During my Christmas stay with relatives in Grapevine, Texas, I had the opportunity to visit the Cistercian Abbey in Irving, about 9 miles away.
In the Abbey chapel I found a 2011 booklet of Christmas carols in Hungarian. That was not surprising, because the founders of the Abbey were refugee monks from Hungary. After the Communist government in Hungary disbanded the monasteries in 1950, many of the monks continued their monastic life clandestinely, while others found refuge in other countries. In 1954 several of them came to Texas at the invitation of the Bishop of Dallas-Fort Worth. The initial group was joined later by more Cistercians from Hungary. In 1961 the Cistercians of Dallas were established as an independent monastery under the patronage of Our Lady of Dallas.
Some of the monks were faculty members of the Catholic University of Dallas when it opened its doors to its first students in September 1956. The University now has a student enrollment of 3,000 students.
In 1962 the monastery founded a Cistercian Preparatory School (grades 5-12) at the request of a group of Catholic parents. The school now has an enrollment of 350, and the present headmaster, Father Peter Verhalen, O. Cist, is the first alumnus to serve in that post.
In 1991 the decision was made to build an Abbey church. The building was constructed in less than one year, and was financed by fund-raising led by alumni of the school.
The Abbey church of Our Lady of Dallas is constructed of 427 huge blocks of Texas limestone, each weighing approximately 4000 pounds. The huge stones maintain their natural texture and color, both on the inside and outside of the church, giving the structure a rugged simplicity that matches the life of the monks.
The church was dedicated by the bishop of Dallas in May 1992. It serves the students as well as the monastic community, and is also open to the public. Last night, December 24th, after the recitation of the Office of Readings at 11.30 p.m., Christmas Mass was celebrated at midnight. The music of the Mass was the traditional Gregorian chant sung by the monks led by their choirmaster, Father Bernard Marton O. Cist.
Today is the feast day of Saint John of the Cross who is known for his work with St. Teresa of Ávila in restoring the strict observance of the original Rule of the Carmelite Order. He is also known for his poems and writings about the experience of mystical union with God.
St. John was born the youngest of the family in a small community near Ávila in Spain. His parents were poor silk weavers. His father died when he was young. John, his two brothers and their widowed mother struggled with poverty. John worked at a hospital and went to school from 1559 to 1563. On 24 February 1563 he entered the Carmelite order. The following year (1564) he made his vows as a Carmelite, and moved to Salamanca where he studied philosophy and theology.
John was ordained a priest in 1567 and then travelled to Medina del Campo, where he met the charismatic Teresa de Jesús (Teresa of Ávila). Teresa persuaded John to help her, as she was facing great resistance in trying to restore the primitive strict rule of the Carmelite Order.
John, still in his 20s, worked as a helper of Teresa until 1577, founding monasteries of the reformed Carmelite rule. The reformation process was resisted by a great number of Carmelite friars, some of whom felt that Teresa’s version of the Order was too strict. The followers of John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila called themselves the “discalced”, or barefoot Carmelites.
On the night of 2 December 1577, John was taken prisoner by his superiors in the unreformed Carmelites, who had launched a program against John and Teresa’s reforms. John had refused an order to return to his original monastery, on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the Papal Nuncio, a higher authority than his Carmelite superiors. John was jailed in Toledo, in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body. He suffered greatly during this imprisonment, but it was during this same time that he received many divine consolations, and wrote some of his finest spiritual poetry.
John managed to escape nine months later on 15 August 1578. After returning to normal life, he continued with the care of communities of the new Discalced Carmelite order.
John died on 14 December 1591. He was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and was declared a doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI. His main writings, The Dark Night of the Soul; The Ascent of Mount Carmel; The Living Flame of Love; The Spiritual Canticle, as well as 26 poems and several letters, are a source of guidance and inspiration for those seeking to live a life of mystical prayer.