March 14, 2006

The monastery on the hill

monastery

The monastery I go to twice each year for retreat and reflection is a sheep farm. Benedictine monasteries are self-supporting, and this monastery supports itself through a farm, a bookstore, and donations from guests. I took this photo while I was hiking across a sheep pasture. To the left, you can see the huge old barn, more than a century old. In the distance you can see the spire of the chapel, which is built in an octagon shape. Inside is a simple stone altar, rows of high, plain windows, and doors that face in the four directions.

Seven times each day, a monk will untie the rope in the chapel and ring the bell in the steep, calling the monks to prayer. In the early morning and in the evening, the monks wear long black robes, but in the middle of the day, they will arrive in the chapel wearing their work clothes. Brother Tractor will come covered with mud or grease; Brother Joking will have wax all over his arms from candlemaking. Most days, I can hear the bell even out in the sheep pasture. Beyond the chapel are low dark buildings, where the monks work and live.

The white buildings in the middle of the photo are guesthouses. A Benedictine monastery can exist without a chapel, but it cannot exist without a guest room because Benedictines take a vow of hospitality. Although you can’t see them, tucked behind the big barn are two more small guest cottages. Up that hill, if you follow the curving road, you will come to yet another guesthouse, an old farm cottage where guests meet for meals. Many intimate conversations take place at the table in that guest cottage.

Townspeople and guests, some Christian and some not, come to the monastery for rest, reflection, and retreat. Some buy the monastery wool, the honey or the beeswax candles, the apples or the cider. Many will attend services to listen to the monks chant or will descend into the crypt below the chapel to light a candle. Some come for the bookstore, which has a really terrific selection of books. I used to be surprised that a Benedictine monastery would be so willing to stock so many books that are feminist, progressive, and critical of the Catholic Church -- until I met the women from town who run the bookstore and select the books.

For many people in the area, the big barn on the hill is a local landmark, a feature they have known their whole lives. They have grown up with the monastery up on the hill. They’ve come to sheep sheerings on Memorial Day weekend, an event that many townspeople participate in, and they’ve hiked some of the trails around the monastery. Some townspeople will adopt a flower garden on the monastery grounds and care for it from spring until fall. When the wind is right, and they hear the bells toll from the chapel steeple, they know the monks are praying, as they have for decades, gathered in the same place, every day, every week, every year, no matter what the season.

barn

23 comments:

glenda said...

incredible pictures.

abd anonymous said...

That sounds like a wonderful retreat. Do they chant the Divine Office for their prayer times?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

The different visions of monastic living amaze me. I've been reading recently about the Thai forest tradition of Buddhist monastics, who are so much more ascedic! Yet they too go to seek enlightenment in a rural, natural environment.

Anonymous said...

I want to hug one of the sheep. They look so sweet.

SuperB

Leslee said...

Yes, I want to hug a sheep too. I must admit that I am quite jelous of the fact that you get to take retreat in such a beautiful place. Someday I will do that as well.

elsewhere said...

Wow!

it seems blogging is allowed at the monastery?

jo(e) said...

No, I'm not blogging from the monastery. I came home yesterday.

The monks do use computers though -- they share one -- and the monastery does have a website.

The sheep are pretty big. I don't think you would want to hug them in person. In the spring, though, when the babies are born, it's fun to hold the baby sheep. They are so cute.

Questing Parson said...

How great to discover you blog. At a younger age, I, too, often found myself in retreat at such a monastery.

BeachMama said...

Sounds and looks like a beautiful place to reflect and rest. The pictures are gorgeous!

Poor Mad Peter said...

The progressive bookshop is possible because of the abbot, who sets the tone for the monastery. Bless him--his work is already bearing fruit, i would say.

jo(e) said...

Actually, this monastery is unusual in that it has no abbot. The founder was progressive enough that he wanted to eliminate hierarchy so there is a prior, but no abbot.

Brother Joking was just explaining to me the other day that even though each monk has certain responsibilities and tasks, big decisions are made by consensus.

The monks have also handed areas such as the bookstore over to a group of people from the community (the "Friends of the Monastery"). Most of the monks are quite old, so the work that needs to be done could not possibly be accomplished without help from the community.

Rachel's Big Dunk said...

Such a simple thing... that cross on the barn. Yet it speaks volumes to me.

Thanks for posting.

Friday Mom said...

What an amazing place. It's great how it's so closely tied to the community. Wow. I could use a week there myself.

Bardiac said...

What an amazing place that looks to be. I hope you feel entirely refreshed and centered, or as much as one can once you're back.

Jessica said...

First of all, I absolutely love those photos - but it sounds like such a wonderfully relaxing place to visit, too.

ccw said...

Fabulous pictures! I thought the sheep were pasted in at first glance.

Sounds like a lovely place.

Mona Buonanotte said...

Summer there must be beautiful!

HeyJules said...

That place is gorgeous! I would never want to come home again...

halloweenlover said...

That second picture is crazy. It looks like a beam of light is coming down onto the monastery. Do you recall if that was really there?

Sounds like a wonderful place to sit and be peaceful.

jo(e) said...

halloweenlover: Yes, the clouds had opened and a beam of sunlight was coming right down on the barn. It was actually more dramatic in person than in the photo. I don't have an expensive camera -- these are just snapshots.

Even though the chapel at the monastery is beautifully designed, I tend to take more photos of the barn. I think that says something about my spiritual path ....

LutheranChik said...

iWhat sort of an exponential sin is it to be envious of someone else's spiritual retreat?;-)

listmaker said...

beautiful pictures - what a lovely place

Psycho Kitty said...

Sigh. Take me with you.