Lutheran Monasticism?

A modern expression of ancient tradition

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photo by author outside of Saint Augustine Monastery

Just a decade ago, I would have been surprised to hear about Lutheran monastic communities. I knew there were Orthodox monastic communities, I knew there were Catholic monasteries, and I knew that monastic communities had existed throughout much of the history of the church. But the idea that there were contemporary Lutheran expressions of monasticism was totally foreign to me.

I first became aware of them while attending Camp Luther, the Lutheran summer camp in West Virginia, one summer in high school. I ended up talking with two pastors, one of whom was a member of the Order of Lutheran Franciscans, the other an oblate of Saint Augustine’s House, a Lutheran Benedictine Monastery in Oxford, Michigan. The more I talked with them about their experiences, the more interested I became in learning more about monastic communities.

In January of 2017, I was given the opportunity to do just that. Dr. Anthony Bateza, a religion professor at St. Olaf College, and I designed an independent study curriculum for me to follow as I lived at the monastery for a month, engaging in the life of the community while reading about and studying the practice of monasticism. This included waking up to pray Vigils at 5:10 am, followed by participating in 7 more services throughout the day, times of silence, times to read, times to work, meals together, as well as other activities as they happened. Together, Dr. Bateza and I compiled a reading list for the month that included Saint Athanasius’ The Life of St. Anthony, Martin Luther’s The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and articles on the New Monasticism movement. I wanted to find a way to engage with a monastic community, and part of my time in study was to discern just how my relationship with monasticism could develop.

While at the monastery, I learned about the Lutheran Benedictine expression of monasticism. I participated in the rhythm of praying the psalms through spoken word and chant, moving through all of the psalms each and every week. I experienced receiving the eucharist daily. I heard a section of the Rule of St. Benedict read aloud at the beginning of the daily little chapter meeting (a time to discuss the business of the day and to read from the Rule of St. Benedict together). I heard the stories of the three monks that were there at the time, as well as the many guests that came and went during my stay. Many guests were active in churches, such as pastors and laity, and yet there were quite a few guests who did not identify themselves as being a part of the church.

When I had completed my month at the monastery and returned to college, people were curious about my experiences there. I was asked: “What did you do all day?” “Is it hard to be silent?” “Wait, what time did you wake up for the first service?” “Did you get bored?” “What was it like?” I took time after returning to write a paper about my experience that included quotes and reflections from interviews I did with each of the monks. But the simplest, most direct way to describe my experience of living at the monastery is this: Life is busy. For those of us who pray, whether before meals, at the beginning or end of the day, or on any other schedule, if it suddenly gets busier, or something comes up, prayer is often one of the first things to fall by the wayside. This isn’t how it works at the monastery. Prayer is the heartbeat of daily life. If you are preparing a meal for the community, hiking through the woods, reading in the library, talking with a new friend, or doing any other activity, when it is time to pray the next daily office, the community all goes to the chapel to gather in prayer together. The time in worship with one another is primary. 

Coming from the busy life of a college student, adjusting to this daily rhythm was extremely difficult. Each morning I struggled to wake up at my 4:45 alarm. When I was just settling in to whatever I was reading, I’d often have to stop right in the middle to go to the chapel to pray the various daily offices. As the month progressed, however, I found myself experiencing a sense of peace and feeling more centered than I had in a long time. These rhythms, these practices that helped me to focus on God, impacted me in profound ways. The best way to explain what it is like to live at the monastery is to simply say, go try it!


***

In the context of the culture of the United States, monasticism doesn’t make much sense. And to the best of my knowledge, Lutheran monastic communities didn’t exist before the mid 1950s, and now exist only in a few places around the world. In particular, there are Lutheran Benedictine monasteries in Oxford, Michigan (St. Augustine’s House), just outside Sala, Sweden (Östanbäck Monastery), and Werningshausen, Germany (the Priory of St. Wigberti), as well as the Order of Lutheran Franciscans who are a geographically spread out community.

As I think about the place of Lutheran monasteries in the world today, I can’t help but think back to something one of the monks said to me, “monasticism is a gift for the church, for everyone.” Historically, we can see that monasteries were centers of knowledge, of education, and of Bible transcription, in ways that were hugely consequential in the history of the church. Now, as we have countless universities, many libraries, and the internet, monasteries are present in the world in different ways. The ways in which they bear gifts to the world are diverse. For some, monasteries provide a place to live out one’s vocation as a life-professed monk. For others, a place of searching, for others, a place to find God through the rhythms and prayer of the psalms in community. It seems the possibilities are endless.

The fact that many find Lutheran Benedictine monasticism strange or confusing is not lost on me. After all, why Lutheran monastics? There are plenty of Catholic and Orthodox monasteries around the world. And to further complicate matters, Lutheran monastics must wrestle with Luther’s writing on monastic vows, which can be quite scathing. Speaking from my experience with St. Augustine’s House, the Lutheran Benedictine way provides an avenue for Protestants to pursue a monastic life. Some of the monks have been Lutheran, some have come from other Protestant traditions. They can pursue a monastic vocation as a life professed monk here, while remaining in their respective traditions, in ways they could not at other monasteries. In my reading of Luther on monastic vows, much of his critique is on the idea that a monastic life is somehow better or more holy. Within the Lutheran tradition, there is an emphasis that monasticism is no more holy or godly than any other vocation, but it is still a life to which one may be called. A vocation that people should know exists.

My first visit to St. Augustine’s House occurred in the summer of 2015, as a day trip for my synod’s contingent that was attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I lived there for most of January 2017. I became an oblate (also referred to as an associate member) of the community at the Easter Vigil in 2018. I have made regular retreats there since, often bringing friends with me. This past spring, I spent the entirety of Holy Week living in a community at the monastery. Lutheran monasticism has been a gift to my life, in that it has drawn me to the psalms in new ways, tied me to a community that I pray for and that I know prays for me, and offered me a location and practices for grounding myself spiritually in a world that often smothers space for prayer, silence, and reflection.

My hope in sharing this reflection is to spread awareness of Lutheran monastic communities, but also to encourage those who are curious to consider them, whether as a community to engage with or as a vocation to explore. In keeping with this hope, I’d like to conclude with a prayer attributed to St. Benedict which captures many aspects of the monastic life:

Gracious and Holy Father, give us the wisdom to discover You, the intelligence to understand You, the diligence to seek after You, the patience to wait for You, eyes to behold You, a heart to meditate upon You, and a life to proclaim You.  Amen.

  • Devin Ames

    Devin Ames recently graduated with a Master of Divinity from Luther Seminary. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from St. Olaf College where he majored in Classics and Religion. Devin was selected as a Seminary Fellow for the FASPE Fellowship in summer 2023. He currently lives in Rochester, MN, working in a Chaplain Residency at Mayo Clinic, in preparation for his aspiration to become a volunteer fire chaplain and pastor in the ELCA. In his free time, he enjoys scuba diving, visiting St. Augustine’s House, and traveling.

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