The dirt lane leading to St. Benedict’s Monastery near Snowmass is about a mile long, giving approaching visitors time to soak in the immensity of the scenery. The Elk Mountains’ dramatic summits tower above grassy acres like sentinels; cattle graze below the vast sky. On a hill halfway along the road, before you reach the monastery, sits a retreat center with a prime view of Mt. Sopris. Father Thomas Keating, who, at 94, still lives at St. Benedict’s, can remember when the center didn’t exist; when he first came here in 1958, the brothers were still building the monastery itself, green brick by green brick.
Today, 15 Trappist monks live on nearly 4,000 idyllic acres in the Capitol Creek valley, growing hay and baking cookies between their many hours of daily prayer. The monastery is a thriving spiritual center, supported largely by meditation retreats that fill up months in advance. A few decades ago, though, after Keating had left to serve elsewhere, St. Benedict’s was home to only a handful of monks. Then he returned, and his unconventional perspective paved the way to the monastery’s salvation—and in many ways, his own.
When he was born into a wealthy New York City family in 1923, no one would have pegged Keating as someone destined to become a religious leader. The third of four children, he split his time between an Upper East Side apartment and a summer home on Long Island. His grandfather was a prominent maritime attorney who argued in front of the Supreme Court; his father was also a prominent maritime attorney who argued in front of the Supreme Court. The expectation for Keating’s career was clear.
Yet Keating had what he calls a “spontaneous attraction” to religion and hoped to become a priest from a young age. He kept his dreams a secret from his family: While his mother read the Bible, she did not attend church, and his father was a lapsed Catholic who objected to organized religion. Keating began sneaking out early in the morning to attend Mass. He saw no contradiction in breaking familial rules to build a relationship with a father who sat on a more hallowed throne.
After high school, Keating followed the family’s Ivy League tradition and enrolled at Yale University. There, classroom readings—particularly the works of Leo Tolstoy—presented the young academic with the first challenge to his faith. Although Tolstoy had converted to Christianity, he viewed the church as a frivolous institution that didn’t embody Jesus’ mission of love and forgiveness. “Reading that caused me to go through a kind of conversion from a fairly superficial idea of what was involved [in Catholicism] to a much deeper understanding,” Keating says.
Keating became obsessed with researching the history of the church. While his friends hung out in bowling alleys and bars, he read the teachings of 16th-century spiritual figures; they advocated a quiet, inward approach to worship, which appealed to Keating more than the almost theatrical Masses he’d attended in New York City. He wasn’t sure where to find such a practice—until the spiritual director of a camp he’d worked at took the counselors on a trip to Our Lady of the Valley, a Trappist monastery in Rhode Island.
The group arrived as darkness was falling. Monks were filing into the chapel; it was time for compline, the last of seven daily periods of vocal prayer and Mass. The students were warned to remain silent so they would not disturb the monks, “who are always talking to God.” Keating was mesmerized. He knew this was how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
He dedicated the next year to preparing mentally to enter the monastery. In those days, men had to be 21 before they could join the brotherhood. They also needed to gird themselves for stringent restrictions: Monks pledge to follow the monastery’s leaders; to live in one community forever; and to adhere to guidelines around celibacy, prayer, manual labor, a mostly silent lifestyle, and separation from the outside world. It was the last rule with which Keating struggled after joining Our Lady of the Valley in 1944. “I felt a great desire to share the treasures I had found in the way of a deeper relationship with God,” he says. “And that was a real temptation for me to leave.”
Despite his internal frustrations, Keating was a model monk, and when St. Benedict’s Monastery—the country’s 12th and final Trappist cloister for monks—opened in 1958 near what would later become Snowmass Village, Keating’s superiors appointed him to help run it. He was just 35.
Surrounded by the Elk Mountains, the location of St. Benedict’s ranks among the most rugged of the country’s already isolated Trappist monasteries. When monks first arrived at the Capitol Creek valley site to build the complex, the enormous pasture held nothing but 500 head of cattle. About 35 brothers began growing hay and renting fields to ranchers, but many of the monks found the valley confining and the 7,744 feet of elevation dizzying. Some of them even broke their vows and moved away, leaving Keating with a shortage of workers on top of financial woes and the demanding monastic schedule. There was little time to sit in silence with God. Yet Keating managed to find peace, forming a genuine connection with both the landscape and the community.
That connection made it all the more difficult to return to the Northeast when Keating was unexpectedly called back to lead Saint Joseph’s Abbey (the new name of Our Lady of the Valley, which had moved to Massachusetts) in 1961. Four years later, the Second Vatican Council—a gathering of bishops, abbots, and religious scholars—announced sweeping reforms to Catholicism. Priests were encouraged to revive Christianity’s contemplative tradition, which involved meditation as a way to access a direct connection to God. And monks were invited to take their work to the outside world, allowing Keating to share and compare his spirituality with others.
