Written by Kyle Smith.
This past weekend, a group of twenty-one students traveled with Dr. Hartley and Emily Bishop to spend a weekend at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey. The abbey is comprised of a Benedictine monastery, a Catholic seminary, and guest house accommodations. This trip was organized as part of Dr. Hartley’s Foundations of Christian Doctrine Class as a way to engage different methods of practicing the Christian life. This trip has been an annual highlight of a higher level religion class from the time Dr. Hartley was an undergraduate student.
The abbey is located on a beautiful campus in the rolling hills of rural Southern Indiana and the campus begs to be explored. The minute the group arrived and had moved all of the luggage into rooms, the majority of students began to run around exploring the surrounding woods, reflective ponds, old buildings, and hidden shrines as excited as children (or I guess college students) in a candy store.
The abbey functions at a much slower pace than a normal schedule at Greenville. It provides a quite restful atmosphere, lending itself to times of silence, contemplation, and meditation. Prayer services are held seven times a day, framing the day with prayer. This aligns with the Benedictines’ rule of “prayer and work” – a concept by which the monks strive to live their lives. The group from Greenville attended a series of morning prayer (Vigils and Lauds), Midday prayer, and Evening prayer (Vespers), as well as Mass on Sunday morning.
Style of service was much different than what one would experience at Greenville. It was an especially interesting contrast after attending a Thursday night Vespers the day before going to the monastery. Prayer at the monastery is much slower in pace, matching the overall atmosphere of the abbey. We entered the church in silence, and this silence was present throughout the service, providing more opportunities for contemplation and listening. The silence was broken to participate in chanting prayers and psalms and to hear the reading of scripture.
However, while there were experiences strange to the group, at times it was fairly easy to forget that we were even at a monastery because of the “normal” activities going on around us. When walking the grounds, one could pass the campus gym and hear popular hard rock music playing, or later the group went to the “Unstable” – the pub on campus – and hang out with the people there watching football, playing pool, or listening to pop music. Those who participated in these more “normal” things were mostly the seminarians studying at St. Meinrad’s, but these type of encounters began to break down many preconceived notions about monastic life.
This breaking down of assumptions continued throughout the weekend as the group entered into conversations with a couple of the monks in residence at the monastery. Probably the most insightful of these was the conversation with Brother John Mark who discussed the goals of monastic living and his experience at St. Meinrad’s.
In the conversation, Br. John Mark stated that the goal of the monastic life is the same goal as all of Christian living, and that goal is conversion. He used the analogy of a rock polisher as an example. Regular rocks are put into the polisher with other rocks and some sort of powder and are left there for days. The polisher shakes or spins the rocks so that they are constantly bumping up against each other and smoothing out the rough spots – eventually turning the ordinary rocks into gem-like stones. To Br. John Mark, life in Christian community acts as this type of refining process: people constantly bump up against each other and through these interactions with others and with God are converted into a more Christ-like people.
Br. John Mark offered the idea that every Christian community is a manifestation of this conversion process. The monastic life is one of the many different contexts for living out the Christian life, and so is the life of a student. This was probably the greatest insight from the whole trip: Christianity has a plurality of vocations, and these are manifested in the contexts of greatly different communities. This trip offered a chance to experience a community quite different than the Greenville community and a chance to encounter a vocation to which many of us will not be called. Although these differences were obvious, it was clear that we were all attempting to engage in a conversion process. The strangeness of the monastic community forced us to confront our vocation and our context, causing us to think about the manifestation of the conversion process to which God is calling us. Overall, this trip was deeply insightful, and caused much self reflection. This experience was excellent within the context of Dr. Hartley’s class, and I would highly recommend such a visit for those looking to encounter a manifestation of the Christian life different than life at Greenville College.
Video by SaintMeinrad.