Peace in the valley
Christmas is considered a magical time of year for many. At St. Benedict’s Monastery in Old Snowmass, it’s particularly special. The Catholic monastery, established in 1956, houses 15 to 18 monks and is a spiritual center for work and worship. This fairly small community rests in the beauty of nature, surrounded by wildlife.
For the monks, now is the season of the Advent. (Advent is derived from the Latin word for “arrival” and is essentially a period of preparation for the birth of Jesus.) Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and is the start of the Christmas season.
“Advent is my favorite time of year,” said Brother Micah Schonberger, a member of St. Benedict’s community for more than a quarter of a century. Noting the sense of joyous anticipation that comes with the holiday and citing the prophet Isaiah, Brother Micah shared a couple of reasons why it’s so special in his eyes.
Father Joseph Boyle echoed Brother Micah’s sentiments, noting, “It’s a wonderful time of year. Though liturgically and theologically, Easter is a bigger holiday in our religion, it’s hard to beat the effect of the warmth of Christmastime. I think it’s in our blood.”
Father Joseph has lived at St. Benedict’s for 44 years, and has been the abbot there since 1985. (Abbot is derived from the Latin word “abba,” which means “father.”) As the abbot at St. Benedict’s, Father Joseph has duties including “seeing to it that all of the monks are happy and ensuring the atmosphere is right for spiritual growth.”
The Benedictine monks move to the monastery with the intention of living there for the rest of their lives. In taking a “vow of stability,” they pledge themselves to the place and not the order. “In monastic life, it’s the house where one commits to spend their life,” said Brother Micah.
Part of the Christmas tradition at the monastery is a midnight Mass. At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the monks lead guests with carols followed by Mass at midnight. “We don’t advertise our Christmas Mass because it already draws a crowd,” explained Father Joseph. “Weather permitting, up to 250 people tend to show up.” The overflow spills into the chapel’s cloister.
The monastery has offered its Christmas midnight Mass since its inception, with the exception of a couple of years during the 1970s when the monks decided it was perhaps too much to handle. After a brief absence, the tradition was renewed. All are now welcome to join the monks for Mass on Christmas as well as for other services such as lauds, liturgies, vespers and vigils held throughout the year.
This year the monks retrieved a dying pine from the nearby woods to use as their Christmas tree. “We usually chop down trees that are too close to one another so we’re not just thinning the forest,” explained Father Joseph. The monks positioned their tree in the dining hall and decorated it with colored lights, but no ornaments.
Buildings on the St. Benedict’s property, which spans roughly 3,800 acres, include the monastery, a ranch house, barn, rustic hermitages and a Retreat House. The central structure is the monastery, where the monks live, dine, study, pray and work. The chapel is where the monks gather for prayer five times a day, starting with a liturgy at 4:30 a.m.
“Life is regulated by when we pray,” said Brother Micah. “The rest of the day dances around it.”
At 7:30 p.m., the monks begin the “Great Silence,” when they do not speak for 12 hours. (In addition to their rituals as a group, they also have private prayer throughout the day.)
The monastery includes a library with 10,000 books, which will be expanded to include another 13,000 volumes that were recently inherited from a deceased brother at a fellow monastery. As archivist, Brother Micah anticipates it will take several years to catalog them all.
A grand refectory is the setting for the monks’ meals, which are mostly vegetarian. They dine in silence while one of the monks reads to them.
There is also a bakery in the basement of the monastery where Brother Charlie Albanese is in charge of the St. Benedict’s cookie business. With four men on a crew, they cook, bake, package, seal and ship cookies. “It’s a pretty primitive system with very little mechanization,” said Brother Charlie. He notes their busiest time of year for cookie production is clearly the Christmas season. “We used to work full time from September through December making cookies nonstop until it became far too time-consuming,” he continued. They now yield approximately 4,500 cookies a day as opposed to more than 7,000. Cookies are sold in the St. Benedict’s gift shop, which also offers wares made by other monasteries in their order. (Seventeen houses belong to their order, consisting of five women’s monasteries and 12 men’s dispersed around the country; the mother house is in Massachusetts.)
Another source of income for the monks is their Retreat House, where they host a dozen groups per year.
Although hay is produced and sold on the ranch, the monks keep no animals aside from a resident cat ” Linda Lapsong is actually the only female who lives at St. Benedict’s. “Before she arrived, our last cat was around for 25 years,” said Brother Micah.
Living in Colorado, the monks do enjoy sports to an extent. “We used to play volleyball, but not anymore,” said Brother Micah. “Some of us cross-country ski on the property, others hike, one is a runner.”
To learn more about St. Benedict’s Monastery in Old Snowmass, visit http://www.snowmass.org.
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