What is a monastery?
If you have never heard of a monastery, here is the simplest answer: “It is the place where monks live, pray, and work.” Benedictines call themselves “monks” and live in a monastery under an abbot.
Who is a monk?
The simplest answer is “A monk is a brother or priest who lives in a monastery.” All of us at Mount Angel Abbey are monks. Some are ordained priests. Others are not. Non-ordained monks are addressed as “Brother” and ordained members are addressed as “Father.” There is no difference in rank as monks. Priests are not better than brothers. They just end up doing the sacramental “work” of priests.
Aren’t a monastery and an abbey the same thing?
No. “Monastery” usually refers to the building or place where monks live. Abbey has a broader meaning. It refers more to the institution and community. The property we own is referred to as Mount Angel Abbey. The non-profit corporation is Mount Angel Abbey. The men who make vows are members of Mount Angel Abbey.
What is an Abbot?
The abbot is the superior of the community. The word “abbot” comes from the word Jesus used to pray to God; “Abba.” This is translated as “Father” but it would more accurately be translated as “Daddy.” The abbot is the loving and tender father of the monastic family of brothers. As a superior, he is more than a boss, his first concern is for the monks’ well-being and their eternal salvation.
He has help in his leadership role. The Prior is the second in command and shares the burden of administration of the Abbey and the leadership of the monastic community. The prior also has a backup. He is the Subprior. There are also other monks placed in positions of responsibility; the masters of novices and juniors, the procurator, the guest master, the choir master, the vocations director, the kitchen master and so on. But everything is subject to the abbot’s approval. The Abbey is a well-ordered organization with clear lines of responsibility and authority.
How many monks belong to Mount Angel Abbey today?
- The total number of monks is 52, with an average age of 47.8 years.
- The monks range in age from 23 to 83.
- There are 49 active monks in the community; 18 are in monastic or priestly formation
- Three of the monks are aged and disabled; three are partially active.
- Of the monks, 20 are active priests.
- In addition to monks born in the USA, the community includes men from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, New Zealand/Samoa, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
- Twelve of the monks are adult converts to the Catholic faith.
Who is St. Benedict?
St. Benedict was a monk who lived from 480-543 A.D. He was from a town in Italy called Norcia. When he was young he went to school in Rome but decided to flee the decadent life of the city. At first, he lived alone in a cave called Subiaco. Later he became the head of a monastery at Montecasino, in Italy, where he wrote his Rule for Monks.
What is the Liturgy of the Hours?
St. Benedict refers to the monks’ prayer of the Hours as “The Work of God.” Sometimes we refer to our prayer services as the Divine Office. These prayers are the official prayers of the Catholic Church. Lots of people use a prayer book (or an app on their smart phone) called the Liturgy of the Hours. Sometimes they refer to the book known as a breviary. In the monastery we usually refer to these prayers as the Divine Office. When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours we join members of the Church around the world throughout all time, and the choir of all the saints and angels in heaven to pray together to God.
Do you pray in the middle of the night? I have heard that is what monks do.
Actually some monasteries do pray Vigils or Matins very early in the morning before the sun comes up. At Mount Angel we start with Vigils at 5:20 am. Then there is a break “to take care of the needs of nature” as St. Benedict says. At 6:30 we pray Lauds. Some call it Morning prayer. Mass is at 8:00 am. Then everyone goes to their work. At 12:00 noon we gather again for Midday Prayer, followed by lunch. Then it’s back to work. At 5:15 pm we pray Vespers (Evening Prayer) before dinner. There is recreation after dinner until 7:30 when we pray Compline or Night Prayer.
What vows Benedictine monks take?
Monks make vows of 1) Obedience according to the Rule of St. Benedict, 2) Stability in the monastery and 3) Fidelity to the monastic way of life.
Our Obedience is to Christ and His Church. We live this obedience under the Rule of St. Benedict and our abbot.
Stability has been described as the vow that stops us from running away from the Cross. We promise to live in one monastery and with one community for our entire lives. It is the “till death do us part” of monastic vows.
