This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Why would anyone who has chosen to live under a vow of silence come to settle among the hills and bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley above a shining, winding waterway whose beauty has always evoked speech? That is exactly what the Trappist monks of the Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland did, fleeing the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. In 1849, eight Trappists came up the Mississippi to found Our Lady of New Melleray on a thousand acres above Dubuque, Iowa. Others followed. Today, a hundred or so monks still follow the rural seasons of the valley, plowing, planting, harvesting and praying, rising at three in the morning and retiring with the sun each night.
The Rule of Benedict, which a Trappist monk follows, calls him to perpetual penance. "His horizons are always and essentially those of the desert," says Benedict.
In that case, why not settle in North Dakota? One could travel the entire twelve hours across that flat state without an urge to so much as a preposition or a conjunction. Above Dubuque, by contrast, there is always some new vista to share at the top of every bluff. Is it possible to spot an eagle soaring high above, and not tell someone? Or distant storms coming in off the prairie, or a towboat coming around the bend in the river? Or the first thin crinkle of November ice on the water?
"Be still, and know that I am God," may well work in North Dakota, but it won't wash along the Mississippi River.
It may be that those first Irish monks settled here for that very reason. Here the vow of silence is almost impossible to keep, and it has some meaning. In North Dakota it would be like giving up spinach for Lent.
I have no doubt the monks of the New Melleray are obedient and good men. They try to keep silent. But they're human, and I'm sure that among their official records there is a long list of penances handed out to those brothers who accidentally lift their heads up from their work in the fields as the first light glows on the bluff tops, and inadvertently cry, "Look, the sun."
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.