Monasteries in Germany: Looking for Monks and Nuns in the New Millennium

By Joachim Mohr

German monasteries and convents are going gray. Hardly anyone wants to become a monk or nun these days. Paradoxically, though, more and more laypeople are seeking temporary refuge behind the cloister walls. But how much of the outside world can the religious orders take?

Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took Me in." THE RULE OF ST. BENEDICT (CH. 53.1)

Happy for each visit, the hunched and grinning figure of Brother Werner peeps out from behind his sewing machine. "Yes, I'm in love, like I was on my very first day!" he cackles merrily. He rises nimbly from his stool and smoothes the black fabric he uses to make habits for his brethren. "You have to be careful with the iron. Black tends to get shiny."

Brother Werner is the master tailor at the Benedictine monastery of Beuron in the Danube River valley. His brightly-lit workshop occupies the second floor of a recently renovated building dating back to the 16th century. Here he sews cassocks and the full range of liturgical vestments. The monk's reputation as a gifted tailor has spread far and wide; he was once even summoned to Jerusalem.

Brother Werner is 72 years old - 54 of which were spent behind the monastery walls in remote Beuron. The village lies somewhere between Sigmaringen and Tuttlingen, in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by steep limestone walls, at a bend forged by the headwaters of the Danube. His life could not have been happier, the monk proclaims. And that's why the Benedictine monk is still "in love" - with his monastery, his order and his faith.

Sister Scholastika serves as a sort of all-purpose manager at the Arenberg convent, which is nestled on a breezy hill near Koblenz. The dynamic 41-yearold is part of the order's directorate. She both looks after the novices - i.e. new nuns - and acts as a spiritual escort for guests. Anyone wanting to talk about their faith can come to her. And many do.

"More and more people sense an inner void and are looking for something more to their lives," says Sister Scholastika, a former grammar school teacher. "We don't offer instant happiness, but we do offer spiritual encounters." The Dominican nun with the easy laugh talks about how her faith came alive, how she suddenly "felt touched." Today she is sure: "God loves me."

She flashes a bright smile at her guest, but time is short, her next visitor already waiting. As if floating on air, Sister Scholastika glides away across the parquet floor of the cheerful reception hall, her legs concealed by her fluid white habit.

Sister Scholastika and Brother Werner would be the perfect stars in an ad campaign for Germany's religious communities. Just look at how active and committed, how fulfilled and happy our cloistered monks and nuns are! A wonderful life in the German monasteries awaits - apply now!

Apparently, this message has already hit home. Flocks of stressed-out urban neurotics, captains of industry under performance pressure, and others who are somehow unfulfilled or off kilter all hope to find balm for their wounded souls in monastic refuges. The need to imbue life with meaning increases in times of crisis - and that quest is driving people into cloisters.

Some 300 Roman Catholic convents and monasteries in Germany now accept visitors - from the 8th-century Benedictine abbey of Tholey to the four-year-old convent of the Sisters of St. Bridget in Bremen.

All are welcome, regardless of religious denomination or belief - even nonbelievers.

About a quarter of a million guests were counted last year. They came to meditate, to fast, or simply to live briefly alongside people who have consecrated themselves to God.

Living as we do in a world obsessed with the here and now, we tend to view the men and women wearing ancient robes, cowls and habits with a sense of yearning. Portly monks cavort merrily through commercials for beer, cheese and pasta, celebrating innocent indulgence and earlier, better times. Sainted mystics of past ages seem to hold the key to a life of deeper meaning.

Umberto Eco's million-selling monastic thriller The Name of the Rose - which was filmed with a cast of top stars - features a lone monk struggling against the sectarian fanatics of the Inquisition. Good faith triumphs over the evil of damnation within the confines of the dark, dank monastery: surrogates for the modern reader and the larger world.

The pace of the cloister boom continues unabated. In a survey conducted by the Association of Superiors of German Orders two years ago, 76 percent of those polled said the demand has remained constant or even risen in the past five years. Many monasteries are forced to turn away would-be guests: "Sorry, we're booked up!"

While visitors' ranks swell, the orders are having difficulty attracting new members. The number of novitiates has been declining for decades; many religious communities are dying out and more and more monasteries are closing their gates forever.

Some 5,000 men who have taken holy orders, i.e. made a lifelong commitment, make up the entire monastic community in Germany, a decrease of nearly 9,000 from 30 years ago. While there are about 25,000 nuns in religious communities, their ranks are thinning even faster than those of the men. Ten years ago there were nearly 40,000 women in the orders; experts fear there may only be 2,000 or 3,000 left within the next decade. Today, around three-quarters of all nuns are over 65 - and there are few replacements on the horizon.

A paradox. Greater numbers of temporary visitors are flocking to the monasteries but there are hardly any permanent takers, begging numerous questions: How far should religious communities go to accommodate the secular world? How much worldliness can a cloistered community sustain? How much of the profane is compatible with Christian spirituality? And will the orders be endangered by too much or too little exposure to the outside world?

The very existence of Sister Scholastika's mother house in Koblenz, which is run by the Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, was severely threatened seven years ago when the number of nuns fell precipitously. The Kneipp Sanatorium, a facility the sisters had run since the 1950s, met with financial difficulties; it urgently needed renovation and was operating at a loss. The nuns' revenues were down and their outlays kept rising. In short, pursuant to the temporal laws of the marketplace, they were on the verge of bankruptcy. "Do we want to live or die?" the prioress asked them.

They chose to survive. The 200-odd sisters (whose average age is 74) took an unprecedented step toward modernity, by investing 15 million euros of their reserves to overhaul the cloister, erect a new "Vitality Center" and open a "Temple of Contentment": a wellness and meditation complex celebrating the grace of God. Its slogan: "Arenberg Convent - recuperate, encounter, heal."

Morning meditation and back massages, Nordic walking and spiritual dialogues, Holy Mass and water aerobics, solariums and rosaries, a chapel and an exercise room - it's all here within these hallowed walls. Someone whose chief interest is in recuperation can visit Sister Irmingard in her herb garden in the morning and sample homemade onion candies, then spend the afternoon playing miniature golf in the convent park or loosening up with back exercises.

Visitors seeking introspection can follow the "Guide to Christian Meditation" and become mesmerized by the rhythmic chants of the nuns at evening vespers, or engage in soul-searching at "Impulse in the Night." "Spiritual Stimulation" is what Sister Beatrix (67) calls this religious "service" with a fleeting grin.

The gamble has paid off for these trailblazing nuns. The 79 attractively renovated single and double rooms are not equipped with television sets, but do have phone and modem lines. The average year-round occupancy rate is 75 percent, with women guests vastly outnumbering men. Both sexes meet in the communal dining room: an unmarried civil servant hoping to quell her "inner turmoil"; a mother and a grandmother feeling "drained by everyday family life"; and four girlfriends who want to "pamper themselves" and combine the pleasure with "something meaningful."

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