MILWAUKIE — A little more than three years ago I did a Google search on Armand Jean de Rancé, abbot of La Grande Trappe, the Cistercian abbey near Montagne in France. My interest in de Rancé derives from the fact that I was a novice with the Trappists at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa for about four months in 1965. Trappist Father Thomas Merton, novicemaster for a time at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, wrote of novices who get thinner and thinner and finally go home forever, and to this cohort I belonged. My recollection of the novitiate library — comprised of a few shelves — was that it had quite a lot of high mystical literature, including the works of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, and what I would call the contemplative tradition of the Cistercians, but nothing of Rancé.

I attended novice classroom instruction in the constitutions and history of the order, especially revolving around St. Robert of Molesme, St. Alberic, St. Stephen Harding, and of course St. Bernard of Clairvaux. However, it grew on me in retrospect that there was never a word about Rancé, the de facto founder of the Trappists and, as I discovered recently, sole restorer and conservator in 17th century France of the Cistercian charism as it unfolded at Citeaux and perdured down the years. Of course, it may have been that I was not there long enough to hear anything about him, but I am quite certain he had no presence in the novitiate library, or in the guesthouse library.

He seemed to be a disgraced ancestor about whom the less said the better. However, it occurred to me that fateful day three years ago that with the internet I could solve the mystery of de Rancé. I discovered Ailbe Luddy’s “The Real de Rancé,” and with that came the beginning of dawn. Shortly I was looking for works by de Rancé in English, and, lo, on Bookfinder found “The Sanctity and Duties of the Monastic State.” It is Dom Vincent Ryan’s (d. 1845) translation of Rancés “De la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique.” Despite having been in the order, having read quite a lot of Merton, and having repeatedly made retreats at New Melleray, this was my first awareness of the existence of any such book, a book that one would think would have been primary for anyone attempting monastic life of any sort, especially Trappist.

But it was last published in English in 1830. Moreover, of all his many works in French, it was the only work to be translated into English for the benefit of his anglophone sons in the order or for the many devout Catholics who would likely have been interested in them. It seemed a species of damnatio memoriae.

So I was not surprised when my copy of “The Sanctity and Duties of the Monastic State” arrived with markings of Gethsemane Abbey, for I had previously acquired two Cistercian breviaries from the same abbey in the same manner. One wonders if they were tossed on the used book market. Had there been a thoroughgoing cultural revolution that swept a great deal more Trappist and Cistercian lore out of that abbey? All this reminds me of a conversation I had with Abbot Edward McCorkle at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia in the mid-70s when he lamented that we, the church, were jettisoning our patrimony.

The de Rancé volume from Gethsemane was intact, but very beat-up, of course, likely having been the spiritual reading of many Trappist monks over the better part of 150 years, and probably of Thomas Merton, too. In any case, my wife and I read these volumes aloud and it was quickly apparent that we were in possession of a spiritual masterpiece, and just as apparent why it had been discarded. Rancé had a pre-Vatican II spirituality, you could say. It must have been viewed as antediluvian, Pelagian, and dangerous to the peace of the abbey.

But here’s the rub: The actual Vatican II documents encourage religious orders to return to the spirit of their founders.

So, I decided to republish Rancé, yet I had no idea what that would involve. This book has involved me in innumerable difficulties, mostly related to sourcing de Rancé’s citations, which often were incorrect or very difficult to decipher. Early on it became clear that both Rancé and his translator were working on the fly and probably by candlelight, for Psalm 93 became Psalm 39 and there was a plethora of such errors.

For the good of the Church I wanted to make the writing it more accessible to the laity, and that involved updating the language and the punctuation. The Cistercian ethos, decor and usages avoid images altogether, but since our edition is addressed to the faithful primarily and not to monks, what would be standing in the way of illustrating it? Nothing whatever, and so the two new volumes have 96 images.

For the past three years I have been immersed in this book and have been to each of its 700 pages innumerable times, scanning, correcting the scan, re-typesetting, formatting, correcting, re-formatting, checking for errors, hunting images, editing, inserting images, designing the book, replacing images, designing the cover etc. The conveniences of modern technology notwithstanding, I am convinced that I have spent far more time in the production of this book than Rancé and his translator combined. Actually, it is precisely the conveniences of modern technology that have made this process so lengthy. But I am not complaining. I am practically pickled in this book at this point and it has done me a world of good.

Most Catholics, myself included, feel they have an inadequate knowledge of the faith. After 19 years of Catholic schooling I have only recently discovered some of the totally amazing facts about St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Vincent Ferrer. There are other great saints such as St. Colette, St. Basil and St. John Climachus who until very recently were totally unknown to me. Thanks to de Rancé’s introduction to him, for my 74th birthday I asked for St. John Climachus’s “Ladder of Divine Ascent” — a bracing book if ever there was one — so that I will not arrive in heaven a total ignoramus about the desert fathers or their view of the spiritual life.

Both de Rancé and St. John Climachus have introduced me to aspects of the spiritual life that have been completely life-changing, and unknown for a lifetime.

Although I did not touch the essentials, it seemed clear that so much updating demanded a new title, but what? I have settled on “Back to Asceticism: The Trappist Option.”

There is no doubt about it, de Rance's approach is demanding, radical and if adopted revolutionary for both home, cloister and church. It could change everything.

Gilbert is a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Northeast Portland.