Assumption Abbey, located approximately 20 miles south of Ava, is home to around 10 Trappist and Cistercian monks.
AVA – Canopies of fall foliage and winding dirt paths eventually reveal Assumption Abbey, a spiritual oasis in a wonderfully wooded world of its own. The destination is fittingly peaceful, one best reached with old-fashioned directions.
The building is long and simple, gently perched atop a forest clearing. But if monks endorsed pride, perhaps they would feel that for their home. After all, they built it themselves when they were in the concrete-block business years ago.
These days, the monastery is instead known for its fruitcake production. But those cakes can be shipped to faithful followers, meaning a drive to the abbey is normally for another purpose. For a time of retreat, perhaps; a chance to grow in one’s faith. Or to find peace in a place that’s silent but for the breeze whispering through the leaves.
Whatever the reason, there’s a feeling that something else is going on here — something greater than the production of 30,000 fruitcakes every year.
At first glance, Michael Hampton appears to be the only person outside. He’s a tall, lean man who originally came to the abbey to be its “computer guy” around 15 years ago. One thing led to another, and several years ago he transitioned over to being the bakery manager.
“I never saw it coming,” Michael says of his work at the abbey. He’s now one of four people the monastery employs, something he says isn’t unusual. “A good majority of monasteries have employees these days, especially ones that have very large businesses,” says Michael.
Leaves crunch beneath his shoes as he walks to the bakery. It’s a small concrete block building, one that’s set several feet away from the abbey. He opens the door, revealing a handful of people already hard at work on the day’s fruitcakes. “We do 125 cakes a day,” says Michael. “That’s about all we can do.”
“This is all a totally done-by-hand process,” says Michael. “He scoops it in, gives it to the assistant baker, smooths it out in the pan (and) sticks it on the rack.”
For the monastery, a production year normally runs from February to mid-December. A five-day work week was the norm until recently, when every other Saturday was added as well. “We’ve been selling out really early in the year, so we needed to have a little extra inventory,” says Michael, noting that the Saturday work will give them around 3,000 additional cakes.
Vats of fruit soaked in burgundy wine await transformation into the famous cakes. The recipe the monks use is noteworthy in its own right: It was given to the monastery by Jean-Pierre Augé, a former chef to the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor.
Michael doesn’t know exactly how the recipe came to the abbey, just that “somebody knew somebody who knew somebody and things came together and it worked out,” he says. “He was happy to provide a recipe. I think they actually tried several recipes when they were trying to figure this out, but his was the winner. And it was old-English, dark-style cake.”
The cakes bake for around two hours, after which they rest. “Then the next day, they come over here where they are injected with golden rum,” says Michael. They’re later brushed with corn syrup to give a glossy sheen, and topped with nuts and cherries before being packaged and set to cure in the back room. “Aging is a crucial process in it,” he says. “We don’t ever sell fresh cake. It’s got to age.”
After the fruitcakes are baked, the final steps involve adding a corn-syrup glaze and decorating them with nuts and cherries.
Some of workers are monks, but not all of them are. There’s a former smelter who is at the Abbey on a long-term retreat. And then there’s Neil, a smiling man from Dallas, who’s staying at the monastery while deciding whether or not to become a hermit. “It’s a vocation, it’s a calling,” says Neil of being a hermit. “It’s because we want to go back to the basics.”
He explains that to be a hermit, one lives alone — but that doesn’t mean he or she is completely cut off from the world. “It’s a chance to encounter God in solitude,” he says. “So when the hermit meets people, it’s not because … I need to talk.”
Instead, hermits’ interactions with people are intentional and primarily for spiritual reasons. But not always, proven by Neil’s morning of fruitcake making. “(They’re) also … economic,” Neil jokes, noting that he has to earn his keep with the monks. “Or else they will kick me out.”
He’s kidding — just like when he says he belongs to a support group for hermits who can’t keep their mouths shut. But he’s serious when he says he’d like to learn about blogging. After all, it’d be a great way to tell the world what it really means to be a hermit. “Because people have a misinterpretation of what a hermit’s life (is like),” he says.
Evidently it doesn’t mean leaving one’s sense of humor at the door.
A friendly man with a winning smile, Brother Francis is back up at the monastery. He wasn’t always a monk: Before beginning that journey 45 years ago, he was a high school teacher and librarian in California. He’s spent the last 12 years at Assumption Abbey, and now works in the guest house and is the monastery’s face to the public.
But neither of those jobs is his primary responsibility. “As monks, our function is really to pray,” he says. “We pray for other people, we pray for what’s happening in the world, pray for peace, pray for anything that needs to be prayed for.”
And that’s why they make fruitcake. “St. Benedict in his rule says monks have to support themselves,” says Brother Francis. “So that’s how we support ourselves here.”
Daily life at the monastery
Gregorian chant, written on a four-line staff, is a part of the monks’ daily rituals. “Once you ‘get it,’ you tend to memorize it,” says Brother Francis.
Days at Assumption Abbey are comfortingly similar. The monks’ lives are one of routine, a cadence that allows them to live their lives as they feel they are called to do.
The day begins at 3:15 a.m., when the monks wake up. “A lot of people think we get up at 3:15 in the morning to pray at 3:30 as a sacrifice,” says Brother Francis, but notes that’s not the case. “We get up that early to specifically live out the value of nocturnal prayer.”
