Picture books - the kind you leave on the coffee table for quick perusals and admirations - have become commonplace of late years, but here's one that's arrestingly different: The Monastic Way, by Trappist Father M. Basil Pennington (Crossroad Publishing, 370 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017; 144 pages; $19.95).

This is a quiet visit to a Trappist monastery, a looking over their shoulders as monks go about their day's activities and work.

Specifically, it details the monks' life in St. Joseph's Abbey at Spencer, in mid-Massachusetts, but generally it reflects on all 29 Trappist abbeys and convents in the United States and Canada. Of the 21 men's foundations, 16 are Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO), including Our Lady of Guadalupe at Lafayette, Ore., and five are Order of Cistercians (O. Cist.). Cistercian nuns have eight foundations, six in the U.S. and two in Canada.

Nearly all Cistercian - the popularly used name is Trappist - houses are in rural settings, nestled quietly away from freeways and cities. 'It is important for the monk to be apart, and this is not only physically but deep within his spirit,' writes Father Basil. a prolific author in his own right (this is one of more than 20 books he has produced), Father Basil was co-founder with the late, great Thomas Merton of Cistercian Publications.

This collection of 78 pictures - all reproduced in somber grays and blacks - are all products of Trappist photo efforts. They range from views of the mountainside abbey to close-ups of a brother mixing the sugar into the jam the abbey produces.

One poignant series presents the aged Brother Thomas at prayer, then a portrait of him wearing a gentle smile, and 30 pages later his funeral Mass and burial, handfuls of soil beginning to cover his cloth-wrapped body.

Throughout, a sense of quiet is observable, a collection of solitudes. 'Tucked away in the woods and hollows of the monastic domain there are a number of little hermitages where each monk may, from time to time, take a day of a week to be alone with God . . . . Solitude is a place where pretense cannot long survive. Lines are drawn, real choices are made.'

If a reader cannot make a visit to Oregon's Guadalupe or Massachusetts' St. Joseph's abbeys, or any of the others scattered across the continent, this is an impressive visit with the Trappists. Guests, incidentally, are welcomed by the Trappists. 'The lamp is always shining by the front door of the monastery. There is always a Brother Porter or a Father Guestmaster ready to speak a word of welcome. Christ comes to us not only in relatives and friends,' the Pennington words remind us, 'but also in strangers, and above all in the poor and needy.'

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Father Basil is also author of just-published Light form the Cloister, (Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahwah, NH 07430; 160 pages; $9.95 paperback), which also delves into the monk's vocation with stress on solitude.

In this book, Father Basil describes 'the lay person's call to solitude,' outlining ways for adapting this ingredient of the monastic life to everyday work and prayer,