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For monks, prairie home offers quiet, community

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RICHARDTON, N.D. -- The church stands like a brick mountain against a prairie sky, the twin steeples reaching to the rising sun, the new day beginning like all the others, silently.

At precisely 6:20 a.m., two dozen men dressed in black habits and standing in a worn oak choir that brackets an altar shake off sleep and solitude and begin to recite in a slow cadence a Psalm, binding together their community in common prayer.

These are the monks of Assumption Abbey, meeting the dawn, forging their relationship with God on a wind-swept hilltop on the Great Plains. Sheltered from the storms of modern society, these men carry on a tradition that goes back 1,500 years to St. Benedict.

"Some might think they come here seeking refuge from problems," said Abbot Patrick Moore. "You get three squares. A nice warm bed. Companionship. You don't have to worry about money. But we don't want people who are trying to escape real-life problems. We want people who are seeking God."

They live in a town of 600 between Bismarck and the Badlands, surrounded by fields that roll like an ocean to the horizon, fenced in only by the limits of their imagination and faith. It is quiet here, a stillness that shaped the slogan for the junior college that the Abbey once operated: "Listen to the Silence."

"City people, I think if they were to go a mile out into those fields, they would get scared," said Brother Placid Gross. "There is a feeling, a feeling that the emptiness will swallow you up."

Prayer and work are the benchmarks of the day for the Benedictine monks. Recite the Psalms and raise cattle. Take Holy Communion and repair leaking faucets.

This is the monastic life. Time stands still. Time rushes on.

Brother Victor Frankenhauser re- members the day well, when he walked the block from his home in Richardton to the abbey, carrying all he owned in a paper bag. He was 13 years old, off to a parochial school in the midst of the Great Depression, but in many ways prepared, even then, to spend the rest of his life as a monk.

"The first 40 years are the easiest," he said. "After that, it gets hard."

Brother Victor is 74 now, his face milky white and his voice soft like cotton as he says, "I could not find my place in this society today. I would perish."

His place is inside the abbey, in the familiar surroundings of his room with the roll-top oak desk and the pictures of his nieces and nephews cramming bookshelves. He belongs, too, inside the Bavarian Romanesque church, with its pillars and vaulted ceiling and 52 stained glass windows.

"What this is about is dedication, of giving up the pleasures of life and dedicating yourself toward the service of God," he said. "Monks have high ideals, of living a life of peace, away from the world. There is a sense of awesomeness divine."

It is Brother Victor who carries the history of the abbey within his soul. He knew Abbot Vincent Wehrle, founder of the Assumption Abbey, who came from Switzerland to evangelize the Dakotas. Abbot Wehrle organized the first abbey in 1893 in a place called Devils Lake, and moved six years later to Richardton to better serve the tide of German-Russian immigrants heading west with the railroad.

Not all has been easy. In its history, the abbey has gone into bankruptcy, been closed for four years during the 1920s, seen its schools closed in the 1960s and early 1970s and survived a decline in the number of those willing to live as monks.

At its peak in the 1960s, the abbey had 97 monks. Now, there are 65, nearly half living at the abbey year-round, the others dispersed to other parishes and to the abbey's two schools in Colombia.

Some disagreements

A monk's life is not always serene.

Monks fight. Really.

An abbey is nothing more than its collection of personalities, drawing together the holy and the cynical, the warm-hearted and the hot-headed, the community fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Decades ago, two monks once fought over a garden hose at the Assumption Abbey.

Another time, one monk noticed another sleeping during prayers, so he tapped the man on the shoulder. The sleeping monk awoke with a start, walked down the choir, kicked the human alarm clock, and then went back to sleep.

"The fights are usually about petty things. When you live with somebody day after day, their idiosyncrasies weigh on you," said Abbot Patrick. "We spend so much time in church. People will blow their nose too much. Or make funny noises. Or squirm too much. Or cough too much."

This is a democracy. The monks select the abbot, their spiritual leader. They also vote on allowing new members within their ranks. The process of becoming a monk can take up to five years as the men take vows of chastity, obedience, stability and poverty. Some remain as brothers; others are ordained as priests.

Together, four times daily inside the church, they are one in prayer. There is morning prayer followed by a silent breakfast, afternoon prayer before lunch, Mass at 5 p.m. and Vespers at 7 p.m.

