­cakes. — Pho­tos Kansas city Star/mct

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