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Five Tips on How to Visit a Monastery

Travel with a purpose

Conversations about “vocation” are all the rage these days, at least at Lutheran colleges like Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Of course, a paraphrase of Martin Luther’s expanded definition of vocation is in the mix: It’s not just for clergy anymore! Such insights are all well and good, but by ignoring Christianity’s “first vocation” (the life of monks and nuns), this conversation misses out on a lot.
No one is saying that college students (or anyone else) should become a monk or nun — unless they really feel called to do so. Rather, all people should occasionally give some thought to what monks and nuns do, since it might actually be beneficial to their own spiritual lives. It may even help an individual figure out her or his vocation.

The monastery at Mont-St-Michel. Photos provided by ATOUT France Photo Library

It is the mission of most monastic communities to “welcome all guests as Christ.” With that in mind, here’s a short list of tips for visiting a monastery:
* Visit a working, active monastery:
European ruins are great, but you’ll need a very good imagination to understand what once happened there if you’ve never experienced it in person.
* Know what kind of monastery you’re visiting:
There are all kinds of monasteries, from Benedictine to Cistercian to Trappist. Some observe strict silence; others are chatty. Some welcome couples and families; others are gender specific.
* Remember … a contemplative, monastic community lives by example:
They pray … a lot. They don’t simply teach in schools or work in hospitals or serve the needs of congregations. They pray. This can be baffling to the uninitiated, but if you give yourself over to it, it can be transformative.

The monastery at Bourgogne in France.

* Talk to the members of the monastery:
Unless you are visiting a community that practices strict silence, monks and nuns will talk to you. Not all the time, of course, but if you respectfully inquire of the abbot or guest master, they can make arrangements. Don’t use this as a time to sort out your problems. Monks and nuns are not your personal counselors or spiritual advisers. Ask them about their own stories. It might help you with your own.
* Be quiet. Don’t just do something, sit there:
Whether the monks you are staying with are chanting in Latin or English, the experience can be tremendously uplifting or downright boring — especially if you stay for any length of time. Don’t leave. Stay. Let the boredom come. Sit there. Be quiet. Let the community’s prayers wash over you.
This list could be a lot longer, but it is a good beginning.
Phillip C. Adamo is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Augsburg College, where he directs the college’s nationally recognized program in Medieval Studies. Adamo studies medieval monks, and he has visited working monasteries across the United States and Europe. Sometimes his visits are educational (an encounter with a different culture), sometimes spiritual (an encounter with the divine). It always takes one out of their own routine, out of their head, and makes them aware of their heart. He is the faculty leader on a tour to Ireland in May 2011 for Augsburg alumni and friends. This trip includes a visit to Kylemore Abbey, a community of Benedictine nuns.

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