The first meeting, known as Vigils or Matins, is held at 3:30 a.m. This 30 or 45-minute gathering involves chanting Psalms, readings from scripture, and commentary, perhaps on scripture or on the life of a saint.
After Vigils is over, “we usually hit the coffee pot pretty hard,” says Brother Francis. But even though the service is done, a constant stream of prayer and scripture reading continues. Perhaps the monks will stay in church, go to their room or even “take a walk among all the woods here,” he says. “But all the time praying, seeking God and praying for other people.” Some of those prayer requests are specific, sent via email, phone or even left in person. “We have a prayer board,” he notes. “It’s always filled.”
Lauds begins at 6:30 a.m., which is symbolic of the resurrection. That transitions into Mass, the latter of which includes the liturgy of the Eucharist. “Then after mass, we’ve just received Jesus, so you’re going to have a long period of prayer and thanksgiving,” says Brother Francis. Monks may then eat breakfast or, as Brother Francis does, do some reading of a more intellectual nature.
At 8:55 a.m., there’s a mid-morning prayer called Terce. “It doesn’t last more than about five minutes,” says Brother Francis. “Just a hymn, three Psalms and a little short reading and then a prayer.” Then work begins: The monks do their assigned duties from around 9:05 until 11:30 a.m. Some people will make fruitcake, while others are assigned alternate tasks.
11:45 a.m. is marked with a noonday prayer called Sext. “What happened to Jesus at noon? He got crucified cause he loves us so much,” says Brother Francis. “So that’s the symbol behind that prayer.”
It’s clear that much of life at the monastery revolves around symbolism. “Remember, in the Middle Ages, people thought in terms of symbols,” says Brother Francis. One example is the monks’ traditional habit, which represents the cross. Another is the monastery’s wood panelling, reminiscent of Jesus’ death. “He died on wood,” says Brother Francis, tapping on the paneling. “So wood is reminding you of God’s love.”
Assumption Abbey began in 1950 after newspaperman Joseph Pierson offered to donate the land. “Now most monasteries don’t get their property like that,” says Brother Francis. “You (normally) have to pay for it. But in this case, that’s what happened.”
The main meal of the day is held around 12 p.m. “It’s the only meal where all the monks come and eat together,” says Brother Francis. “During that meal, one of the monks reads from a book. Usually it’s a spiritual book, but not always. It can be a biography, it can be just about anything.”
After helping wash the dishes, most of the monks take a nap. Then about 1:55 p.m., they gather for a prayer called None, “which is symbolic of taking Christ down from the cross,” says Brother Francis. Life at the monastery is mostly quiet, but this is a time when talking is encouraged. In fact, when Brother Francis last had his hearing aids checked, he was told that the recorded decibels indicate he lives in silence 92 percent of the time.
The monks tried a variety of business ventures to support themselves before turning to fruitcake. Some of those ideas included orchards, cattle and concrete-block making, the latter of which featured this bridge. It was added so they could cross the creek to make their concrete blocks.
Then work recommences, and continues until 4 or 4:30 p.m. Vespers is at 5:45 p.m., and represents the Eucharist. Monks eat supper before or after this 25-minute office, after which there’s time for more prayer. That’s followed by Compline, the last prayer of the day, at 7:35 p.m. which is held without electric light.
“It’s very beautiful in the dark,” says Brother Francis, mentioning a picture of Jesus and Mary that’s lit by only a candle. “It just kind of glitters.”
After Compline is over, most monks go to bed. After all, 3:15 a.m. will come quickly.
The monastery today (and tomorrow)
“You don’t see Trappist monks outside,” says Brother Francis. “You have to come to the monastery to see us.” It’s a truth that continues from one life to the next.
Trappist monks rarely venture outside of the Abbey. Brother Francis hasn’t left for months, and the only reason he did then was to visit the dentist. “He for sure wasn’t going to come here,” he says with a laugh. Even food is delivered to the abbey — as well as to two other little-known Catholic communities on the property — so that’s not a reason for most monks go into the outside world.
Even death isn’t a reason to leave. There’s a cemetery near the main building, with rows of simple, white crosses marking the resting places of monks who’ve “graduated to heaven,” as Brother Francis puts it. No coffin or vault is used for these monks: They’re simply placed directly into the earth.
Though death is seen as a catalyst to a better place, in an earthly sense it’s translated into dwindling numbers at Assumption Abbey. By the time 2013 rolled around, just a handful of monks remained, many of which were reaching their late 80s.
A new plan was necessary to keep the abbey alive: That year, the monastery began taking monks from Vietnam. Four monks arrived soon after, and more will come in the next few months. “But this will be an English-speaking monastery,” says Brother Francis. “They will take anyone who wants to enter.”
Visiting Assumption Abbey
When the monks transitioned to making fruitcake instead of concrete blocks, “they really came up with a funny saying,” says Brother Francis. “(They said) ‘If you liked our concrete blocks, you’ll love our fruitcake. It kinda sells us short, doesn’t it?”
Assumption Abbey has a guesthouse with rooms for anyone — women as well as men — who wishes to come and stay. A $35 per night donation is recommended, but “some people can’t afford it and they’re not expected to,” says Brother Francis, noting that food is included as well. “All they have to do is bring themselves.”
Additionally, all of the monastery’s services are open to the public. “As a matter of fact, if you want to come at 3:30 tomorrow morning, you’re perfectly welcome,” says Brother Francis.
If that’s a little too early, remember you can always order fruitcake — and connect with the monastery — via their website.