Fidelity to the Monastic Way of Life. The vow of “conversatio” is a promise to daily follow the monastic way of life in ongoing life-long conversion. A monk is not finished growing in holiness until he is dead.
I thought monks took a vows of silence. Is that true?
No! Monks have never taken a vow of silence. In his Rule, St Benedict instructs monks to have restraint of speech. This is so that the monastery will keep an atmosphere of prayer. We have what we call the Grand Silence. This is the silence that permeates the monastery during the night. No one is supposed to speak. It starts with Compline and ends with breakfast.
I have noticed that some monks don’t have a hood as part of their habit and some don’t have a scapular. What’s with that?
Monks receive different pieces of the habit as they progress through the different stages of formation.
What are the stages of monastic life?
Candidate, postulant, novice, junior monk and senior monk. (And we should not forget the deceased monks!)
A candidate for monastic life is someone who is in the process of discernment and application before they enter the monastery. They don’t get a habit until they become postulants.
A postulant is the first stage of becoming a monk. He receives a tunic with a belt, but nothing else, when he enters the monastery. He follows the daily monastic schedule, attends formation classe,s and is assigned to house jobs, while he seriously discerns his monastic vocation in our community.
A novice is a “beginner.” He receives a scapular to wear over his tunic, but it has no hood. He has to wait until he makes vows to get hooded. At the end of the novitiate he makes simple vows lasting three years and receives a scapular with a hood. It’s a sign that he is now an official monk. He also receives a new name. It is a sign that the old man is “dead” and that a new man is “born.”
The Church requires all who make religious vows to spend at least one full year in novitiate, in study and prayer, before they make their first (“simple”) vows. They do all the prayer and work that a senior monk would do, plus they take courses that will help them learn how to become a holy monk.
A junior monk makes simple vows for three years. It is a commitment to live out his monastic vows with fidelity and fervor. At the end of three years he can petition to make solemn vows that last for life. The senior monks of the community meet in Chapter and discuss the junior’s performance and potential and then vote on whether or not he may make solemn vows.
A monk becomes a senior monk when he makes final, solemn vows for the rest of his life. It is a lifelong commitment to live out his vows of stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life and obedience according to the Rule of St. Benedict. At this ceremony the monk receives a cuculla (or “choir robe”) and undergoes the “mystical burial,” where he is covered by a funeral pall as he prostrates himself before the altar at the time of the offertory. He “rises with Christ” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer where the bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Christ.
Once one becomes a senior monk, he becomes an equal partner in the community. He now has a voice and a vote in chapter, which is like becoming an equal partner in a business.
A deceased monk is placed in a coffin made of wood by one of the monks in the monastery. He is buried in his cuculla and habit. Every year the deceased monk is remembered with a special prayer on the anniversary of his death. A summary story of his life is written and placed in a necrology binder which is kept in the monastery for monks to read. In a real sense they are still part of our community. After all, don’t we believe that for the faithful “life is changed, not ended”?
You mentioned “chapter” before. What is that?
The Holy Rule says that “whenever anything important is to be done, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges to be the wiser course.” It is a meeting to decide important issues. By canon law, certain decisions must be approved by chapter. Each monk has equal voice and vote in chapter-mandated decisions. In other matters, the abbot has the last word.
What do the monks eat? Are they vegetarians?
We eat meat and any kind of food that the kitchen master cooks up. There may be Mexican dishes, Chinese food, pizza, kielbasa, or shepherds’ pie.
There are monasteries that are vegetarian. In fact, the Rule of St. Benedict says that, “monks should not eat the flesh of four-footed animals.” But times and conditions change the local observance of the Rule which is determined by the abbot. The Rule also says that each monk should receive a half a bottle of wine every day. We don’t do that either, but we do have wine on special occasions.
Do monks talk at meals?
The Rule of St. Benedict prescribes that the monks should eat in silence while one of the brothers reads from a book to edify the brothers. At Mount Angel, we observe this tradition. The monks take turns reading at meals (lunch and dinner) a week at a time. We start with Scripture, then the necrology if it is someone’s anniversary of death, then the current book. At the end there is a reading from The Rule or the martyrology for the next day, and the announcement of a monk’s name day to be observed the next day.
