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The Great Silence

These Parts/At Saint Gregory's Abbey near Three Rivers, Michigan, 11 men live according to the rule of Saint Benedict. Visitors are welcome.

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They gather in the chapel, their signal seven rings of the bell on the monastery roof. The abbot gently raps on the wooden desk that holds his Psalter. "O Lord, open our lips," one monk quietly begins. "And our mouth shall declare your praise," respond his religious brothers. This is matins, the first of seven daily "divine offices," or times of prayer. During matins, the monks precisely recite 12 psalms and a set selection of scriptural readings. Afterward they return to their spare rooms to pray or read in private, then eat a small breakfast and do a few personal chores--all without saying a word, as the Great Silence that began at 8 PM the previous evening resumes.

What we know of matins, we must confess, we have gathered not through personal experience but through materials furnished for our reading by the monastery's considerate guest master. For when the brothers of Saint Gregory's Abbey begin their unremitting daily regimen, we are still buried beneath the covers in our little guest cottage down the road, fast asleep. It is, after all, four o'clock in the morning.

It's an unlikely place, this spiritual haven, pungent with the springtime smell of horse manure wafting from neighboring farms. This Episcopalian monastery is just outside Three Rivers, Michigan, a town of 7,015 with a fundamentalist bent, factories that turn out everything from fabricated steel to burial vaults, and a tiny riverfront zoo sporting strange species of chickens.

The abbey brothers sneak into town now and then for groceries or stationery or motor oil, then promptly retreat to the embrace of their isolated encampment, to lives devoted to contemplation and strictly ordered by dicta set forth 15 centuries ago in the Rule of Saint Benedict. This extensive canon, whose author was founder of a monastery at Monte Cassino near Rome, comprises the foundation of the Michigan monks' community. The rule tells them how to pray: "Lauds on Sundays should begin with the sixty-sixth psalm chanted straight through without an antiphon, then the fiftieth psalm, with Alleluia; then the hundred and seventeenth and the sixty-second; then the Benedictite and the Laudate psalms; then a lesson from the Apocalypse to be recited by heart . . . and so the end." The rule tells them how to eat, how to sleep, how to walk, talk, and in every regard be in a state of unflinching obeisance and ego-derailing humility. It tells them, in effect, how to distinguish themselves from the rest of us.

The Tools of Good Works: To love the Lord God with all one's heart, all one's soul, and all one's strength. . . . To deny oneself, to chastise the body, not to seek soft living, to love fasting. . . . Not to yield to anger, to nurse a grudge, to make a feigned peace, to swear, to render evil for evil. Not to be a wine-bibber, a glutton, not somnolent, slothful, not a grumbler, not a detractor. To fear the Day of Judgement, to dread hell, to keep one's mouth from evil and depraved talk, not to love much speaking, not to love much or violent laughter, not to fulfill the desires of the flesh. To hate one's own will.

When the monastery bell rings again, it's in announcement of laud, the second prayer period. The monks ceremoniously gather outside the chapel, bow to the abbot, take holy water at the door, and enter the stark, oak-walled church in procession. As each pair enters the inner choir area, they face the altar and bow deeply from the waist, then turn and bow to each other, and finally enter their assigned straight-backed wooden stalls on opposite sides of the sanctuary. When all are in place, they bow once again to the abbot. At his signaling rap, they make the sign of the cross and begin the recitation of psalms and scriptures. Laud begins promptly at 6 AM. We're still sleeping.

It wasn't his rule alone that got Saint Benedict's name out back in the Dark Ages. His celebrity biographer, sixth-century pope Saint Gregory the Great (patron of the Michigan abbey), really got the ball rolling. The account, written shortly after Benedict's death in 549, offers a glowing portrait of the saint as a young man. A country boy, Benedict traveled to Rome to study law but hastily retreated from the cacophony of the city to the hills nearby. His charismatic spirit, the story goes, proved a big draw to disciples, which prompted him to organize a monastic community. He devised the rule over a period of years, gleaning ideas from earlier monastic writings and the Bible. Compared to previous canons, say scholars who consider these sorts of things, Saint Benedict's rule struck a humane balance between radical asceticism and a life of indulgence.

