Friday, May 23, 2008


Visiting Quebec in the years before I entered the Society of Jesus, I always made a point of stopping at the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, located near the village of Oka sixty kilometers west of Montreal. This past January, I returned to Oka for the first time in four years and took the above photos. My first visit to Oka as a Jesuit will almost certainly be my last, as the Trappist community that has resided there for 127 years will relocate to new premises within the next year. Confronting the challenges of aging and numerical decline that face many religious communities, the Trappists of Oka have also found that their treasured silence is becoming harder to preserve as suburban sprawl transforms the surrounding area. In consequence, the monks plan to move to a smaller, more remote monastery currently under construction in Saint-Jean-de-Matha in the rural Lanaudière region of Quebec. Meanwhile, the old monastery at Oka will be redeveloped by a non-profit group that promises to maintain the property's historic character. While I'm happy that the monastery at Oka will be preserved, it clearly won't be the same without the inhabitants who gave the place its unique spirit.

The first photo should give you an idea of the monastery's physical setting, though the building itself isn't visible. I took this picture from the south shore of the Lake of Two Mountains; you can see Oka in the distance, on the far shore of the frozen lake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rural solitude that drew the Trappists to the Lake of Two Mountains has more recently attracted upwardly-mobile professionals and retirees who have made places like Oka into growing bedroom communities. Enjoying the charm of rural living within commuting distance of a major metropolis is an understandably appealing prospect for many, and I expect that Oka will retain its cachet even as the Trappists move on to quieter pastures.

I'm not sure what to say about Oka's abbey church (second photo), except that I've always found it an easy place to pray. As a visitor I found that the architecture of the church lends itself to an undistracted focus on God (if I were a monk at Oka, though, I might get sufficiently used to the setting to find ways to get distracted). I'm grateful for the times I was able to attend the early morning Mass in the abbey church, and I regret I won't have the same experience again. Regarding my limited experience of the monastery at Oka, I'm happy to affirm the words of the Psalmist: "A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere" (Ps. 84:10).

The architecture of the monastery (third photo) is fairly typical of a lot of old ecclesiastical buildings in Quebec. Though built in the last years of the 19th century, the monastery at Oka looks as though it was constructed much earlier. To me, the stone construction of the building conveys a sense of solidity and permanence - this place was built to last, in contrast with more recent structures that often seem worn and fragile before they can really be considered old. The durability of the monastery offers a message of assurance: the building itself seems to bear witness to the values of stability and tradition at the heart of monastic life. Sadly, the power of this message may be undercut somewhat by the departure of the monks who gave this venerable building its soul. Nonetheless, I hope that future visitors to the old monastery will somehow come to understand what makes places like Oka so vitally important. AMDG.


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