Q: Where is this monastery?
A: It’s located just outside Three Rivers, Michigan and it’s called St. Gregory’s Abbey. It’s just over the Michigan border and it’s about a four-hour drive from Greensburg.
Q: What do you do there?
A: In short: pray, work, study, and rest. I live as one of the monks on their schedule. They pray seven times a day, starting at 4 a.m. I will be assigned work shifts. I’ll probably be mowing, gardening, cleaning, sweeping, and so on. I’ll also have plenty of time to rest and read and take walks.
A: Not all monastics are Catholic. This is a common misperception. In fact, this community is Episcopalian. As such, I’m free to receive Holy Communion there, which is important, since we celebrate the Eucharist daily.
Q: Can you talk?
A: Yes. It’s a quiet monastery, but not a silent one. They do request that silence is kept between compline, the last service of the day and mass the next day. Of course, we speak while doing the liturgy. They do ask that guests respect the stillness of the monastery at all times.
Q: Where do you stay?
A: They have a dormitory for guests. It is very basic but comfortable. I will have my own room with a bed and a desk and they provide clean linens. There are shared bathrooms.
A: I eat with the monks and other guests. The meals are prepared for us and it’s a take it or leave it affair. Most meals are vegetarian, but not all. We tend to eat meat on Sundays and feast days.
Meals are eaten in silence while a designated reader reads from a book chosen by the Abbot, the leader of the community, though books can be suggested by any monks. The books are non-fiction, but not always overtly religious. They tend to like histories. Last year they were reading a study of conspiracy theories from the 1950s to the present day.
Q: Are women allowed?
A: Yes and no. Yes, women are welcome to attend as guests and worship there, but cannot formally join the community. The July program I’m part of is just for men.
Q: How many monks live there?
A: Not many, just seven at the moment. They’ve never been a big community. While interest in visiting monastic communities has been on the rise, the commitment to make life vows has gone down greatly since spiking in the 50s and 60s. Part of this July program is to let people who think they might have a vocation to monastic life give it a try for a few weeks. Monasticism is not for everyone.
Q: How do they support themselves?
A: They don’t have an industry like beer making or farming. They do own a lot of property that they lease out to area farmers and their wooded property is sustainably farmed for lumber. They also have publications that they sell. Their needs are rather modest and no one there has a salary, though they do have some on-site staff they pay, including a grounds keeper and an office worker. Like most churches, they depend a great deal on offerings.
A: Yes! This pattern of prayer is set out in the Rule of St. Benedict, which is over 1500 years old. The outline of the daily services at St. Gregory looks like this:
4:00 a.m. Matins
6:00 a.m. Lauds
8:15 a.m. Terce and Mass
11:30 a.m. Sext
2:00 p.m. None
5:00 p.m. Vespers and Meditation
7:45 p.m. Compline
Other Benedictine monasteries vary this schedule, though it will look similar.
During the week the community reads and chants through all 150 psalms. Matins is the longest service of the day, running 45 to 50 minutes. Terce, Sext, and None are the shorter services, only lasting about 10 to 15 minutes each. Prayer is the primary work of the monastery. That’s what we are there to do. We pray in our silence and our speech, in our singing and our chanting, in our movement and our stillness.
The services there might look very odd to you. There are almost no hymns, except usually one during mass on Sundays or feast days. Likewise with preaching, sermons only on Sundays and feast days. There are plenty of psalms and scripture reading and prayers. You’d recognize the Gloria Patri which is repeated numerous times during the day, at meals, at the end of almost every psalm, at the beginning and end of worship, and this is usually accompanied with bowing.
If you look at the Presbyterian order for Daily Prayer – Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, etc. – you will see something that looks more like these monastic services. You can find these liturgies in our Book of Common Worship, which is downloadable for free online as a PDF. You can also find the Presbyterian Daily Prayer app for your smart phone or tablet. It’s a free app.
A: It recharges my batteries. It’s a still point in the midst of busyness. It’s a reset. It’s sabbath time. It’s spiritual boot camp. Whatever metaphor works for you, I have found this yearly pilgrimage to be beneficial for my soul. Again, it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, but it’s helpful for me.
Feel free to ask me before I go or when I get back!