Monday, May 17, 2010

St. Meinrad's

I feel I should catch up my gentle readers on the main events of the past few blogless months. So here is the first of a pair of reports on two major trips.

The annual meeting of Benedictine formators (that's contemporary Romespeak for novice masters) was held the week after Easter. This was my second year attending this meeting. It was at St. Meinrad's Archabbey in southwestern Indiana. You can fly to Evansville or, as I did, to Louisville KY. Fr. Sean, the Guestmaster, was there to pick me up. There had been a weather disturbance in Chicago earlier in the day which had delayed flights all around. I was more or less on time but another participant was not, so we waited. He eventually showed up and we made it to St. Meinrad's in time for Vespers.

St. Meinrad's was founded in 1854 from Einsiedeln. That area of Indiana is populated by people of the Swiss-German diaspora, and is, even in this parlous economy, pretty prosperous. Hardworking people unto the umpteenth generation, I guess. The monastery's mission over the years has encompassed education, including high school, college and seminary, parish work in the local area, and traditional monastic crafts as well. I have the impression that like a lot of larger institutions, it has had to change with the times (who hasn't!) and though I heard little of their struggles, the new guest ministry building, the fairly separate seminary operation, and the new monastery are physical testimonies to re-conceived ministries. The monastery seems to be undergoing a renewal, with younger and dynamic leadership in the formation program, and it is working. The vocation part of the website is one of the best I have seen.

The building complex is enormous. The monastery church is a mid-nineteenth century romanesque/gothic mix, which I found intimidating in its exterior aspect. I am pretty sure it was designed to impress, sited at the edge of a ridge overlooking a valley. Not only is it huge, but you have to look up from below the hill to see it. The interior is another matter, however. Some years ago the community cleared out the church, stripping it to its bare bones, as it were, and lived with it in that state for a while. (I am repeating my memory of what I heard, so forgive me, brothers, if I get it wrong.) After some years they came to a consensus of what to do, and it is brilliant, in my humble opinion. They completely reoriented the liturgical space. The organ pipes (which must rise two stories) are in the old sanctuary area.

The nave divides more or less naturally into three parts. The one nearest the sanctuary, at the truncated transept area, is devoted to the monastic choir, whose beautifully built and very sturdy seats rise in four levels, accommodating something like 80 monks. The altar is in the west area, near the great doors. It is a large square table whose sides are covered with gilt metal. At the offertory during the Eucharist, the community moves from the choir to the altar, the priests in white albs in a semicircle behind and the rest of the community in a semicircle facing them. It is very effective. The middle section is for visitors and guests (though we were graciously received into the monastic choir). This section is the least marked of the three, consisting of little more than chairs in facing rows. The church "works" remarkably well, I think.

St. Meinrad's is so huge that its three elements -- monastery, guest house and seminary -- don't seem to meet except by appointment, as it were. The seminary occupies a very large complex to the south of the church, and has its own chapel and food arrangements. The Guesthouse is a completely separate modern building at some distance from the monastery. I think the guests attend chapel with the monks, but they are quite separated there as well. The monastery is a modern three-story building, interestingly trapezoidal in shape. The monastic refectory (the guests and the seminary have their own eating arrangements) is the central element, rather like West Park's -- octagonal, bigger, but without the view. There is a long hall from the refectory to the statio, which is the meeting point of the building, and then another hall to the church. A well-thought out plan. The rooms are like the new rooms in the monastery at Collegeville -- large, 15' by 17' or so, with a bathroom at one side of the entry and a closet at the other.

The Daily Office begins with a combination of Vigils and Lauds at 5:30 am, Mass at 7:30, noon day prayer, Vespers at 5:00 and Compline at 7:00. The timetable is built around the need for teachers at the seminary, I think, though it seems that not so many of the monks teach there now as in earlier days. They use the Grail Psalter to tones similar to Collegeville but with many of their own melodies. The liturgical life calls forth a lot of talent at St. Meinrad's, and it shows.

The conference itself was great. Br. John Mark Falkenhain led us in a consideration of psycho-sexual maturity in celibate (male) clergy and male religious. John Mark is a monk of St. Meinrad's and a psychologist whose research has been in this area, with particular emphasis on abuse issues. He is data-oriented and so we got a good snapshot of the condition of male celibates and their developmental dynamics. I was struck by how different the Anglican world is on this issue. It is a cliché to say it, but for Anglicans, celibacy is a choice and is in no way forced. Quite the opposite, actually! The presence of women in the ordained ministry makes a big difference to us. And Holy Cross has for a long time been fairly open in our discussion of these issues among ourselves, leading to a level of mutual understanding and support within the community that I sensed may be harder to achieve in Roman monastic communities.

On our last full day the conference participants went on an outing to New Harmony, Indiana, a town that was founded as part of the early 19th Century utopian movement and was associated with Robert Owen. It is a lovely place, interestingly but not obsessively restored, having reinvented itself as a conference center. There is some new architecture as well. The visitor center is by Richard Meier and the Roofless Church, where we sang Vespers, is by Philip Johnson. There is interesting contemporary sculpture there and in other locations in the town. I dragged a few of the brethren into St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and we had a learning moment about Anglican liturgy, architecture, furnishings, customs and sociology. We ended the day with a wonderful restaurant dinner.

The St. Meinrad's community was warm and welcoming. The Abbot made a point of meeting us. There are a number of younger men in formation, and as seems typical (judging from Collegeville last year) they seemed a little reticent about meeting us. I was particularly moved to meet the older monks at recreation, which takes place daily between supper and Compline. One of them was a former abbot (I did not know!), another the former librarian, and a third a great scholar of African-American Catholicism. And best of all, the brother tailor remembered OHC's request for help when we changed our habits back in the 80's! I felt warmly welcomed. It was a great way to celebrate the week of the Resurrection!

1 comment:

Joe Rawls said...

Thanks for an interesting report on St Meinrad's, which I've heard about through the monks at Christ in the Desert, who tend to go there for theology.