So, meals are quite different from what most people do?
Yes, that is true. The refectory (our dining room) is arranged so that the monks sit on one side of the tables at the perimeter of the room. The meal is served “family style” with four monks to each set. The Holy Rule prescribes that the monks should take turns serving the meal a week at a time. After the opening prayer and the beginning of the reading of Scripture, the superior rings a bell and all the monks place their napkins under their chins. This is a tradition from our motherhouse, Engelberg in Switzerland. Then the servers will bring the food to each setting. Each takes his portion and passes the dish on. The servers collect the food leftover on the serving dishes and offer the leftovers to the brothers, who may take a second portion if they like. The dishes are collected and sent to the dishwasher. When all have finished eating, the superior again rings a bell and the reader reads from The Rule or the Martyrology for the next day and the announcement of any brother’s name day, and then chants, “Be grateful to the Lord for his mercy to us.” The community responds, “Thanks be to God,” and all rise for the closing prayers. Besides the meal prayer we invoke our patrons by responding, “Pray for us,” or we kneel down and pray the Litany of Saint Joseph for our spiritual and temporal needs and vocations to the monastery. We will also pray a special prayer for our benefactors during novenas before the Feast St. Joseph, the Feast of St. Benedict, the feast of the Assumption, the month of November for our deceased benefactors, and the nine days preceding Christmas. Then we exit in silence until we reach the door where we take holy water, sign ourselves, and greet each other with the traditional Engelberg greeting, “Prosit.” The silence is lifted after lunch and dinner and monks will take the time for conversation, a bit of business, or recreation.
Do you eat like that for celebrations too?
When there is a celebration we have a “dispensation” from the silence and the reading is limited to the Scripture and the Rule or Martyrology. Some celebration meals will have wine. Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving meals are served as banquets, with courses. Sunday dinner is served as a buffet with a dispensation. Breakfast is always served as a buffet and eaten in silence without reading.
What are your living accommodations like?
Each monk has a private “cell.” (We called our rooms that before the term was used for prisons!) It’s a simple room, maybe as large as 200 square feet. There is an exterior window, a bed, a desk with chair, a comfortable chair for reading, a lamp or two, a dresser and closet, usually a bookcase and a sink with a medicine cabinet. Monks will usually have some personal things on their shelves and walls; artwork, icons, family photographs and souvenirs or knickknacks. A monk might have a computer, printer, a radio or CD player with headphones or earbuds and a file cabinet but no TV’s. There is a community recreation room with a large HD 3D flat screen TV, donated by a thoughtful benefactor.
Most monks do not have a private bathroom. The superiors’ rooms and infirmary rooms have them, but for most of us the restroom and showers are “down the hallway,” much like the old college dormitories.
We have a “reading room,” or recreation room, which is a nice parlor with a fireplace and lots of windows overlooking the valley. There are newspapers and magazines, a large reading table and several comfortable chairs and a couch.
A second recreation room is the TV room with comfortable chairs, and a third community recreation room is commonly referred to as the coffee room.
This room is part kitchen and dining room, with several tables that are used for the infirm to eat meals and others to play cards or other games during recreation. There is a large refrigerator, a microwave, toaster oven, toaster, espresso machine, and a large capacity coffee machine. We drink a lot of coffee. There is an “island” there where leftover desserts are put out as well as gifts of goodies that may have been given to individual monks or the community as a whole. These consumables are “up for grabs” for any monks who might come by. Most goodies don’t last long! Peanut butter, jam, bread, tea and other things in the refrigerator are there for the hungry monk. It’s a popular spot for conversation after our midday meal.
On the first floor of the monastery there is a long hallway the entire length of the building with arched windows looking out over the monastery garden and the valley below. Some monks like to sit in the windows to read while we wait for a meal or the bell to ring for one of the Offices.
In the basement there is an exercise room, a laundry room, boiler room, and storage rooms. The museum is on the south end of our basement.
What kind of work do monks do?
