Wednesday, August 17, 2011

NYT: End of an era at North Dakota monastery.

Because I was on the road this past weekend and lacked access to the New York Times, I missed this story when it appeared in print on Sunday. Having learned of the story today from another Jesuit, I decided to share it here:
The lowing of cattle seemed a perfect prelude to the chants and hymns that followed at evening prayers, an unlikely pairing of soothing sounds that the monks of Assumption Abbey say they will miss.

For 51 years, Brother Placid Gross has tended the 1,900-acre ranch that has helped to define this Benedictine monastery in the crumpled hills of western North Dakota, providing only modest income, perhaps, but a rich connection to the earth as the monks go about their days of prayer and humble work.

But at 76, this wrangler-monk can no longer do the strenuous work required by a herd of 155 black angus cows, 155 calves and 8 bulls. Even with the help of a few colleagues, he cannot manage the cycles of baling hay in summer, nurturing cows through bitter winters, birthing and sometimes bottle-feeding calves in frigid early spring, and repairing fences and rounding up the herd, which is done these days on a small all-terrain vehicle rather than a horse.

Younger monks are scarce anyway, and none feel this calling. "They’re not cattlemen," Brother Placid says. "They’re more interested in the intellectual stuff." Hiring outsiders to do the work would be prohibitively expensive and out of synchrony with the "work and pray" mandate of the Benedictine order.

So this fall, the abbey will sell off not only calves, as it has every year for decades, but the entire herd. Some of the alfalfa fields and the rolling pastures — shades of green in this wet summer and scented with sage — will be rented out to neighbors.

"It’s so good to have the animals here, to see cows when you look out the window or go for a walk," said Brother Placid, who is still sorting out the profound change looming for the monastery and, most of all, for himself. "I’ll miss it a lot," he said, "but I know that there comes a time in life when you have to retire."
Later in the article, reporter Erik Eckholm provides more information on the current state of the 118-year-old monastery and its community of 57 monks:
The last new American monk was accepted in 2002, and nine have died since then. "It’s frightening," Father Brian Wangler, the abbot, said of the downward trend. "But what it challenges is one’s faith. Who’s in charge here? Is God in charge or are we?" He said that six men joined the abbey from 1997 to 2002, most of them presenting themselves out of nowhere.

. . .

For decades, the abbey grew its own food and raised pigs, chickens and dairy cows for consumption and profit, but as these became unprofitable, beef ranching became the last vestige of a farming heritage. Brother Michael Taffe, 51, who earned a doctorate in psychology before becoming a monk at 40, said the loss of the cattle would cause "a grieving process."

Brother Michael is in charge of recruitment efforts, which include visits to Catholic schools and advertisements in Catholic magazines. He said four men had seemed like potential candidates in recent years and came for trial stays, but decided the life was not for them.

Many of the monks entered in their teens or early 20s, in some cases after attending the boarding high school and two-year college the abbey ran until 1971, when the cost became prohibitive. In today’s world of vaster choices, the abbey would be wary of someone so young, Brother Michael said. Candidates must truly know, he said, that "this will make me whole."
Brother Michael has a point, I suppose, but somehow I think I relate more to what Brother Placid has to say near the end of the article:
Brother Placid, displaying the taciturn nature of the northern Plains, stumbled as he tried to explain why he joined the abbey at age 22. Growing up in a large North Dakota family, he had quit school after junior high and worked on his parents’ farm.

"There was no revelation," he said after a long pause. "God has a plan for everybody, and I feel I’m serving God."
To read the rest, click here. While you're at it, take a look at the Assumption Abbey website. AMDG.


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