In full retreat at St. John's Abbey

  • Article by: CHRIS WELSCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 1997 - 11:00 PM

Nearly 1,500 years ago near Rome, a Christian ascetic named Benedict founded an order of monks.

He wrote a simple, well-thought-out set of rules about how the monks should live together and conduct themselves in the abbey.

Among the rules is this one: "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

About 1,500 years later, I presented myself at a Benedictine monastery 75 miles northwest of my home in St. Paul on a cold, gray November Monday. The 95-book called "The Rule of Benedict" is still in force; the welcome was as he wrote it.

The Rev. Francis Hoefgen, the soft-spoken, smiling guest master of St. John's Abbey, shook my hand, escorted me to my room, and said: "Get settled in. I'll bring you to noon prayer."


In coming to St. John's, I was doing as pilgrims have done for hundreds of years: seeking to balance the tumult of the secular world with the solace of a monastery, a place with the solitude and silence one needs to think, pray or simply rest.

It's an old tradition that's gaining new followers; Kathleen Norris' popular books about her experiences in monasteries ("Dakota" and "The Cloister Walk") have been followed by the publication of guidebooks, telling travelers about monasteries, abbeys and retreat centers open to visitors.

Most of them -- St. John's included -- charge a nominal fee for room and board that is well below what a chain motel costs. But unlike a motel, St. John's Abbey is on 2,500 acres of forested land that embraces a college campus, the world's largest collection of medieval manuscripts on microfilm, a publishing house and a bakery, among other things.

As close as St. John's is to the Twin Cities, it was foreign territory. I'm not Catholic, and while I've visited dozens of Buddhist and Hindu monasteries in Asia, I had never been in a Christian one in America.

But what brought me to St. John's was the same thing that piqued my interest about the monasteries in Asia: an interest in people who have time and silence in their lives, who have forsworn material goods and sexual relationships to dedicate themselves to thinking about the world, the divine and their relationships with both.

I am not naive; I didn't expect that I'd cure all my disassociations or perfect my relationship with the divine in four days. But I did want to learn about St. John's, and, in the process, see what I'd find.


Hoefgen knocked lightly on my door a half-hour later. We turned down two hallways and entered the cathedral -- a masterpiece of modern architecture designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1961.

We sat in the guest area in the pews, which are arrayed in a semicircle facing a massive, honeycombed wall of stained glass. It acts as a sieve of light, filtering rays of color into the cavernous, gray interior.

A few monks were already seated. Others came down the center aisle. Some young, some old. Some wore robes, others wore jeans and sweaters or suits and ties. The monks were mostly white, but there were black and Asian monks, too. Also in our number were women, children and farmers in seed caps -- the daily prayers are open to all.

The muted sounds of shuffling feet and books being opened filled the air. Then, silence as the service began. The three daily prayers are centered on the Psalms, which are read at each service.

There was no sermon, just our voices in call and response, punctuated by long silences between each hymn or Psalm.

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