At the very least, the canon gave its adherents something familiar to cling to after the fall of the Roman Empire. Saint Benedict's monastery was sacked by invading Lombards right after his death. Survivors hightailed it to Rome, taking along a copy of their precious rule, which made its way into the hands of Saint Gregory. He in turn dispatched it to England with the first archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Augustine, and it became the operative "Holy Rule" in monasteries throughout Western Europe for centuries to come.

Then came a glitch: in the 16th century Henry VIII gave the royal boot to the Catholic church and its monasteries and created his own Church of England. But portions of Saint Benedict's rule managed to sneak into that church's Book of Common Prayer. (For instance, certain aspects of morning and evening prayer rites practiced by modern-day Anglicans and their American counterparts, the Episcopalians, derive from Saint Benedict.) Meanwhile, the rule continued to thrive in Roman Catholic monasteries elsewhere in Europe.

A century ago, religious orders made a comeback in England. Nashdom Abbey in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, founded in the early 20th century, served as the inspiration for Saint Gregory's Abbey. Except for the modern-day abolition of corporal punishment and an end to the acceptance of child oblates--boys turned over to monasteries for life by their parents--the ancient rule is assiduously adhered to by the Michigan monks. In this country, few monasteries follow it as strictly, not even Roman Catholic Benedictines, who tend to spend more time in priestly community duties than in, as Saint Benedict intended, communing with God.

The bell rings again. It is 8:15 AM, the hour of terce and mass. At last we are present, if not fully awake. We take our place in the visitor's section, three rows of folding chairs set apart from the monks' inner sanctum. They sing the psalms prescribed for this service in a solemn, rhythmic chant, the verses alternating like intimate conversation from one side of the chamber to the other. The brothers' voices are sweet and the pauses between phrases frequent and prolonged, as if they are drawing their every breath from a deep well. Prayers are read, and monks and guests alike gather around the altar for the ceremonial breaking of bread. This completed, we guests file out of the chapel while the monks proceed to a small room for an oral reading of the daily martyrology, or list of saints. Finally they read a portion of Saint Benedict's rule, a daily discipline cleverly devised by its author, who divided the 73 chapters into paragraph-long sections. Read according to these divisions, the rule is reviewed in its entirety three times a year, year after year until eternity.

The monastery should, if possible, be so arranged that all necessary things, such as water, mill, garden, and various crafts may be within the enclosure, so that the monks may not be compelled to wander outside it, for that is not at all expedient for their souls.

Saint Gregory's Abbey was originally located in Valparaiso, Indiana, founded in 1939 as an arm of Nashdom Abbey with an abbot imported from England. To pay their bills, the monks took on pastoral responsibilities for three northern Indiana churches. In 1947 they abdicated churchly duties to pursue a more contemplative life, moving to a farm on the current site. (In 1969, Saint Gregory's became independent of its English mentor.) A rickety wooden farmhouse some 75 years old serves as the main building, to which has been attached over the years a labyrinth of additions enclosing sleeping quarters for 20, a refectory for meals, a 10,000-volume library, and offices. Our cottage a quarter mile down a dirt road is another converted farmhouse. Back near the main buildings, there are a chapel and two guest dormitories of more recent construction. The whole makeshift arrangement has its problems, most prominently that of restricted access to women. Females--even clergywomen--are denied access to the library and dining hall because of these areas' immediate connection to monks' private quarters. Ambitious plans are under way to raise money to tear down the old segregated buildings and put up new integrated ones, but they may be some years in the completion.

Women and men alike are free to roam through the larger part of the monastery's 600 acres of private woods and fields. Well-worn walking paths meander through the thick woods, head down to the shore of a serene little lake, strike back to the monks' private cemetery, and pull to an abrupt halt at the fences of tilled fields the monks lease to farmers for the price of the land's taxes. The scene is a tranquil one--flocks of geese flapping overhead, the occasional chipmunk or deer picking its way along the matted lawn of fallen leaves, water lapping up to the lakeshore, trees creaking in the wind.