Well, there are lots of possibilities for work. There is priestly ministry, saying Mass and hearing confessions, spiritual direction, teaching and formation work in the Seminary. There are the bookstore, brewery and guesthouse, each with many job opportunities. Monks work in the library, Abbey administration, the large grounds, maintenance, and custodial work. Craftsmen will do artwork, such as icons, calligraphy, candles, etc. We have a garden with vegetables and flowers to tend. The novices do the laundry for the monastery and guesthouse, a couple of junior monks cut hair every Saturday, and everybody has a housecleaning chore to keep the monastery clean and tidy. And the Prior makes sure the cats get fed!
Do you have pets?
No. Not really. But there are always feral cats around and monks feel sorry for them, so they get fed. Squirrels and birds also get something now and then. Monks with allergies and pets in the same house are not a peaceful combination. None-the-less, monks living outside the monastery are known to have pets.
Do monks get to go to their parents’ funerals? I’ve heard that once they join, they never leave the monastery, not even for a parent’s funeral.
That used to be a standard, but these days that is not the rule. A monk can receive permission to attend weddings, funerals, and other family celebrations. Each monk is allowed a time of annual vacation and most choose to spend time with their families.
Monks are not to leave the monastery property without permission. With permission, a monk might accept an invitation for a meal or visit with friends and family. Sometimes their works requires them to leave the property. Sometimes a benefactor will allow the monks to use their vacation home when they are not using it. We also have a house on our forest property we call the “milk ranch.” Monks can reserve the house alone or with others for days of reflection, recreation or vacation.
When permission, a monk may request the use of a car, maybe some food from the kitchen, and he will be given some “emergency cash.” Quite often a monk will have a McDonald’s Emergency when they go for a doctor or dentist appointment.
The Holy Rule prescribes a blessing and prayer from the superior when a monk leaves on a journey and receives the same on his return. We continue that custom at Mount Angel.
With prayers starting at 5:20 in the morning, how much sleep do you guys get?
Most monks will go to bed sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 o’clock. That will give them 7 or 8 hours of sleep. Some monks get by with less sleep and will stay up late. Occasionally you will see a monk nod-off at Vigils, Lauds or Mass.
In times long past, there used to be a monk with a long stick assigned to watch for sleeping monks. If someone fell asleep, he would get tapped on the head with the stick. These days a sleepy monk may get an elbow from the monk next to him, but there is no more smacking monks on the head with a stick.
Do monks have telephones?
Yes. In fact, we are issued smart phones. A few years ago, it was decided that our aging telephone system needed to be replaced. In assessing the cost, the decision was made to get a contract for the Hilltop for wireless telephone service.
I thought monks were supposed to be removed from the world. How can you do that with computers and smart phones?
Jesus tells us that we will be “in the world but not of the world.” Use of technology has to be limited in some way. It has be an intentional removal by each monk. If we are faithful to our prayer, reading and work, we will use the technology as needed but not much more.
Some of the monks do use the phones for games, etc,. but the rule of the house is that those things be limited. We should not become addicted to our cell phones. Social media, streaming video, and general surfing of the internet are not general practices of monks. We use the technology for work, communication and perhaps some limited entertainment, but we do not want to become “screen junkies.” Also, to keep better social distancing and avoid passing playing cards to one another at evening recreation during this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the monks who enjoy a game of pinochle found the game on a phone app. They each downloaded it so they could keep playing!
Don’t monks make vows of poverty or chastity?
Fidelity to the monastic way of life contains those two evangelical counsels. Monks have no personal property. None! Everything belongs to the community.
I’ve noticed that monks and monasteries often have some really nice things. Isn’t that contrary to poverty?
We have what is called “a perfect community of goods.” Like the Jerusalem Community in the Acts of the Apostles, everything is held in common and is distributed according to need. We ask permission to accept personal gifts, and this is done only to the extent that it is “ours to use,” not to own. The Rule of St. Benedict says that the monk should not be disheartened if the Abbot chooses to give the gift to someone else.
The principle is not to be attached to anything earthly. We do not own things, but we are stewards of the things God has given us, and we will be judged on our wise stewardship of God’s gifts. Things need not be the cheapest or simplest, but in all things, God is to be glorified. God is glorified in excellence and beauty, and we strive for that.