As the leader of an influential monastery, Keating felt compelled to advance the Vatican Council’s mandate. He and two other monks developed a form of meditation known as Centering Prayer that draws on ancient teachings and is similar to Buddhist meditation. When your mind wanders, you focus on a sacred word or phrase to re-center yourself. The practice aims to let believers have personal relationships with God instead of viewing him as a lofty figure.
Some of the 70 or so brothers at Saint Joseph’s were skeptical of this perspective, and their doubts increased when Keating invited other spiritual leaders onto the monastery’s grounds to glean wisdom from their traditions. Eventually, the monks took a vote to decide whether Keating should continue as their leader. The straw poll was evenly split, but Keating cast the deciding vote himself: He resigned. His tenure as abbot had lasted 20 years, but he believed he could not fairly lead a divided community. The 58-year-old packed up his few belongings and headed west, retreating to his other spiritual home in Colorado.
By the 1980s, the Aspen-Snowmass region was home to four luxury ski areas and had lured celebrities such as actress Goldie Hawn to the previously quiet region. St. Benedict’s hadn’t flourished in the same way since Keating’s departure: While eggs from the monastery’s 5,000 chickens were bringing in money, the community had fallen to less than half its original size when Keating returned in 1981.
Freed from his administrative duties as abbot, Keating continued the work he’d begun at Saint Joseph’s with vigor. He created a nonprofit called Contemplative Outreach to introduce Centering Prayer to the public and continued to commune with leaders of other religions. He found the latter crucial to advancing his own spirituality. “No religion has observed the whole of God,” Keating says. “By sharing different perspectives arising out of different cultures over centuries, there is a wisdom that a single tradition can’t possibly have.” To that end, in 1984, he convened the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, a multiday gathering that brought teachers of different religions—and a few folks without affiliations—to St. Benedict’s. Participants meditated together, shared meals, and conversed on panels and in more casual settings.
Absent the formality of most other interreligious meetings, the Snowmass conference allowed attendees to understand one another beyond their religious affiliations—to become friends. At one meeting, Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman and Ibrahim Gamard, a Sufi Muslim, discovered they’d taken the same Colorado Outward Bound School course and camped on Capitol Peak together when they were 16. This memory created a bond between the men, no matter their disparate feelings about Israel and Palestine. Such tolerance among religious leaders remained both the hope and the accomplishment of the Snowmass conference, which continued in various iterations for more than three decades.
Today, the monastery that started as an outpost filled with disheartened monks has become a well-regarded hub of spirituality. The monks at St. Benedict’s still lease land to ranchers (and now bake cookies to sell in the bookstore and online), but the bulk of their income flows from the 12 public meditative retreats they host each year. Contemplative Outreach has a presence in 39 countries. Keating himself has shared stages with the Dalai Lama. The Snowmass Interreligious Conference ceased in 2015, but Netanel Miles-Yépez, editor of a 2006 book of reflections about the conference, co-founded a nonprofit that holds similar retreats. And once a month, Hoffman convenes a conference call with other religious leaders to ensure the conversation about celebrating differences continues. After all, says Miles-Yépez, “It’s so much more difficult to hate someone when you know what their story is.”
For all of the natural grandeur at St. Benedict’s, the best seat on the property is at the far end of the meadow, in the monastery’s periodical room. Here, late-afternoon sun falls onto bookshelves filled with the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Dressed in pants and a jacket, with a black fleece hat pushed back on his bald head, Keating shuffles into the room from the infirmary, where the oldest monks live. His doctor has advised him to move away from St. Benedict’s and the elevation’s deleterious effect on his body. His response: “I’m not here for physical reasons.” At 94, he needs a walker to get around and hasn’t traveled outside the monastery grounds for years. That hasn’t muted Keating’s passion for dialogue; he’s penned more than 20 books since returning 37 years ago, with the most recent published in 2017.
Given today’s political climate (the Pew Research Center, for example, recently found that Americans haven’t displayed so much contempt for those with different viewpoints in decades), he still has more to say, particularly on the issue of humanity’s redemption. Keating believes civilization’s salvation rests in letting go of our egos—by taking a long look inward.
It’s a message he continues to share, even as he reckons with the reality that he will probably never leave St. Benedict’s again. “The great value of contemplation is that it actually changes your attitude toward other people,” he says. “You sense the certain oneness that is beyond differences.” The sun drops lower in the sky, highlighting the monk’s lined face. Keating squints into the glare. “That’s what humility is, I guess: realizing that somebody else may not be any worse than you are.” He’s quiet now, but his words linger in the air. Then he shifts in his chair and moves out of the light.