Force of Habit

The bells have been ringing for thirty minutes, but it is the sound of a cane rattling through the empty, cavernous church that suggests prayer. It is held by an old man, his stooped body covered in the flowing black habit of a Benedictine monk. He enters from the sacristy, clicking, clacking, up a barely perceptible incline. When he reaches the altar, he pauses and bows, then turns to the left and clicks and clacks his way upward to a lonely seat in the dark wooden choir.

The early morning light is meager, cast from a stained-glass skylight above, through clear windows that run the length of the nave, and from the massive stained glass abstraction that dominates the back of the church at St. John’s Abbey. Other men in habits arrive, bow, and then take seats in the austere straight-backed choir slots. They arrange prayer books and hymnals on the stands in front of them and wait, casting their eyes on the simple wooden crucifix that hangs from the levitating white baldachin. At seven a.m. sharp, a white-haired monk rises from his seat in the choir. “Lord open my lips…”

“And my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” follow the accumulated voices of the Benedictine monks, a soft morning thunder rolling out from the choir over the empty pews.

A single note echoes from the pipe organ. The monks on the choir’s left side sing a verse from Psalms, their voices resonant and nearly undivided. After a pause, the monks on the right side sing a verse. The song continues, shifting back and forth across the choir in a sort of divine stereophonic effect, brothers singing to brothers singing, occasionally joining together on a verse, offering their voices to each other and to God.

When the psalm ends, after the last organ note fades into an ethereal echo, there is a full minute of silence, a contemplation of the prayer just sung, the moment interrupted only by a sneeze, or the occasionally audible grumbling of a stomach. Then the psalms continue, the canticle comes, the responsorial rumbles. Morning Prayer lasts for roughly thirty minutes, depending on the day’s demands, before the monks shuffle silently from the church.

They walk from the sacristy into the cloister, and then turn right into a wide hallway with tile floors and mostly bare walls, passing a lounge where several copies of the day’s Star Tribune have already been pulled apart. The procession continues, still silent, down a flight of stairs, into a darker hallway, past more lounges, past a massive floor-to-ceiling bulletin board covered with sign-up sheets for prayers, readings, haircuts, and kitchen duties, and then through two wooden doors into the abbey dining room. Pastel-colored religious paintings and stained-glass images of foliage hang from the wood-paneled walls. A beautifully carved wood podium stands ceremoniously in the middle of the space; a massive china cabinet dominates a far wall. Eggs, sausages and other dishes are served in chafing dishes on stout wooden tables. It is a very much an old room in style, and yet certain details—the harsh lights, the plastic dishes and trays, the Wheaties and other boxed cereals—suggest that practical updates and conveniences have been integrated. The brothers eat breakfast in silence.

This has more or less been the morning routine since 1856, when a group of Benedictine monks from Pennsylvania arrived in St. Cloud to tend to the German Catholic population. In the 150 years since its establishment, St. John’s Abbey, located on 2,500 acres in Collegeville, ninety miles north of the Twin Cities, has exerted a profound influence on both the Catholic Church and the history of Minnesota. The liturgical reform movement responsible for English and other non-Latin masses received some of its most influential and eloquent support from monks at St. John’s, which is also home to a university and prep school. Minnesota Public Radio was launched within the Abbey’s cloisters (and Garrison Keillor’s first radio performances took place here). The abbey’s Liturgical Press remains one of the most important religious publishing houses in the world, printing journals and books that continue to influence both the scholarly and popular understanding of religion and spirituality. The community has counted among its ranks prominent historians, theologians, liturgists, artists, and philosophers.

Nevertheless, St. John’s Abbey is undergoing the most dramatic changes in its history. For decades, it was the world’s largest Benedictine monastery, with more than four hundred monks living there at its peak in 1963. Today, it has 175, and their average age is sixty-five. The abbey’s traditional role as a provider of parish priests to Minnesota’s churches has become largely obsolete, its monks neither youthful enough nor sufficient in numbers to do the job. The large central Minnesota farm families that once provided the abbey with its most plentiful source of novitiates have been lost to changing rural demographics, leaving the abbey to compete with the temptations of big cities and non-religious careers. Most serious, the sexual-abuse scandals that erupted in America’s parishes also shook St. John’s, altering its culture, its image, and its relationship to Minnesota. Yet even through its darkest hour, the abbey has continued to find novices and retain members, who in turn find relevance in a Minnesota prayer community based on the writings of a sixth-century monk.

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