Tranquil, that is, except for rumbling lawn mowers, roaring tractors, screaming buzz saws. "Idleness is the enemy of the soul," Saint Benedict said. And so, during one two-hour period following morning mass and another in the afternoon, the monks have work to do. Some carry on their assigned tasks inside, cataloging books in the library or washing dishes in the kitchen. Others work outdoors, cultivating the one-acre vegetable garden, landscaping the lawns around the buildings, clearing the hiking trails of nature's debris, felling aged trees to make way for new growth. A mud-caked John Deere tractor and Ford pickup truck, power mowers, old engine parts, saws, rakes, and who knows what else are parked in a wooden open-air shed beside the road to our cottage. When the work is done and the roar of engines has subsided, this is a remarkably beautiful place. The shadow of a wide doorway opens onto a paradise of lush greenery, while inside shafts of sunlight stream through stained-glass windows onto the dirt floor.

Chapter 55. Clothing According to One's Climate . . . In ordinary places the following dress is sufficient for each monk: a tunic, a cowl (thick and wooly in winter, but thin or worn in summer), a belt for work, and for the feet shoes and stockings. And let not the monks complain of the color or coarseness of anything of these things, but be content with what is to be found in the district where they live and can be purchased cheaply.

Like the others, he wears the traditional long black tunic, draped in front with an apronlike piece of material called a scapular and loosely gripped with a belt, its long leather tongue dangling toward the ground. On his feet are brown socks and leather sandals. Dark-haired, bespectacled, and as mild-mannered as befits his chosen religious name, Brother Placid was a music major in college, an Army officer, a divinity student, and a church deacon before coming to Saint Gregory's, where he bakes the abbey's altar bread and serves as its official guest master. His brothers go about their morning business silently, despite the lifting of the Great Silence after mass. With their heads down as if deeply engrossed in the most secret of thoughts and seemingly oblivious to a stranger's presence, they scurry along a path carrying a bundle of linens or hoe a corner of the garden or disappear into a mysterious doorway. But Brother Placid will sit down and speak with us, at least briefly. It is his job, after all, to welcome most of the 2,000 guests who spend time here each year, from visiting clergy to ordinary folks seeking a night's peace and quiet to clutches of church groups on weekend retreats.

Eleven monks reside at Saint Gregory's, Brother Placid informs us. Nine of them, himself included, are "life-professed" members, four of the nine priests. Two residents are still undergoing the "formation process," a five-and-a-half-year-long training period that separates the monks from the boys. The oldest resident is Brother Leo, with the abbey since its founding a half century ago. Youngest is Brother Mario, a novice who entered this past fall. The brothers hail from all over the country. Some worked in business before taking their vows, others in industry. About half served in the military. At the helm is Abbot Andrew Marr, a longtime member elected by life-professed members to that position's eight-year term.

With spots always vacant--currently, there are openings for nine monks--the abbey is on a never-ending quest for new members. A two-week program introducing the vocational life attracts about 20 curious men each summer. As many as three of these participants may ask to join the abbey the following autumn. Nonetheless, 90 percent of all people who join religious vocations eventually leave them, according to Brother Placid, and Saint Gregory's Abbey is no exception, despite the fact that the first of the three Benedictine vows is stability, the promise to stay put for a lifetime. The subsequent vows don't get any easier. Number two is obedience--to God, to the abbot, and, in true communal sensibility, to one's fellow monks. Last but not least is to commit oneself to the ongoing struggle to embody the ideals of the monastic life for a lifetime, come hell or high water.

Fundamental to all of these vows is the whole ornery matter of humility. Far-reaching and extraordinarily difficult to attain, humility as known by the monks of Saint Gregory is also a real bear to explain. Saint Benedict manages to do so only in degrees--a dozen of them altogether:

The First Degree of Humility: That man keep the fear of God before his eyes, guarding himself against sins and vices, including desires of the flesh, in all ways . . . second, that a man love not his own will, nor delight in fulfilling his own desires . . . fifth, that he humbly confess and conceal not from his abbot any evil thoughts that enter his heart, and any secret sins that he has committed . . . sixth, that a monk be content with the meanest and worst of everything . . . seventh, that he believe that "I am a worm and no man, a byword to all men and the laughingstock of the people" . . . tenth, that he be not ready and prompt to laughter, for it is written, "the fool lifteth up his voice in laughter" . . . twelfth, that a monk should not only be humble of heart, but should also in his behavior . . . always have his head bowed and his eyes downcast, pondering always the guilt of his sins, and considering that he is about to be brought before the dread judgment seat of God, constantly saying to himself, "Lord, I a sinner am not worthy to raise mine eyes to heaven."

