Thinking Outside the Usual Box

Interior of the New Melleray chapel
If you've read my post on Etsy this weekend, you know in early September I visited the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa. The abbey is in a lovely, rural setting—indeed, until last year the monks farmed the surrounding land. I've known a number of people who visit New Melleray for retreats—the monks rent out 18 rooms for quiet, contemplative stays. The people I know who spend time there aren't all Catholic, but appreciate the opportunity for quiet, reflective time.

Signs demarcate areas in the shop
I went to learn about Trappist Caskets, the business that supports New Melleray. Sam Mulgrew is the general manager of Trappist Caskets. Sam is not a monk but is a woodworker, and actually made caskets himself before bringing the idea to the monks. He explained that creating these furniture quality caskets fit well with the life of the monks—the attention to detail and care with which the caskets are made matches the calm, reflective lives the men lead.

On left, Brother Felix, who has made more than 1,000 caskets
As I walked with Sam around the workshop floor, I saw men engaged in the work at hand. While they talked occasionally, there was no shouting across the room, no blaring radios.

Cremation urns drying
The monk's approach to their work—evaluating each piece of lumber to determine its best use, managing their forest sustainably, keeping the end use of their product in mind—is wholly integrated with the lives they lead. I don't know that I've ever seen a place where work and values align so closely. It made me wonder whether this kind of attention is possible only in a place that's separate from the world. The concept of intertwining your belief system and your daily life so completely is enticing.

I'm not Catholic and I don't plan to be buried when I die, but I left Trappist Caskets having gained insight into embracing both those decisions in life.
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