Are strict rules responsible for the decline in religious life?

Alone among Benedictines

The number of religious is rapidly going downhill. Many communities have to close their houses. Is it because of the strict monastic rules? Our editor Renardo Schlegelmilch went to the monastery in Ettal At 5:40 a.m. the house bell rings. So loud that you almost sit up in bed. And that's late. When Bavaria is on holiday, Lauds, the morning prayer, is moved from 5:15 am to 6 am. The late riser weeks in monastic life. There is now 15 minutes to wake up and get ready before the second bell rings, calling the Benedictine brothers and their guests into the house chapel.

"There are some who never get used to it" confesses one of the brothers. "Even after years of religious life." So at 6 o'clock, when everything is still dark above the quiet valley in the Bavarian Alps, you look into some sleepy eyes. Now it's time to pray for 45 minutes: Bible texts, songs, sitting down and getting up, Our Father. Outside, meanwhile, the sun is gradually rising.

Abbey with tradition

The Benedictine monastery of Ettal has a long tradition. It was founded as early as the 14th century by Emperor Charles IV on his way back from Rome. With the exception of the decades of secularisation in the 19th century, there has been constant monastic life here ever since. 40,000 tourists from all over the world visit the Benedictines year after year, considerable numbers for such a remote place, which is not even accessible by train.

The visit is worthwhile, however. The imposing white basilica can be seen from afar and contains art treasures dating back hundreds of years. The baroque design with its stucco, gold and ceiling paintings is certainly unique. It is all the more impressive to think that this sight is part of everyday life for the brothers. Centuries of art and history as a constant companion.

Contemplation in a roundabout way

For a long time I had been thinking about spending a few days of reflection in the monastery. No appointments, no work, no stress of the outside world. I'll be honest: I didn't really come here with the aim of spiritual enlightenment. But what I experienced in the Benedictine abbey last week was much deeper and more moving than I expected. It was more strenuous but also more rewarding for body and mind than I could have imagined. And not only because there is virtually no mobile phone reception in the valley.

Getting to Ettal is not easy at first. Especially as the train line from Munich to Garmisch-Partenkirchen was closed on the weekend of my arrival due to construction work. It took several buses and an overnight stop to get from Cologne to the small Alpine community of Ettal.

Standing on the large B23 trunk road that separates the monastery on the right from the village on the left, one gets the impression that the abbey's facilities with the monastery brewery, farm and greenhouses are larger than the actual village of Ettal. This is no surprise. While the monastery has stood on this spot for almost 700 years, the village with a few hundred inhabitants is only a good hundred years old and settled in the valley in the 19th century for secularisation.

What distinguishes Ettal from many other Benedictine abbeys is that here the guests live together with the monks in the cloister. In guest rooms, to be sure, but not in a building of their own. According to the founder of the order, Benedict of Nursia, the monk should see Jesus in the abbot, in his fellow monks and also in the guests, which is why the Benedictines also accept strangers into their midst. It is therefore customary in Ettal for the abbot to sit at the breakfast table every morning not with the brothers but with the guests.

Just half an hour after I moved into my down-to-earth but adequately furnished guest room, I went to the house chapel for midday prayers. In total, as a guest you spend at least five hours every day together with the monks - in prayer, in church services and eating in the refectory, which is eaten in silence and follows clearly structured rules.

The orders of the Catholic Church are having increasing problems with recruiting young people. Compared to other communities, the brotherhood in Ettal still appears to be in a good position in terms of age. There are young, middle and old brothers. In contrast to other orders, a Benedictine is not only tied to an order throughout his life, but to a specific monastery. As a guest, you are a little surprised when the obituary of a fellow brother says that he worked in the metalworking shop of a monastery from the 1960s to 2018.

Why is religious life intimidating? It is not just – as one might suspect – celibacy that poses a challenge in everyday life in the order. I noticed this quite clearly during my week in Ettal. Once you've had morning prayer, early mass and breakfast, it's only eight o'clock and you can actually do a lot with the day. But stop, stop! We have to be back in the chapel for midday prayer by twelve o'clock at the latest. I would like to hike to nearby Oberammergau. If it takes two hours there and two hours back, that would be extremely tight. So in monastic life it's difficult to plan things that take longer than four or five hours.

And in the evening? After the night prayer, Compline, it is actually time to rest at around 8 p.m. At some point the brothers realized that it's difficult to lock up guests. That's why you can sneak into the village inn across the street for a beer or two. But for the monks themselves, this is actually taboo.

Time out for body and mind

Has this experience with its strict rules and deprivations shocked, stressed and restricted me so much that I will never take a break in the monastery again? No, because despite all the hardships, this week was also very enriching. Lots of time for reading, thinking and also for introspection on a spiritual level, i.e. in prayer. Even though I didn't come to the abbey with this goal in mind, I gained some new insights about myself and my personal faith. In everyday life it is almost impossible to take enough time and rest for this.

But the week in the monastery was not only good for my mind, but also my body. Regular daily routines, a proper diet. I slept better in the monastery than I have in my own bed in recent months. So it's no wonder that many self-employed people and even managers value time out in a monastery.

By the way, studies say that religious men and women live up to ten years older on average than people outside the monastery. After my week with the Benedictines, I can absolutely understand that, although I'm still sure: As an exception to everyday life, this time is good for me, but longer than a week would definitely not be possible for me. What I go home with now is a new respect that I have gained for all men and women who choose to live in a monastery. Those who walk this path not just for a week, but for their entire lives.



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