For monks, prairie home offers quiet, community

July 24, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

RICHARDTON, N.D. -- The church stands like a brick mountain against a prairie sky, the twin steeples reaching to the rising sun, the new day beginning like all the others, silently.

At precisely 6:20 a.m., two dozen men dressed in black habits and standing in a worn oak choir that brackets an altar shake off sleep and solitude and begin to recite in a slow cadence a Psalm, binding together their community in common prayer.

These are the monks of Assumption Abbey, meeting the dawn, forging their relationship with God on a wind-swept hilltop on the Great Plains. Sheltered from the storms of modern society, these men carry on a tradition that goes back 1,500 years to St. Benedict.

"Some might think they come here seeking refuge from problems," said Abbot Patrick Moore. "You get three squares. A nice warm bed. Companionship. You don't have to worry about money. But we don't want people who are trying to escape real-life problems. We want people who are seeking God."

They live in a town of 600 between Bismarck and the Badlands, surrounded by fields that roll like an ocean to the horizon, fenced in only by the limits of their imagination and faith. It is quiet here, a stillness that shaped the slogan for the junior college that the Abbey once operated: "Listen to the Silence."

"City people, I think if they were to go a mile out into those fields, they would get scared," said Brother Placid Gross. "There is a feeling, a feeling that the emptiness will swallow you up."

Prayer and work are the benchmarks of the day for the Benedictine monks. Recite the Psalms and raise cattle. Take Holy Communion and repair leaking faucets.

This is the monastic life. Time stands still. Time rushes on.

Brother Victor Frankenhauser re- members the day well, when he walked the block from his home in Richardton to the abbey, carrying all he owned in a paper bag. He was 13 years old, off to a parochial school in the midst of the Great Depression, but in many ways prepared, even then, to spend the rest of his life as a monk.

"The first 40 years are the easiest," he said. "After that, it gets hard."

Brother Victor is 74 now, his face milky white and his voice soft like cotton as he says, "I could not find my place in this society today. I would perish."

His place is inside the abbey, in the familiar surroundings of his room with the roll-top oak desk and the pictures of his nieces and nephews cramming bookshelves. He belongs, too, inside the Bavarian Romanesque church, with its pillars and vaulted ceiling and 52 stained glass windows.

"What this is about is dedication, of giving up the pleasures of life and dedicating yourself toward the service of God," he said. "Monks have high ideals, of living a life of peace, away from the world. There is a sense of awesomeness divine."

It is Brother Victor who carries the history of the abbey within his soul. He knew Abbot Vincent Wehrle, founder of the Assumption Abbey, who came from Switzerland to evangelize the Dakotas. Abbot Wehrle organized the first abbey in 1893 in a place called Devils Lake, and moved six years later to Richardton to better serve the tide of German-Russian immigrants heading west with the railroad.

Not all has been easy. In its history, the abbey has gone into bankruptcy, been closed for four years during the 1920s, seen its schools closed in the 1960s and early 1970s and survived a decline in the number of those willing to live as monks.

At its peak in the 1960s, the abbey had 97 monks. Now, there are 65, nearly half living at the abbey year-round, the others dispersed to other parishes and to the abbey's two schools in Colombia.

Some disagreements

A monk's life is not always serene.

Monks fight. Really.

An abbey is nothing more than its collection of personalities, drawing together the holy and the cynical, the warm-hearted and the hot-headed, the community fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Decades ago, two monks once fought over a garden hose at the Assumption Abbey.

Another time, one monk noticed another sleeping during prayers, so he tapped the man on the shoulder. The sleeping monk awoke with a start, walked down the choir, kicked the human alarm clock, and then went back to sleep.

"The fights are usually about petty things. When you live with somebody day after day, their idiosyncrasies weigh on you," said Abbot Patrick. "We spend so much time in church. People will blow their nose too much. Or make funny noises. Or squirm too much. Or cough too much."

This is a democracy. The monks select the abbot, their spiritual leader. They also vote on allowing new members within their ranks. The process of becoming a monk can take up to five years as the men take vows of chastity, obedience, stability and poverty. Some remain as brothers; others are ordained as priests.

Together, four times daily inside the church, they are one in prayer. There is morning prayer followed by a silent breakfast, afternoon prayer before lunch, Mass at 5 p.m. and Vespers at 7 p.m.

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