Prayer gives the day order and reason. Separately, the monks continue to pray. In their rooms. On a tractor. While taking walks along the prairie.

"The monk is singular and celibate," said Abbot Patrick. "A monk is a man who seeks God in a community under rules."

Abbot Patrick is 58 years old, the seventh of eight children in a North Dakota family. He said his entry into the monastic life was "accepted, almost expected in my family."

He describes the monastic life by what it is not -- consumerist and secular. "I'm sure there are monks who have not been in a shopping center for 25 years," he said.

"We don't have the fulfillment of raising a family or children, of building a house or a farm," he added. "It is the fulfillment of living a life you've been called to, of being close with God and a community."

Do not be misled, though, for this is no soft, intellectual life. These are men with calloused hands, who work hard, operating a print shop, repairing the abbey, overseeing a 2,000-acre farm with 150 Black Angus cows.

Father Robert West is 80 years old and he still puts in a full day's work in the wood shop. In his time, he has welded steel, constructed a gymnasium, built chairs and desks, taught industrial arts and chemistry, even served nine years as the abbot.

"You can find personal growth here," he said. "The sky is the limit."

Raised on a Montana ranch, the eldest of 10, Father Robert felt a yearning for the monastic life in 1934, arriving at Assumption Abbey with a suit of clothes and a spare pair of trousers that "wore like iron," until 1942.

He calls the monastic life "a mystery that you're not going to describe."

"Do I feel cut off here?" he said. "No way. No way. I don't have enough time in the day. We need a 16-, 20-hour day.

"What society am I missing?" he said. "This rat-race I see coming in on television. Actually, I see a lot of good people. We have young people come in here on retreats. Good people."

Few of the monks themselves are young. They range in age from 32 to past 80, but mostly they are middle-aged. The calling to the monastic life in today's society is hard for the young to hear. Of this, they are sure, though. The monastic life will survive through the ages.

"I had a woman say to me, 'Why are you a Brother? What a waste of manhood,' " said Brother Basil Atwell. "I was a little insulted. If you only knew what real manhood was. Manhood is a self-sacrifice. The idea for me is to sacrifice for others."

Brother Basil is 36 and he has lived at the abbey for 15 years. He has stylishly short brown hair, wears jeans and flannel shirts, and on occasion will let a curse word enter the conversation. He creates works of art in the pottery shop. He reads voraciously, everything from the writings of Camille Paglia to the Bible.

He is amazed by the misconceptions others have of the monk's life.

"People think all monks are silent," Brother Basil said. "Or that we are so disconnected with real humanity that they can't cuss around us. I had a kid once ask me if I ate Rice Krispies."

He said there is much that others can learn from the monastic life, about brotherhood, community and God.

"The sense of community, I believe that is what every young kid on inner-city streets is faced with when they join a gang," he said. "They belong."

God in nature

For Brother Placid, life as a monk has been rewarding, an extension of the farm life he knew as a child. He was 22 when he came to the abbey off a farm in Napoleon, N.D. Now, he is 59 and oversees the abbey farm. He lets the other monks talk of the spiritual side of life on the plains. He eats his breakfasts of four eggs and two bowls of oatmeal, and goes about the business of the daily chores.

"I definitely see God in nature, in the development of the seasons," he said. "But I don't think it's fair to say that God is closer to the ground than he is with the bricks and sidewalks. I think God is present in the blacktops and the sidewalks and the skyscrapers of the city."

There is a harshness to this flat land, buffeted by winds and unspeakable cold in the winter, often plagued by summer drought. The last years have been good and fruitful, though. The herd is healthy. The hay is coming in tall and green.

"So many farms are disappearing," Brother Placid said. "Fewer and fewer people are here anymore. You have fields. And you have abandoned farmhouses."

These are the longest days for Brother Placid. Often, he is on the tractor cutting hay before dawn while the others sleep. He returns for prayers and lunch, and then he is back into the fields, working right up until the afternoon Mass, joining his fellow monks in a circle during the Eucharist, as they sing and take Holy Communion.

And he attends Vespers, a time of enchantment, the choir stalls filling with the sound of men signing.

"As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."

Soon, the sun sets like a fire in the west. Darkness falls on the abbey, but Brother Placid is in the fields, the light and noise from the tractor cutting through the night.

The morning will come again, the day beginning in silence.

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