My wife and I had the opportunity to visit a Cistercian monastery recently. I want to share some of the experience we had.
It isn't everyday that one has the privilege to get a glimpse into the world of a cloistered monastery. One of the most striking features of their world is the unity of vision, its all encompassing power. The beauty of it is the timelessness of the way of life that has been passed down and the intense commitment to the gospel. But in the monastery these things are made into art. Most striking is of course the architecture and the prayer life. The public may enter the church, but is confined to two small nooks on either side of the sanctuary. I can't describe the church well. It was made of stone and brick, very simple, neat, Roman arches, stained glass done by a dutchman. You can go to http://www.spencerabbey.org/index.html and there you can view some of the monastery.
Prayer. I had the sense that I was in a place sacred, intimate. We were in the chapel for Midday prayer. I have prayed Midday prayer before, but never with an entire religious community of monks. It was as if all the times I'd prayed it prior were just shadows of the real thing. Their life depends on prayer, feeds on prayer. If you took prayer away there would be no life. The mass and the liturgy of the hours are like a frame on which their life is built. It is hard for me to put into words, but in that moment I felt that I was hearing mother church praying on my behalf to the Lord.
Overall, I experienced the abbey as a huge work of art right down to the dirt which has been fashioned by God, nature and the monks. It has been a joint effort of God and man, God inspiring and man answering in prayer. It is evident, though, that their prayer doesn't cease, but has been embodied in their work. This is the beauty of the monastic life. It is a manifestation of the Church, a rich meditation on man's desire to be one with God.