A stone’s throw from the childhood home of pilot Amelia Earhart in Atchison, Kansas, is Benedictine College. Benedictine monks started the college in 1857 to provide a Catholic education to the children of pioneers and to celebrate Mass with German and Irish settlers.
Today, about 40 monks live at the abbey on a hill overlooking the college and the Missouri River. They live much the same way Benedictine monks have lived since St. Benedict of Nursia established the order in sixth century.
My recent overnight at the Atchison abbey begins at the abbey cemetery, a peaceful place surrounded by aging evergreens. Archivist Father Dennis Meade is my guide.
“Over here we have in our cemetery about 200 of our deceased monks," Father Dennis says as he points to the rows of simple headstones. "In this semi-circle here are our abbots, when they were born, when they made their profession — or took their first vows of priestly ordination — and when they died.”
Father Dennis is a spry 87-year-old whose only sign of age is a slight stoop in the shoulder. I’m with him for most of my next 24 hours, often finding myself in the shadow of his flowing black robe, trying to keep up with his pace.
Benedictine monks are sometimes called “Black Monks,” because of their habit. Wandering the college grounds, I’m reminded of Hogwarts scenes in Harry Potter movies.
Father Dennis has been affiliated with the Atchison abbey for 66 years. His only time away was for missionary work in Brazil and study in Rome.
At 5 p.m., the church bell chimes for mass. A stream of students join the monks who make their way to the altar to take communion. The prayers, singing of hymns even random coughs bounce off the limestone walls of the nave.
Monks with The Order of St. Benedict live by the Rule of Benedict, which lays out exhaustive parameters for Benedictine monastic life.
Many of the rules are outdated. For example, one says a monk must sleep in his habit, but may remove his knife.
Benedictines don’t take a vow of silence like some monks, but there are strict times for when they talk and when they don't. For example, Benedictines take their breakfast in silence.
At dinner, they don’t talk, but one of the monks sits at the front of the cavernous room, surrounded by stained glass, and reads an article from Benedictine history and passages from the Rule of St. Benedict.
After dinner, the monks retreat to a living room for conversation or reading. Some watch television in a separate room or go to their bedrooms.
At 7 p.m., they make their way back to church for Vespers.
I have to admit that for the first few hours at the abbey, I was a bit anxious. I started to wonder how I’d make it through the next day. The spotty wi-fi. The silent supper. In fact, the quiet in general.
But during the lovely meditative Vespers service, I felt an enveloping calm. It's as if the collective blood pressure was going down.
(Indeed, upon checking, I found there is science that confirms the positive impact of my experience on health.)
As Father Dennis escorts me down the long, dimly-lit hall of the monks' living quarters, the only sounds are the gentle thump, thump of an elderly father’s walker. Gothic and Renaissance images of the Madonna and Pieta line the walls. The corridor echoes.
A disproportionate number of the monks here are elderly. The overall population has dwindled over the last 50 years from some 130 to a few dozen today. But the abbey is seeing an uptick in younger men committing to monastic life. Studies show while there has been a dramatic decline in the ordination of priests over the last 45 years, in recent years, there's been a slight increase in those choosing to become monks.
At the end of the hall we run into Father Jay Kythe, a chaplain at Benedictine College. He says based on his experience talking to the students, there’s a reason younger people are choosing to become monks.
“I was a child in the 80’s. We were the ‘Me’ generation,” he says.” “Very selfish. This generation is also the ‘Me’ Generation with a lot of despair. There’s a sense of apathy, lack of motivation, and they know that about themselves.”
What the monks call "the night silence" begins with the 8 p.m. bell. The monastery goes quiet.
At 6 a.m., there are the morning prayers, then breakfast. The food is simple but good. One of the brothers has made delicious sourdough bread. After breakfast is when the monks fan out into the community. They teach at the college and the parish schools. They minister in hospitals, hospice homes and prisons. Others take care of the administrative chores of keeping the abbey up and running.
Every Tuesday, Brother Tim McMillan takes Father Ralph Koehler, an 87-year-old former abbot, to Wal-Mart to shop for supplies.
“Here’s one who’s writing a story about you,” the Father wisecracks about my presence to one of the workers.
"I know who she’s writing about,” Georgia Shaver says through a grin.
Shaver says Father Ralph has been coming to Wal Mart almost as long as she’s been working here: 25 years.
“We love it when they come in to shop,” she says. “Of course if I’m on a ladder, he always asks me if they’re giving me a raise! (He is) such an inspiration and a light.”
Shaver says Brother Tim is equally admirable. He’s 28 and decided to join the monastery while at Benedictine College. The cheery redhead with a full red beard scours the shelves for Grape-Nuts, batteries and deodorant while Father Ralph pushes the cart, stopping to give workers grief. They all seem to love it.
Being out and about with the monks, I found myself wondering how they navigated the dichotomy between monastic and secular life. Especially the younger men, like Brother Tim. He took his final vows last year. I asked him if he ever questions his decision.
“Yeah, there’s at times a temptation to forsake the monastic life, but there’s a recognition there that there are many different ways to live your life," he said. "Ultimately you have to choose one. It’s impossible to chase every desire. You can’t (try to) have it all or you’re gonna end up with nothing.”
I went to say goodbye to the monks as I prepared to leave. I found Brother Leven Harton playing chess with a fellow Benedictine grad, who now teaches philosophy at the college. Father Matthew Habiger was preparing to sit down and read the Wall Street Journal.
“You might find it surprising but a group of monks are very much attuned to the world they live in,” he says. “We're very much interested in what’s going on locally, nationally and internationally.”
But for Father Roderic Giller, not yet in his habit and with brown suspenders holding up his pants, abbey life provides something more basic and essential.
“I’m 82 years old. I’m thankful I don’t have to worry about cooking my own food. I don’t have to pay bills, there’s a medical staff on duty (all the time,)” he says. “I know I’ll be buried in the abbey cemetery. I’m thankful I don’t have to worry about all those things.”
Father Roderic says without these worldly concerns, he’s free to practice his vows: stability, obedience and conversatio morum, or conversion to the monastic life. That way, he says, he can focus on his departure from this earth.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.