The silence at the St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse lets me listen to things I normally take for granted. Things like the sounds of nature, as there are over 2,500 acres of lakes, prairies and forests in which to decompress.
Things — or people — like my husband. When together, we often focus on doing, not on being together. But here, among the Benedictine monks in rural central Minnesota, I’m beginning to understand through their example the gift of silence. Without the noise of modern life, you’re not only able to hear what is said, but what is unsaid, both in others and within yourself.
My husband, Matt, had retreated to the guesthouse in Collegeville, Minn., to spend three days off the grid. He came home eight pounds heavier.
“I feel like I could spend months just reading about the Benedictine philosophy,” he said, enthralled by their quiet, white-oak paneled library. Curious, I followed him to the guesthouse two weeks later.
Around the year 500, Benedict — a young nobleman from Norcia afraid for his soul — left the collapsing Roman empire and his inheritance for a life of simplicity. His sanctity led others to follow his teachings. In 1856, five monks from St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., established the monastery near St. Cloud, Minn., followed by a preparatory school and St. John’s University.
Today, over 120 monks ranging in age from 23 to their late 90s call it home, making it one of the largest Benedictine abbeys in the world.
Everybody is welcome
For Benedictine monks, receiving guests is akin to receiving Christ. We were welcomed into the 30-room guesthouse, which is across the street from the abbey, like friends, whether we could pay or not (the recommended rate was $95 per night for double occupancy in a dorm-sized room with two single beds; more information is at abbeyguesthouse.org).
The guesthouse is a simple and peaceful place to stay. It has polished gray concrete floors and every room faces Lake Sagatagan to show you “God’s creation.” Despite its simplicity, the monks have surprising resources for alleviating small stresses — from letting me borrow an iPhone charger when mine broke, to to-go coffee cups.
Brother Aidan greeted us from the reception desk. He wasn’t what I expected from a monk. A former actor from Oakland, Calif., he was a charismatic, eager talker who deliberately paused to listen, leading to a gentleness that made me instinctively trust him.
While Benedictine monks do not take a vow of silence, they do designate times for silence. While you’re not asked to be quiet, you feel like you should be, as you do in a library. Matt and I respected the atmosphere.
In the brightly lit 42-person dining room, we ate comfort food like roasted chicken breast, rice and peas, cafeteria-style ($10.50 lunch; $12.50 supper). Groups of older men, likely on a spiritual retreat, sat at four-person tables. In the spirit of hospitality, sugary homemade bars were left out all day in the common area — hence my husband’s weight gain — as well as fruit and coffee.
Learning to listen
Every day, Matt and I walked at least five miles, muddying our shoes in the wetlands. We hiked 1 ½ miles to a devotional chapel, Stella Maris, originally built in 1872 and rebuilt after a fire destroyed it in 1903. Inside the church were only two small pews, with a statue of a pregnant Mary gazing down from above.
“My mother would have loved it here,” Matt said. He was right. The farther we hiked into nature, where some trees succumbed to old age while others sprouted anew, the less stuff seemed to matter. I began to feel closer to the Earth, and could understand why his mother felt surrendering in death led to a rebirth. Being outdoors made me thankful to be alive.
We crossed low-lying boardwalks over swamps and tripped over tree roots, sometimes getting lost on the 12 miles of trails that you can cross-country ski during winter. It didn’t matter. Even though most trails were unmarked to lessen what could distract you, there was always another path up ahead. We’d never been on a vacation where we did nothing, but doing nothing did something — it let us turn inward.
The first word in the Rule of St. Benedict, a 1,500-year-old spiritual guide, is “listen.” “I have to listen to my brothers, and if I don’t like what they’re saying, I’d better listen more, because it might not have a lot to do with them — and vice versa,” explained Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, director of communications and marketing at the abbey.
And you need silence to listen, which is what a stay at the guesthouse gives you. While sometimes, in marriage, silence can mean absence, here in the woods it didn’t. It allowed us to fall into those in-between spaces that helped us come to truths about ourselves and each other.
The vow of stability
Benedictine monks take a vow of stability that binds them to their land and monastic community for life. They live knowing that upon death they will be buried in the cemetery on-site, and they care for the surrounding lands as their home.
At St. John’s, they have harvested maple sap since the 1940s, generate almost 20 percent of their energy needs through solar panels, make handcrafted wood furniture (like our guesthouse) to use on campus and sell to the public, and share 26 cars to reduce their environmental impact.
St. Benedict believed your entire life should be prayer. Physical labor, particularly repetitive tasks, allows you to pray while you work. “I don’t think the monastic community is ever as happy as when we are building a building,” Brother Paul-Vincent said. Last year, their gardens brought 4½ tons of produce to their tables.
At the St. John’s Pottery, Matt and I watched young artists spin clay from the campus grounds on pottery wheels (guided tours can be scheduled in advance). It made me want to put my hands to use to see what I could build. We’d just missed their free 3 p.m. tea at the irori table, where cups were still left out.
The ability to stay present
On Sunday, Matt and I rose early for mass (visitors are also welcome to join their three-time daily prayer where they slowly and deliberately recite psalms from the upper choir stalls). The church bells rang.
“Keep death daily before your eyes” to offset complacency, the Rule of St. Benedict says. One of the ways the monks stay mindful is upon death tolling the bells one time for each year a monk was alive.
“Life is short, is it not?” said Brother Paul-Vincent. “That same bell will be ringing when I pass on to the next world.”
On our drive to the guesthouse, I felt like we were heading into the past, but I came home humbled, thinking their way of life should be our future. Because who you are and how you care for “God’s creation” — both the land and the people — matters for our survival and our planet’s.
And the first step, I learned, is to listen.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.