November 5, 2021

2021 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Recreation, humor help Benedictine monks draw closer to God, each other

Benedictine Archabbot Kurt Stasiak plays catch on May 22, 2020, on the lawn by Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad. Times of recreation can help Benedictines enter more deeply into the work and prayer that is at the heart of their vocation. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

Benedictine Archabbot Kurt Stasiak plays catch on May 22, 2020, on the lawn by Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad. Times of recreation can help Benedictines enter more deeply into the work and prayer that is at the heart of their vocation. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

By Br. Zachary Wilberding, O.S.B. (Special to The Criterion)

I guide tours for visitors to Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meirnad in southern Indiana.

They often ask, “What do you monks do?” My answer usually includes a very basic introduction to our way of life based on the Rule of St. Benedict, which he wrote about 1,500 years ago.

Following the Rule, our life is focused on seeking God so that prayer is at the center of our life. Our prayer consists of the celebration of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours as a community. Privately, monks are expected to engage in lectio divina: slow, reflective and prayerful reading of Scripture.

Our prayer then calls us forth to work in service of the monastic community and the wider Church and world. The work we do is wide-ranging and includes teaching in our seminary, pastoral work in parishes, leading retreats, maintenance of buildings and grounds, gardening, fine arts and service on the local volunteer fire department.

Hence, one motto popular with Benedictines since the 19th century is “Pray and Work,” or in Latin, “Ora et Labora.” You will see it written in stone at the front of our Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln.

For most visitors, that is as much of a description as they are seeking. They never seem to ask, “What do you do for fun?” Perhaps the sight of black-robed men processing into church singing Gregorian chant leads people to believe that this is a serious place without room for much levity.

It is a serious place. And it is true that St. Benedict never mentions play or recreation in his Rule. He urges caution regarding laughter, hoping to discourage mockery of others and encourage quiet.

However, Benedict is very much in favor of moderation in the monastery. He says that the strong should have something to yearn for, but the weak should have nothing to fear from monastic discipline. Correction of faults should not be too harsh.

Benedict warns that, in disciplining others, the abbot should not rub so hard at the rust that he breaks the vessel. From the centuries before Benedict, we have an ancient story about St. Anthony of Egypt, one of the early monks who lived in the fourth century, that illustrates this point.

A visiting hunter noticed some of Anthony’s monastic companions joking and laughing and expressed his dismay at such behavior among monks. Anthony replied, “Put an arrow in your bow and draw the string tight.”

He kept telling the hunter to draw it tighter until the hunter said, “If I make it any tighter the bow will snap.” And Anthony replied, “It is just so with monks. If they do not have some relaxation, they too will snap like your bow.”

A more recent witness to the importance of fun in the spiritual life is Jesuit Father James Martin. He says that joy, humor and laughter are “under-appreciated values in the spiritual life.” He continues, “Anyone truly in touch with God is joyful.” As to extreme seriousness he says: “When you are deadly serious, you are seriously dead.”

St. Irenaeus of Lyons famously said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” To be fully alive depends in part on rest, relaxation and delight. This does not mean that you have to spend the day looking for funny videos on YouTube.

It does mean being open to the beauty and humor that come our way in everyday life as well as appreciating the occasional joke or funny cat video. The relaxation promoted by humor and laughter goes a long way to supporting the patience and gentleness needed for living in community.

Thus, monks pray, work and play for the sake of spiritual, mental and physical health. At Saint Meinrad, Father Harry Hagan and Brother John Glasenapp find the work of gardening to be a form of recreation.

Their work in the garden yields delightful tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and Swiss chard for the monks. Brother John Mark Falkenhain fosters attractive flowers and shrubs which give pleasure to the eye. Father Simon Hermann keeps the courtyard mowed so that we can actually see those flowers and shrubs.

Bicycling is a popular form of play for a number of younger monks. Father Simon and Brother James Jensen have participated in a famous long distance bike ride across Iowa called “RAGBRAI.” Brother Nathaniel Szdik is fond of running and has participated in marathons as well as our own Saint Meinrad 5 K run. Gym exercise also has its adherents, a few of whom, like Father Adrian Burke and Brother Basil Lumsden, go in for weightlifting.

There are less physically intensive forms of play as well. Brother Francis Wagner enjoys fishing and reading novels. Monks enjoy science fiction, serious novels as well as mystery and crime fiction. For example, I have read all of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.

Movies are popular and available nowadays by streaming. Tastes run from the black and white classics, to foreign films to Disney. Then there are some monks who are avid sports fans and follow their favorite teams. Brother Francis is devoted to the Cincinnati Reds while Father Eugene Hensell supports the St. Louis Cardinals.

Play includes communal as well as individual pursuits. Archabbot Kurt Stasiak, Father Simon and Brother Nathaniel often enjoy a game of catch on the lawn after supper as long as the daylight lasts.

Chess is popular in the evening. There is a regular rotation of chess games between Brother Andrew Zimmermann, Brother Maurus Zoeller and Brother Mario Ibison. Sometimes it is best not to ask who won.

Euchre games also draw some eager players. Bananagrams and checkers are also popular.

A person’s sense of humor and fun is individual and personal. We don’t all enjoy the same things all the time. But the joy that results is a part of the monastic goal of seeking God.
 

(Benedctine Brother Zachary Wilberding is vocations director for Saint Meirad Archabbey in St. Meinrad. For more information about Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, visit saintmeinrad.org.)

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!