Living life as a monk in Belgium

Friday, 08 September 2017 13:10
Ever wondered what life is like living and working in a monastery?
Medieval monks chose to renounce their worldly life and goods, and spend their lives working under the strict routine and discipline of a monastery. People like to think that monastic life is serene but boring. And, surely, after many years, it must take real effort to get out of bed and pray joyfully?

One of the fist questions monks are sometimes asked is, “What do you do all day?”

The Brussels Times was granted a sneak insight into the “Day in the Life” of a Benedictine monk. Here, as far as a timetable goes, is what a typical day looks like at the Abbey of Maredsous in the south of Belgium.

The Abbey, built in neo-gothic style, was founded in 1872 in the Molignée Valley, and today is home to some 30 monks. It was the first Benedictine community to receive the title of abbey after the French Revolution and one of the first in Belgium to re-establish its links with the country’s rich monastic past.

The monk's day in the abbey begins at 7 am with a “prayer of praise to God”, which takes place in the choir of the church. It is considered important to pray in such a community because it recalls the word of Christ: "When two or three are gathered together in my name, I am among them.”

The monks sing psalms, listen to the word of God and form intentions of prayer. The early morning prayer session lasts half-an-hour and is repeated at various intervals throughout the day. After the 7 am laudes, there is Eucharist at noon, vespers at 6.30 pm and, finally, vigils at 8.30 pm. This means that the community prays about two hours each day. The monks also pray individually, especially when meditating the Bible, in what is called "lectio divina".

Between prayers, work is organised in this pastoral location. For some, it is to welcome guests or pilgrims, while for others it is to teach at Saint–Benoît College, a secondary school. Others may be engaged in research in the library (which contains some 500,000 volumes) or work on the Benedictine Journal, which publishes scientific works on monastic history, the history of the Church, and patrology. Several of the monks also work on ceramics, while the student monks usually take care of personnel and tourism issues.

Monks, like the rest of us, have to eat of course and, between prayers and work, they squeeze meals into their busy schedule. In the morning and evening, they eat on a self-service basis. This is considered convenient because the ages of the monks in the community are quite different and some like to eat early and others later. However, the midday meal is eaten collectively.

What strikes some visitors is that the monks eat in silence and, while doing so, read a book, often a history book (such as the biography of Mobutu). This is one of the rules of St. Benedict, which the monks follow religiously and a tradition that dates back to the year 529 AD. To some it may seem slightly disturbing at first but the monks say they soon grow to “appreciate it enormously”.

In the evening, the working day concludes with the office of the 8.30 pm vigils, at the end of which a blessing is given and everyone rests, some by reading, relaxing watching television or just catching up on their emails.

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About 30 monks live permanently in the Maredsous monastery.

Community life is important and there are important decision-making meetings. These bring together the monks definitively engaged in the monastic life of the Abbey and who have "voice to the chapter".

Managing the whole of the abbey is the Father Abbot – currently Bernard Lorent – who is responsible for its religious, social and economic life. To help out, he has an “inner council” of six monks and an economic council consisting of both monks and lay people. For the most important issues, however, the opinion of all monks is required: the “Rule of Saint Benedict” states that the Abbot is attentive to the opinion of the youngest because as Bernard Lorent says, “in the Bible, God is used to expressing himself by the youngest.”

The process of becoming a monk is quite complicated and it can be several years before he is admitted into the monastery as a “fully fledged” monk. It all starts with a meeting with the “Novice Master” followed by a period of “reflection” lasting one to two years. During this period, the “temporary monk” will attend courses, study St Benedict’s rule and experience life in a monastery. The process of assuming monastic orders is a sort of apprenticeship and is open to people of any age. A source at the abbey said, “This procedure may seem long but a monastic vocation is a life vocation and is important. It must be tested over time.”

So from an initial year of postulate, followed by a year or two of noviciate period, the monks must finally vote if to accept him. It is all concluded with the solemn profession ("a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good"). “In Maredsous, we have a solemn profession every four or five years”, father Bernard explains.

