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11/24/2013 9:47:00 AM
Benedictine monastic tradition informs hilltop seminary
Mount Angel Abbey photo
A monk walks past the Abbey Church.
Mount Angel Abbey photo
A monk walks past the Abbey Church.

SAINT BENEDICT — A 1,500-year-old spiritual tradition creates a unique priestly formation process at Mount Angel Seminary, say faculty and students. The seminary was established by monks at Mount Angel Abbey, and their Benedictine monastic values infuse the school with a distinctive culture.

“As seminarians, we’re living side by side with the monastic community,” said Mike Ritter, a fourth-year seminarian from the Diocese of Sacramento. “We share this place with them, and get to know them and their stories.”

Ritter completed his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Mount Angel Seminary and then attended St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. When his bishop asked him to return to Mount Angel for his final year of priestly formation, it felt like coming home. “There’s an immersion in the spirit here that I haven’t seen elsewhere,” he said. “The monks set the tone for spirituality on the Hilltop.”

“Because of the influence of the monastery, Mount Angel Seminary is centered more deeply in prayer, stability and hospitality,” said Father Ralph Recker, a Mount Angel monk who directs Student Services and serves as a formation director at the seminary.

The Benedictines also have an appreciation for beauty, Father Ralph said. That may be why the monks originally established their abbey on a serene, wooded hilltop in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and why the current abbot spends his precious free time photographing Hilltop art and scenery.
 
“Monks approach the liturgy with such love and care,” Ritter said. “In part, because of them, seminarians are deeply immersed in the Benedictine emphasis on prayer.”

The monks pray six times daily, beginning at 5:20 a.m., and while the students generally pray together as a seminary community, they join the monks for Mass and Vespers on Sundays as well as Mass on Tuesdays.

“For monks, prayer is the top priority,” said Abbot Peter Eberle, who served as abbot at Mount Angel Abbey from 1988-97. “That is the foundation of our day, and everything else flows from that.”

The former abbot, who now teaches at the seminary and serves as vice-rector for the theologate, believes the rhythm of the monks’ communal prayers has a tangible effect on seminarians. “We teach students to make their prayer life central, and then to work everything else around that activity,” he said.

“But seminarians who come here already have an openness to prayer,” said Abbot Peter, who made his monastic profession at age 20. “This environment only enhances that characteristic. They come to this milieu, where the entire Hilltop has that mindset, and it speaks to their heart.”

Other core Benedictine values also get transmitted, Father Ralph said. “One of our most important values is hospitality, greeting guests as Christ. I hope we infuse that welcoming spirit in our seminarians.”

That value translates into a closer community. “There is a kinship here that is unlike other places, perhaps because it’s infused with a sense of Benedictine hospitality,” Ritter said.

“There is a shared sentiment that life itself is valued,” said Abbot Peter. “I would think that any college campus has a sense of community, but here, the seminary has a built-in monastic community, one that goes back for decades. This shapes the school. We’ve been told that our seminary has a sense of community not found in other places.”

The monastic community has flourished at Mount Angel Abbey since 1882, when the abbey was founded. Since then, well more than 200 monks have taken a vow of stability.

“That means,” Abbot Peter said, “that they will always be here. Alumni of Mount Angel can come back and see the same faces year after year. That virtue of stability is transferred to the priests who are formed here, and gives them their own feeling of stability.”

“We come, and we go, but the monks continue to stay here,” Ritter said. “The monastery gives us an example of spiritual continuity.”

What Ritter likes most of all is the music. Mount Angel, he said, is steeped in music, and that makes it unique from seminaries not associated with monasteries. When he left for another seminary, he found himself walking around singing songs from Vespers.

“The monks sing a chapter of our lives to us,” Ritter said. “Their songs, day in and day out, settle into you. When I came back and heard those songs, it was moving.”

Now he wakes in the morning to chimes from the bell tower, and he can hear the faint sound of monks singing. “It’s a haunting sound,” he said. “When I leave, what I will miss most of all will be the monastic chants.”

The prayers, liturgy, chants and rhythms of life are a gift from the Benedictines, Ritter said.

Currently, 15 monks work at the seminary.





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