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

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."

Part II: "Spiritual Stimulation" behind cloister walls

The Vitality Center for medicinal treatments is in the basement of the new wing. The sisters have installed a chapel on the top floor. Visitors can be snappily transported from relaxation to revelation in seven stories, via an elevator. An architectural assemblage of glass, concrete and wood, the chapel is visible from afar.

A cross of red glass blocks points in all four directions. The Rhine meanders past castles and vineyards in the valley below; the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers at Deutsches Eck ("German Corner") is a stone's throw away.

The Arenberg makeover was a bone of contention in the order. For many older sisters, this holistic blend of religion and relaxation was a travesty of the mission prescribed by their founder Cherubine, namely ministering to the poor and the sick. Yet Sister Scholastika, one of the project's most committed proponents, stresses: "The unity of body and soul is an ancient Christian concept, and what we do here is to address both body and soul." And, of course, balance the books and hence survive.

Historically, the orders have been a potent economic force in many rural regions and often owned much of the land. The religious communities thrived on donations, gifts, inheritances and the unpaid labors of their numerous monks and nuns. Today these sources of income have dwindled to almost nothing. The funds the orders receive from the churches or the government are earmarked for specific purposes only, such as grants for building maintenance.

Consequently, most civic activities of the sisters and brothers now adhere to the laws of free enterprise. In addition to the smaller ventures, their businesses include giants such as the beer-brewing Benedictines of the Andechs monastery with annual sales reaching 20 million euros, and the Franciscan nuns of Waldbreitbach, whose company - Marienhaus - operates some 50 hospitals, homes and hospices.

A few monks, such as ex-Benedictine Anselm Bilgri and still-Benedictine Anselm Grün, have even become spiritual superstars over the past two decades. Loosely following the motto of the Benedictine order, ora et labora (pray and work), armies of executive types have availed themselves of these men's product: motivating mind massages.

In seminars on business management held at the cloister, speeches at major corporations and pamphlets on efficient human resource policies ("Lead People - Encourage Life" authored by Grün), profit maximization dovetails smoothly with brotherly love. Leavened with appropriate quotes from the Bible or St. Benedict, capital and morality are neatly reconciled, and business bosses granted absolution for public and covert chicanery in the struggle for rising share prices and higher revenues. Bilgri and Grün were making millions.

But then a dispute broke out between the consultants and their communities over their worldly engagement. Today Bilgri teaches outside the monastery, and Grün has had to promise his order to keep a lower public profile. The abbots weren't alone in finding that the two media stars had little in common with their cloistered brothers' ideal of serving only God - and absolutely nothing to do with their forebears' asceticism.

The origins of the Christian orders extend back to Egypt and Syria in 200 C.E., when thousands of hermits lived in caves or makeshift shelters in the desert. They believed that the only way to be near God and Jesus was to turn away from all things worldly. Over time, these early Christian hermits formed small, loosely knit communities. Silence, meditation and prayer punctuated their daily routines.

Benedict of Nursia is regarded as the founder of Western monasticism. The scion of a middle-class family, he was born between 480 and 490. Benedict broke off his studies in Rome, appalled by the iniquity in the city. He spent the next three years in seclusion in a cave - according to a record penned by Pope Gregory the Great's biographer some 30 years after his death. In 529, so the narrative goes, Benedict took up residence on Monte Cassino, some 100 miles south of the Eternal City, where he and several disciples established their own monastery. He died some time between 555 and 560.

During his time on Monte Cassino, Benedict composed the Regula Benedicti, the "Rule of St. Benedict," which remains a seminal work today: 73 brief chapters in which he laid out the agenda for monastic life. Above all, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were supposed to liberate men from the shackles of worldly routine and set them free to serve God alone.

For the brethren of the Beuron Monastery on the upper Danube, the Rule of St. Benedict is as relevant as it was 1,500 years ago. Every day follows a strict schedule of communal prayer, referred to as the canonical hours: Nocturns, Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Monks gather for their morning prayer no later than 5 a.m. At 7:30 they attend the third hour celebration of Holy Mass; midday prayer is at 12:15. At 6 p.m. on the dot they assemble for Vespers and end the day with the Office of Compline at 7:45. All told, the Benedictine monks spend three to three and-a-half hours a day praying together - 365 days a year.

"Our lives center around praising God," says Prior Tutilo (41), a deputy abbot who entered the order immediately after high school. "Above all, a monastery possesses a prophetic and charismatic dimension." The monks hold the deep conviction that beseeching God is not only necessary but also effective. The great significance of prayer and the Eucharistic celebration is typical of contemplative orders such as the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites and Cistercians. The Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits are more focused on action: missionary work, teaching, pastoral care and healing.

"They all come to us: high school and college students, civil servants, freelance professionals, hikers and the homeless," says Father Landelin, who has long looked after the guests in Beuron. "Some just want to work in peace, some need space to come to terms with grief, and others are simply looking for a place to lay their heads."

The monastery offers numerous courses during the year: a convention on "Spirituality and Mysticism," spiritual exercises - and the annual Beuron Symposium on Business Ethics, whose theme this year was responsibility in management. Faith is always at the fulcrum. Popular fads are frowned upon; "wellness" regarded as fashionable claptrap.

The monks take their noon meal in silence. Heavy wooden tables line the long, dimly-lit refectory. Stone arches filled with frescoes adorn one wall, and a crucifixion scene dominates one end of the room. Each monk has his designated place; the seat of the abbot is slightly elevated. Dining begins only when the abbot takes his first mouthful.

A pulpit rises in the middle of the refectory. One of the monks reads aloud every day, sometimes a religious text, sometimes something secular: the biography of a saint, or a travel report from the German journalist Peter Scholl-Latour. The reader's voice, accompanied by the clatter of plates, lends the scene a monotone soundtrack.

The fare consists of hearty home cooking; beverages on offer are apple juice and water. Beer is served only on Sundays, one bottle per person, and wine is imbibed only three times a year: one glass each at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

The brothers of Beuron have few worldly possessions: there are no cell phones, credit cards, televisions or cars. Whenever a monk wants to leave the monastery, he asks the abbot's permission. If necessary, he will be given some pocket money. The rooms are furnished with a bed, chair, table and wardrobe. A private bathroom? Get real. This is a monastery.

The word cloister is derived from the Latin "claustrum," which translates roughly as "that which is closed off." Time here passes far more slowly than on the outside. Sooner or later, this cloistered world with its perennial rituals and a formulaic liturgy that has remained unchanged for centuries, will calm even the most incorrigible human dynamo. At 8 p.m., after final prayers are said in Beuron and Arenberg, guests too must turn in for the night - in austere cells with only their thoughts as company.

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