The bell on the monastery roof rings again, and Brother Placid must be on his way. It's just before 11:30 AM, the hour of sext. Monks and guests file into the chapel for the fourth time today. A couple of minutes into the ritual, one monk leaps forward and genuflects dramatically before his fellows. This, we later learn, is a form of self-shaming, an act required upon the slightest error in the established recitations. Immediate submission to such "humble satisfaction" spares the monk greater chastisement from the abbot later on. Were his sin showing up late to prayer, he would be required to stand in a place appointed by the abbot "for such careless persons" until he has done his penance. These instructions are clearly set out in Saint Benedict's rule, including a final note that applied back in the old days: Were the monk a young boy, mere public humiliation would not be enough; he would have to be whipped.

Chapter 39. The Measure of Food. Every table should have two cooked dishes plus fruit or vegetable and bread. Above all things, gluttony must be avoided, so that a monk never be surprised by a surfeit; for there is nothing so unfitting for a Christian as surfeiting, according to our Lord's words: "Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting."

There's tuna and bagels for lunch, for the monks and their male guests, that is. Women guests, excluded from the refectory, prepare lunch in the kitchens of their guest quarters. The up side is that we women are free to listen to the radio or read the label on the peanut butter jar or, if we're with companions, gab. The men, in accordance with the rule, eat lunch and dinner in silence while one monk reads a book aloud. The books so digested are generally scholarly biographies of the saints or meaty historical tomes--a kind of compensation, perhaps, for a diet approaching the vegetarian. On Sundays, lunchtime reading is replaced with listening to music. Major holidays are a special treat: The monks get to talk during lunch.

The regimented pace continues through the afternoon: Quiet activity or a brief nap are on the schedule after lunch. At 2 PM it's back to the chapel for none, the fifth prayer period of the day. Then comes the day's second two-hour work period, followed by a 4:30 coffee break during which monks and men guests may visit for a half hour in the refectory. At five o'clock the bell rings for the service of vespers, attended by some monks in tunics and others who haven't yet changed out of flannel workshirts and coveralls. Supper is at 6 PM, again acccompanied by oral reading--and perhaps even by a bit of wine, the monks keeping in mind two Benedictine injunctions regarding alcohol: First, that they "drink temperately and not to sateity, for "wine maketh even the wise to fall away."' And second, that they don't complain during those unfortunate times when a small quantity of wine or none at all is available: "Above all things do we give this admonition, that they abstain from murmuring."

At 6:30 the monks are allowed slightly more than an hour of free time. Some actually sit down in front of a television set to watch the network news, then report the headlines to nonviewers. Others read the news magazines the monastery subscribes to or engage in personal hobbies--developing photographs in the monastery darkroom, or painting religious icons.

The bell rings once more at 7:45 for compline. The monks chant prayers for the church and for the world. The day's final psalms and hymns are sung. Monks and guests are aspersed with holy water by the abbot, all reciting, "Purify me, O Lord, with hyssop." This final rite completed, the monks return to their rooms, and the nightly 14-hour Great Silence begins.

Chapter 42. Monks should practice silence at all times, but especially at night. . . . When they come out of Compline, let there be no further permission for anyone to say anything. . . . For it is written, "In much speaking thou shalt not escape sin," and elsewhere, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." For it becometh the master to speak and to teach; but it befits the disciple to be silent and to listen.

It's a nice place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there. Frankly, we would find it intolerable. Cutting a slow path through the woods back to our cottage, we turn this way and that at our whim, listen to the wind rustle the treetops, and watch clouds sweep across a darkening sky. Living by the rule, Saint Benedict concluded, will not lead to spiritual perfection, but it "will move the practitioner . . . in the direction of loftier heights of wisdom and virtue." Wisdom and virtue are one thing; being free to come and go as we please--to be ourselves--is quite another. This is the life we choose, the life of presumed freedom.

Chapter 22: How the Monks are to Sleep. Let them sleep each one in a separate bed. Let their beds be assigned to them in accordance with the date of their conversion, subject to the abbot's dispositions . . . and when they rise for the work of God, let them gently encourage one another, on account of the excuses to which the sleepy are addicted.

The monastery lights went out hours ago. It's way past midnight when we switch off our cottage lamp. We lie in bed staring through the dark toward the ceiling, wide awake.

For information on Three Rivers and Saint Joseph County, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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