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PRIVATE LIVES

If you look closely, you can see the second-hand, worn-out Reeboks beneath the monks' sackcloth robes, which are tied at the waist with a simple piece of rope. The men move about with purpose, smiling and content as they attend to their routine chores, which are broken only by the cathedral bell that calls them each day to the seven canonical hours of prayer.

They are the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani, the oldest monastery in the Western Hemisphere. They are separate from the outside world, living a self-sustaining, all-consuming life within 3,000 acres of farmland hidden in the hills of northern Kentucky. They tend their crops, raise livestock, purify their own water, generate their own electricity, fix their plumbing, build their furniture, study their scriptures, worship their God.

Once a week, a truck from the outside brings in those staples they cannot produce themselves: sugar, salt, coffee, tea, Kool-Aid _ and more cast-off Reeboks.

As Trappists, they are members of the most austere of all monastic orders. They speak only when it is absolutely necessary. Their heads are shaved. They eat no meat except for the turkey they bake on Christmas day. They own nothing. They want nothing.

Their faces are tranquil, and they are at peace with themselves and all who visit. Even their bath soap comes from slivers of Ivory left by the 20 or so retreatants who stay in the guest house each week.

For five days in 1991, I entered this world and wrapped myself in the quiet solitude of the 155-year-old monastery. My room in the guest house was small _ a bed, a writing table, a chair, a lamp and a bathroom. The meals were simple and always taken in silence. The day began at 3:15 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m.

In between I read books, thought, walked, thought some more, attended prayer services _ all in silence. There were no newspapers, no TV, no radio, no telephones. All the things I am in the outside world _ my job, my position, my financial status _ were left at the gates. Life's little yardsticks don't apply in this place. No one here cared. They just accepted me as I was. No hesitation, no judgments, no questions.

I began to peel away the image I show others and began to find out who lives inside my protective shell. Silence and solitude can be frightening, even if you think you know who you are.

As guestmaster, Brother Raphael was one of the few monks allowed to speak to visitors. So, it was to him that I posed the question: Why would normal men, many with status, position, wealth, give up everything to live out the rest of their lives in such a spartan existence?

From behind his cluttered desk, he explained that he and his brothers have taken a vow of silence so they may be able to hear others and to hear God. The greatest prayers, he added, are those that are heard, not spoken.

They have taken a vow of chastity so they may love everyone the same, no matter who they are. They have taken a vow of poverty so they may own nothing, yet own everything.

"Just look out my window," he said. "I own the sky, the trees, the grass, even the wind. I own all I see. I consider myself a very wealthy man."

In the dark night of the soul, he said, I would begin to understand. When a hunger to live becomes a hunger for life, when the desire for material things becomes a thirst for the goodness of knowledge, when the measurement of success gives way to an unyielding measurement of the soul, I would comprehend.

Nearly two years later, I'm beginning to understand. The monks of Gethsemani have given up everything to gain even more. In chastity, they have found love. In silence, they have learned to hear. In poverty they have found peace.

It's not for everyone. After all, somebody has to drive the truck that brings the Kool-Aid. But they have found something the rest of us can only hope to achieve. Defining that something is up each of us _ alone.

My chat with Brother Raphael was over. A few steps down the hall, I glanced back through the open door of his office. He was seated at his desk, gazing out his window . . . looking at all he owned.

Barry Bradley is executive editor of the Maddux Report, a monthly Tampa Bay business magazine. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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