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Farewell to Facebook (and Twitter and cell phones and the Internet)

Checking in at a monastery mean checking out of being "connected"

Father Giles, a monk at Pluscarden Abbey, Scotland, explains the use of the thurible (incense dispenser) to Augsburg students Alex Rhees (left), Matt Current (center), and Brent Howart (right). Photos courtesy of Emily Gilmer

Father Giles, a monk at Pluscarden Abbey, Scotland, explains the use of the thurible (incense dispenser) to Augsburg students Alex Rhees (left), Matt Current (center), and Brent Howart (right). Photos courtesy of Emily Gilmer

Seventeen Augsburg College students bit the bullet at year’s end and gave up all their electronic gadgets for a week. Their goal was to experience the contemplative life at a functioning monastery. Their professor, Medieval History specialist Phil Adamo, led the group to rural Scotland for an immersion at Pluscarden Abbey, a community of 30 Roman Catholic monks.

It was a completely different world for the students from Augsburg. What they encountered was a disciplined group of men who wear white robes and keep their heads hooded. They pray and worship in Latin. They eat in silence.

The students were unsure what to expect; what they discovered surprised them. Says Matt Current, a first-year physics major from Middletown, Ohio, “The way the monks at Pluscarden live is a lot more interesting than I expected.” He admits he was “pretty nervous” about what he might experience before heading overseas. “I’ve never been outside the United States before, and I’m not Roman Catholic.”

Current also admits he expected a visit to a monastery to be challenging because he figured, since the monks are generally silent, they might ignore visitors. “What I discovered was that they were really friendly guys.”

Julie Fedeler, a fourth-year religion major from St. Peter, Minnesota, was fully prepared to encounter a community with long and sober faces. “I read the Rule of St. Benedict [which this order follows] before we went,” she says. “Included is a rule that says, ‘The tenth step of humility says that a monk is not given to ready laughter.’” To her surprise, the first monk the group met, Father Bede, was a real humorist. “[As soon as we met him], he was telling us funny stories and joking around with us.”

Where did “The Hours” go?

Amber Kalina, a third-year youth and family ministry major from Perham, Minnesota, was struck by the daily disciplines at Pluscarden, and impressed by the fact that she and her fellow students from Minnesota could fully participate in the daily rhythm of the monastery.

From left: Professor Phil Adamo, director of Medieval studies at Augsburg College; Matt Current;  Father Bede, Guestmaster at Pluscarden Abbey; Amber Kalina; and Julie Fedeler stand in front of  the Pluscarden Abbey in rural Scotland.

From left: Professor Phil Adamo, director of Medieval studies at Augsburg College; Matt Current;
Father Bede, Guestmaster at Pluscarden Abbey; Amber Kalina; and Julie Fedeler stand in front of
the Pluscarden Abbey in rural Scotland.

What they encountered was a disciplined group of men who wear white robes and keep their heads hooded.

“We attended the prayer services throughout each day, and learned to pattern after the monks — the bowing, kneeling, standing, and sitting. We helped the monks with their chores during the afternoons and practiced silence at mealtimes, as they did.”

While Adamo has visited the monastery four times, this is the fourth second year he has taken a group of his students to Scotland to experience life in a monastery. Pluscarden Abbey, he explains, was founded in the 1200s by monks known as Caulites. “I have been studying the Caulite order for the last 20 years,” he says, adding, “I’ve become the world’s leading expert on them.” That explains his interest in having his students visit Pluscarden.

One might wonder why anyone would want to study the history of medieval Europe, much less try to teach it to 21st century college students. But Adamo says it is logical. “It is absolutely the easiest thing in the world to get students interested in medieval studies,” he says. “It’s all around them — in video games and novels and movies like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Lord of the Rings.’” He adds, “Medieval studies teach students to think critically, to ask deep questions, to solve problems, and to write clearly — all skills employers are looking for.”

Finding God in a monastery

The semester-long course Adamo’s students are taking, of which the monastery visit is a component, is built around a reading of the novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. “It’s a murder mystery,” says Adamo, “set in the 14th century. The book is fun to read and packed with real historical figures who confront and debate the issues of their day — what it means to be a good monk; what it means to be a heretic; whether or not Jesus ever laughed; and when the exact date might be when the world will end.”

Father Giles, a monk at Pluscarden Abbey, shows the Chapter Room to Augsburg College students (left to right) Julie Fedeler, Amber Kalina, Matt Current, and John West. The Chapter Room is basically where the monks meet, so-called because a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict is read at the start of each meeting.

Father Giles, a monk at Pluscarden Abbey, shows the Chapter Room to Augsburg College students (left to right) Julie Fedeler, Amber Kalina, Matt Current, and John West. The Chapter Room is basically where the monks meet, so-called because a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict is read at the start of each meeting.

“When I get back to Augsburg College I definitely think I will start attending chapel services more regularly.”

Whether or not Adamo’s students expected to have a religious experience while at Pluscarden Abbey, they evidently had one. Fedeler believes she has learned something positive about silence. “I think with all the noise in our modern world, the benefits of silence have been lost. My hope [now] is to learn how to practice it, so that I can hear God more clearly.”

Kalina learned that spiritual struggle isn’t a rare phenomenon. “I discovered that the monks struggle as much in their spiritual lives as we do in ours. The abbot [at Pluscarden] pointed out that it is difficult to be completely God-focused, even when you’re removed from society and living with like-minded people.”

Says Current, “When I get back to Augsburg College I definitely think I will start attending chapel services more regularly. I have [now] realized how much religion can influence a person’s life in a positive way.”

Those are impressive words, coming from a guy who wants to become an engineer. And, no doubt, it’s also an affirmation of Augsburg’s commitment to maintain its identity as a college of the church.

UPDATED January 24,2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Adamo has taken four groups of Augsburg students to Pluscarden. This was actually his second class to visit the monastery.

 

 

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