March 14, 2006
The monastery on the hill
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.
Posted by jo(e)