Active for Life 3(11). May 8, 2008, IU University Communications, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

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Messages of health, balance from the abbey

Ruth EngsInterview with Ruth Clifford Engs

If you're looking for a life of world travel, several interesting careers, and a chance for social activism, you should consider becoming a monk. Disdaining the stereotype of secluded aesthetics behind high abbey walls, the senior monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana strive for moderation and balance in their lives through prayer and work.

In her new book, Conversations in the Abbey, Indiana University health historian Ruth Engs transcribes an oral history of the lives of 11 monks from the "greatest generation," who lived through the major events of the 20th century.

"They have experienced vast changes in society and the upheaval that has characterized much of the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church," says Engs, professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation's Department of Applied Health Science.

Through their stories the positive spiritual-health of the monks comes through across their varied tales of success and failure. Residing in a lifestyle with more rules and restrictions than the ordinary person, they discuss how they cope with the trying times in their lives and persevered.

"Doubt, uncertainty, disappointments, struggle and the 'dark night of the soul' have been experienced, just as they have been experienced by most of us; this is the human condition," says Engs.

Engs is a volunteer at Saint Meinrad's. All the proceeds of the book are donated to the upkeep and operation of the Abbey. Active For Life sat down recently with Engs to discuss the lessons in health and wellness she observed in the Abbey.

AFL: The Benedictine monks at Saint Meinrad Archabbey place special emphasis on the two activities of "work and prayer." How do they achieve a balance in their lives between work and prayer?

Engs: Benedictine monks are not ascetic -- that is, only eat bread and water or go to extreme measures. They do not pray all day long, nor do they work all day. They try to live a balanced life -- much like what is promoted by health education professionals. They do not go to extremes. They strive for moderation in all things. As one monk stated in the book, "the key to Benedictine spirituality is living it." Good health, or a healthy lifestyle, is a balance between social, physical, emotional, vocational and spiritual well being. Conversations in the Abbey: Senior Monks of Saint Meinrad Reflect on their Lives can be viewed as a work on spiritual health, and not only an oral history of 11 older monks and the history of three divisions of work at the community.

AFL: What are other characteristics of Benedictine monks?

Engs: In Benedictine monasticism, monks and nuns take three vows. The vow of obedience is placing oneself under the direction of the abbot or prior or abbess or prioress, as the case may be, of the community. Conversion of life (conversio) includes poverty, or forgoing private ownership, celibate chastity, a life time of seeking God along with a balance of prayer and work. These two vows come together in the vow of stability where the individual commits him/her self to one particular monastery for life. This vow includes stability of place (one community) and of heart (unwavering pursuit of God).

AFL: What is the typical daily life of a monk at Saint Meinrad including, work, prayer and recreation?

Engs: As part of their daily lifestyle, the monks have communal prayer together three times a day: morning prayer before breakfast, noon prayer before lunch, and vespers before dinner. These last from 15 to 40 minutes -- depending upon the occasion and the Church season. In addition, they go to Mass once a day. Monks also say individual prayer before they go to bed, and do spiritual reading. They generally work an eight hour day and have many occupations -- teaching, administration, clerical, technical, counseling, hospitality, creating music or art. This is balanced out by recreation, relaxation, exercise or hobbies.

Hobbies range from gardening, growing orchids, making soap, bee keeping, calligraphy, fixing model trains, wood working, weaving, brewing, gourmet cooking, etc. The abbot and many of the younger monks work out in the gym or jog. The older monks walk, if able -- Brother Jerome in the book talks about walking every day early in the morning. Father Rupert still rides a bike.

AFL: Do any of the monks talk about failure, and how they cope with self-doubt and questioning themselves?

Engs: Yes, all of them. The main characteristic of these older monks is perseverance, or continuing on, in the face of doubt and failure through faith, prayer and living the monastic lifestyle. In other words, they keep on going in the face of unhappiness, doubt, anger. They pull themselves up by their boot straps through their spiritual faith. They accept change -- such as the elimination of the school, farm and other traditional Benedictine monastic vocations -- as the way things are.

AFL: You spend time volunteering at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. You also obtained permission to interview elderly monks for the book. What surprised you the most about the monks and their lifestyles?

Engs: They were attempting to achieve what I was teaching in my basic health education classes at Indiana University; that is living a balanced and healthy style -- a lifestyle of moderation.

For example, they drink wine in moderation. Wine is served at the evening meal. They serve well balanced meals with a choice of entrees that include those with and without meat. A salad bar is always available. The previous Abbot, Archabbot Lambert Reilly, deemed a "no smoking" policy to improve the health of his monks in the late 1990s, something considered controversial by monks who smoked. However, out of obedience to the abbot and community, the monks and monastery and all its buildings are now smoke free.

Recreational activities and hobbies -- as mentioned above -- are encouraged. Moderate exercise, to the ability of the individual monk is also encouraged, as is some kind of work even among the most elderly monks -- some of the very old ones help to fold programs, stuff envelopes, place printed material in mailboxes, etc. They have a balance of quiet time -- in the evening and night -- and socializing time.

AFL: What can the average person take away from the monks that can aid their lives? Any lessons, or habits (pun) the monks have that should be spread outwards?

Engs: Moderation in all things; striving for peace, love, harmony, kindness, hospitality in all aspect of life. For example, Benedictine's "treat all guests as Christ." The Saint Meinrad monastic community, as are most Benedictine communities, is a very welcoming place. They believe in, and practice, the simple southern philosophy of, "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." They are most kind to everyone. Guests are welcome at any time and you can stay there in their guest house and enjoy the peace and quiet of rural Indiana.

Engs is a prolific writer about health history. Her other books include Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform (Praeger Paperback, 2001), The Progressive Era's Health Reform Movement: A Historical Dictionary (Praeger Publishers, 2003), and The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2005). More information about Engs is available at her Web site, http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/.


Used by permission of Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405. Copyrighted (c) Indiana University. For all permissions to reprint the article in any format, other than individiual personal use or classroom assignments, contact: Tracy James, University Communications. Email: traljame@indiana.edu, Phone: 812-855-0084.

Contact information for Saint Meinrad Archebbey, 200 Hill Drive,St.Meinrad, IN 45755 is Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Director of Communications: Phone (812) 357-6501. Web site: www.saintmeinrad.edu, Email:MSchumacher@saintmeinrad.edu


For other essays related to spiritual health of Western cultures see: 1. St. Scholastica: Finding Meaning in Her Story , 2. St. Benedict: Hidden Meaning in His Story and 3. Protestants and Catholics: Drunken Barbarians and Mellow Romans?