In addition to Maredsous, there is its “sister community” in Gihindamuyaga in Rwanda to consider. This is a priory of 25 monks, all Rwandans, which was founded by Maredsous in 1958. Bernard says: “It is an interesting responsibility because it obliges us to concern ourselves with what is happening in other parts of the world and to live in communion with the brothers there, plus the problems that affect the African continent and its inhabitants.”

Of course, an economic structure is necessary in order to maintain the community of monks, works, buildings and all its cultural and religious activities. In Maredsous, income-producing activities are grouped into different sectors: royalties on beers and cheeses, tourism, work and pensions for the monks.

For many years, the monks have organised a pilgrimage in honour of Saint Benedict and visitors are usually welcomed with one of the Abbey’s famous beers, which were first created by a monk and have been brewed for many years. To accompany the beer, there is, of course, the equally famous Maredsous cheese that has also been a huge success both in Belgium and internationally. At first, the milk used in its production came from Herve but, today, it is sourced from the French Ardennes.

Unlike the Trappists though, this abbey no longer had a brewery within its walls: since 1963, Maredsous beers have been brewed, under licence, by Duvel Moortgat. To free itself of the problems of marketing beers and cheeses, the abbey entrusts this specific task to an independent company, which is responsible for manufacturing and marketing the products (while respecting the quality and royalties on turnover). Today, the Maredsous cheese is industrially produced by Groupe Bel, while its beer production is still entrusted to Moortgat.

While the monks may not be involved in the day-to-day brewing, the beers still have an authentic abbey connection. The recipe comes from those of the original Benedictine beers, passed down over the centuries. The reason for this relatively hands off approach to brewing lies with the abbey’s strict interpretation of the Benedictine way of life. The Abbey, whose buildings emanate a strong sense of spirituality, is a real working environment, being directly responsible for the cafeteria, restaurant, bookshop and shop while a bakery and pastry factory make the famous Maredsous bread.

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The Abbey has always been a pilgrimage destination but tourism is now a fast-growing phenomenon and one that has been become as important for its income as the many pilgrims who flock there each year. Visitors enjoy and relax in the delightful abbey gardens, soak up the tranquil atmosphere and admire the natural splendour of the abbey's setting.

It is estimated that 500,000 visitors pass through Maredsous each year and, catering, cultural, sporting and traditional events are organised by the monks and Abbey staff. There is also accommodation for up to 40 people, including groups who visit for prayer and reflection.

The elderly monks receive a pension but, this being a religious community, everyone shares what he receives by way of a wage or pension. In exchange, the practical needs of the monks are all cared for. The abbey has developed an important social policy. If, for example, the annual turnover is €9 million, the payroll will represent more than €3 million. In total, no less than 210 people work in Maredsous, full or part time plus 50 professors, educators and college staff.

Bernard says: “It is a responsibility that requires a constant striving for balance between religious activity and, at the same time, managing the economics so as to support the religious aspect and also allow families to work in the region.” In addition to salaries, there are expenses related to the maintenance of the community: a huge Gothic building to support (including its four hectares of roofs) plus the library and an infirmary. On top of this, there is social assistance for the most deprived. “At the end of the year we are happy when our accounts are balanced and not negative”, says Bernard half-jokingly.

The abbey also prides itself on having an active ecological policy by using photovoltaics panels to produce some of its electricity and solar panels for hot water, as well as wood boilers to gradually replace oil boilers.

Bernard says Maredsous is an abbey that represents both the Benedictine tradition and its values, dating back over than 15 centuries, while also being “attentive to the need to adapt to life today.” It plays a social, economic, touristic, educational and cultural role in society. But whatever their task, the monks who live and work here strive to give visitors a heartfelt welcome. That's because, at Maredsous, hospitality is paramount. It's the Benedictine way.

By Martin Banks
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